Pencasting During Lectures in Large Venues

In a recent post on pencasting as a way of teaching/learning weather and climate, I stated:

Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …

I followed through as advertized (above) earlier today.

Image

My preliminary findings are as follows:

  • The visual aspects of the pencast are quite acceptable – This is true even in large lecture halls such as the 500-seat Price Family Cinema at York University (pictured above) in Toronto, Canada where I am currently teaching. I used landscape mode for today’s pencast, and zoomed it in a little. A slightly thicker pen option would be wonderful for such situations … as would different pen colours (the default is green).
  • The audio quality of the pencasts is very good to excellent – Although my Livescribe pen came with a headset/microphone, I don’t use it. I simply use the built-in microphone on the pen, and speak normally when I am developing pencasts. Of course, the audio capabilities of the lecture hall I teach in are most excellent for playback!
  • One-to-many live streaming of pencasts works well – I streamed live directly from myLivescibe today. I believe the application infrastructure is based largely on Adobe Flash and various Web services delivered by Web Objects. Regardless of the technical underpinnings, live streaming worked well. Of course, I could’ve developed a completely self-contained PDF file, downloaded this, and run the pencast locally using Adobe Reader.
  • Personal pencasting works well – I noticed that a number of students were streaming the pencast live for themselves during the lecture. In so doing, they could control interaction with the pencast.

Anecdotally, a few students mentioned that they appreciated the pencast during the break period – my class meets once per for a three-hour session.

Although I’ve yet to hear this feedback directly from the students, I believe I need to:

  • Decrease the duration of pencasts – Today’s lasts about 10 minutes
  • Employ a less-is-more approach/strategy – My pencasts are fairly involved when done …
  • Experiment with the right balance of speaking to penning (is that even a word!?) – Probably a less-is-more approach/strategy would work well here for both the penned and spoken word …

Finally, today’s pencast on the basics of atmospheric stability:

  • Previous approach – Project an illustration taken directly from the course’s text. This is a professionally produced, visually appealing, detailed, end-result, static diagram that I embedded in my presentation software (I use Google Docs for a number of reasons.) Using a laser pointer, my pedagogy called for a systematic deconstruction this diagram – hoping that the students would be engaged enough to actually follow me. Of course, in the captured versions of my lectures, the students don’t actually see where I’m directing the laser pointer. The students have access to the course text and my lecture slides. I have no idea if/how they attempt to ingest and learn from this approach.
  • Pencasting – As discussed elsewhere, the starting point is a blank slate. Using the pencasting technology, I sketch my own rendition of the illustration from the text. As I build up the details, I explain the concept of stability analyses. Because the sketch appears as I speak, the students have the potential to follow me quite closely – and if they miss anything, they can review the pencast after class at their own pace. The end result of a pencast is a sketch that doesn’t hold a candle to the professionally produced illustration provided in the text and my lecture notes. However, to evaluate the pencast as merely a final product, I believe, misses the point completely. Why? I believe the pencast is a far superior way to teach and to learn in situations such as this one. Why? I believe the pencast allows the teacher to focus on communication – communication that the learner can also choose to be highly receptive to, and engaged by.

I still regard myself as very much a neophyte in this arena. However, as the above final paragraphs indicate, pencasting is a disruptive innovation whose value in teaching/learning merits further investigation.

Teaching/Learning Weather and Climate via Pencasting

I first heard about it a few years ago, and thought it sounded interesting … and then, this past Summer, I did a little more research and decided to purchase a Livescribe 8 GB Echo(TM) Pro Pack. Over the Summer, I took notes with the pen from time-to-time and found it to be somewhat useful/interesting.

Just this week, however, I decided it was time to use the pen for the originally intended purpose: Making pencasts for the course I’m currently teaching in weather and climate at Toronto’s York University. Before I share some sample pencasts, please allow me to share my findings based on less than a week’s worth of `experience’:

  • Decent-quality pencasts can be produced with minimal effort – I figured out the basics (e.g., how to record my voice) in a few minutes, and started on my first pencast. Transferring the pencast from the pen to the desktop software to the Web (where it can be shared with my students) also requires minimal effort. “Decent quality” here refers to both the visual and audio elements. The fact that this is both a very natural (writing with a pen while speaking!) and speedy (efficient/effective) undertaking means that I am predisposed towards actually using the technology whenever it makes sense – more on that below. Net-net: This solution is teacher-friendly.
  • Pencasts compliment other instructional media – This is my current perspective … Pencasts compliment the textbook readings I assign, the lecture slides plus video/audio captures I provide, the Web sites we all share, the Moodle discussion forums we engage in, the Tweets I issue, etc. In the spirit of blended learning it is my hope that pencasts, in concert with these other instructional media, will allow my TAs and I to `reach’ most of the students in the course.
  • Pencasts allow the teacher to address both content and skills-oriented objectives – Up to this point, my pencasts have started from a blank page. This forces me to be focused, and systematically develop towards some desired content (e.g., conceptually introducing the phase diagram for H2O) and/or skills (e.g., how to calculate the slope of a line on a graph) oriented outcome. Because students can follow along, they have the opportunity to be fully engaged as the pencast progresses. Of course, what this also means is that this technology can be as effective in the first-year university level course I’m currently teaching, but also at the academic levels that precede (e.g., grade school, high school, etc.) and follow (senior undergraduate and graduate) this level.
  • Pencasts are learner-centric – In addition to be teacher-friendly, pencasts are learner-centric. Although a student could passively watch and listen to a pencast as it plays out in a linear, sequential fashion, the technology almost begs you to interact with it. As noted previously, this means a student can easily replay some aspect of the pencast that they missed. Even more interestingly, however, students can interact with pencasts in a random-access mode – a mode that would almost certainly be useful when they are attempting to apply the content/skills conveyed through the pencast to a tutorial or assignment they are working on, or a quiz or exam they are actively studying for. It is important to note that both the visual and audio elements of the pencast can be manipulated with impressive responsiveness to random-access input from the student.
  • I’m striving for authentic, not perfect pencasts – With a little more practice and some planning/scripting, I’d be willing to bet that I could produce an extremely polished pencast. Based on past experience teaching today’s first-year university students, I’m fairly convinced that this is something they couldn’t care less about. Let’s face it, my in-person lectures aren’t perfectly polished, and neither are my pencasts. Because I can easily go back to existing pencasts and add to them, I don’t need to fret too much about being perfect the first time. Too much time spent fussing here would diminish the natural and speedy aspects of the technology.

Findings aside, on to samples:

  • Calculating the lapse rate for Earth’s troposphere – This is a largely a skills-oriented example. It was my first pencast. I returned twice to the original pencast to make changes – once to correct a spelling mistake, and the second time to add in a bracket (“Run”) that I forgot. I communicated these changes to the students in the course via an updated link shared through a Moodle forum dedicated to pencasts. If you were to experience the updates, you’d almost be unaware of the lapse of time between the original pencast and the updates, as all of this is presented seamlessly as a single pencast to the students.
  • Introducing the pressure-temperature phase diagram for H2O – This is largely a content-oriented example. I got a little carried away in this one, and ended up packing in a little too much – the pencast is fairly long, and by the time I’m finished, the visual element is … a tad on the busy side. Experience gained.

Anecdotally, initial reaction from the students has been positive. Time will tell.

Next steps:

  • Monday (October 1, 2012), I intend to use a pencast during my lecture – to introduce aspects of the stability of Earth’s atmosphere. I’ll try to share here how it went. For this intended use of the pencast, I will use a landscape mode for presentation – as I expect that’ll work well in the large lecture hall I teach in. I am, however, a little concerned that the lines I’ll be drawing will be a little too thin/faint for the students at the back of the lecture theatre to see …
  • I have two sections of the NATS 1780 Weather and Climate course to teach this year. One section is taught the traditional way – almost 350 students in a large lecture theatre, 25-student tutorial groups, supported by Moodle, etc. In striking contrast to the approach taken in the meatspace section, is the second section where almost everything takes place online via Moodle. Although I have yet to support this hypothesis with any data, it is my belief that these pencasts are an excellent way to reach out to the students in the Internet-only section of the course. More on this over the fullness of time (i.e., the current academic session.)

Feel free to comment on this post or share your own experiences with pencasts.

RTM for Android: Significant Update Indeed!

I just upgraded to the latest, native-client release of RTM (Remember the Milk) for my Motorola Xoom tablet.

As expressed by the RTM team, this is a  very significant update. Although the details of the update are well covered over on the RTM blog, in 5 minutes of usage I’m left with the impression of:

  • A much improved user interface
  • A much more deeply integrated application

Although I’ve flirted with other tools/utilities for task management (including Evernote!), I’ve always returned to, or remained with, RTM. This latest update for the Android platform gives me another reason not to bother looking elsewhere.

Kudos to Bob T. Monkey and the rest of the banana-loving team down under at RTM!

From Unity to GNOME to LXDE: A Journey of (Personal) Discovery

Much is being written these days about Unity – but more specifically, Canonical’s decision to shift from GNOME to Unity as the default desktop environment.

When I make use of a recent-generation laptop/desktop, I use Unity. Soon after reviewing Jorge Castro’s video on multitasking in Unity, I became (and remain) a fan of Unity. About the only serious omission of the Unity environment is the absence of the panel applets that I’ve grown attached to from time spent in the GNOME environment. (I believe improvements are already afoot in this area, but I have not explored the same …)

Perhaps the only negative feedback I’d offer about Unity is that I needed Jorge’s video to get me up to speed – and I find that somewhat ironic (from a usability perspective) for a leading-edge UI …

The fact that Unity has won me over is interesting in another regard. My first exposure to Unity was on an Asus 1000 netbook via Ubuntu’s netbook remix. In hindsight though, anything negative I’d share from this time had more to do with the Asus netbook and its built-in mouse than Unity, per se.

Although I am a proponent of Unity on recent-generation laptops/desktops, I’ve found it unusable on older hardware – and this applies to the 2D as well as the 3D version. In fact, I came to using the no-effect version of the GNOME environment on the old Dell equipment I still make use of.

Though this was a passable experience most of the time, there were far too many instances of excessive paging which rendered the system unusable.

It is fortunate that my end-user experience on legacy hardware was so unacceptable.

Why?

As a direct consequence, I recently discovered Lubuntu – at precisely the time Lubuntu was receiving official recognition from Canonical as a bona fide Ubuntu flavor.

I’ve thus been using Lubuntu 11.10 since its release last Thursday (October 13, 2011). Even though the honeymoon remains in effect, the shift to Lubuntu is proving to be increasingly worthwhile – I have a responsive interface to my legacy hardware, with the option to selectively leverage Ubuntu.

One final thought … Lubuntu provides Sylpheed as its built-in mail user agent (MUA). I’ve found Sylpheed to be extremely viable on my legacy hardware. In fact, I’ve even found the latest version of Thunderbird performs reasonably well on this same platform under Lubuntu. Despite these options, I’ve remained a user of Google’s browser-based version of GMail. Why? I seem to have lost the value proposition for fat MUAs for the moment ….

Feel free to comment on this post and add your own $0.02.

Remembering Steve Jobs

I was doing some errands earlier this evening (Toronto time) … While I was in the car, the all-news station (680news) I had on played some of Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement address to Stanford grads. As I listened, and later re-read my own blog post on discovering the same address, I’m struck on the event of his passing by the importance of valuing every experience in life. In Jobs’ case, he eventually leveraged his experience with calligraphy to design the typography for the Apple Mac – after a ten-year incubation period!

I think it’s time to read that Stanford commencement address again …

RIP Steve – and thanks much.

Aakash: A Disruptive Innovation in the Truest Sense

Much has been, and will be, written about the Aakash tablet.

[With apologies for the situational monsoonal imagery …] As I awash myself in Aakash, I am particularly taken by:

  • The order of magnitude reduction in price point. With a stated cost of about $50, marked-up prices are still close to an order of magnitude more affordable than the incumbent offerings (e.g., the iPad, Android-based tablets, etc.). Even Amazon’s Kindle Fire is 2-3 times more expensive.
  • The adoption of Android as the innovation platform. I take this as yet another data point (YADP) in firmly establishing Android as the leading future proofed platform for innovation in the mobile-computing space. As Aakash solidly demonstrates, it’s about the all-inclusive collaboration that can occur when organizational boundaries are made redundant through use of an open platform for innovation. These dynamics just aren’t the same as those that would be achieved by embracing proprietary platforms (e.g., Apple’s iOS, RIM QNX-based O/S, etc.).
  • The Indian origin. It took MIT Being Digital, in the meatspace personage of Nicholas Negroponte, to hatch the One Laptop Per Child initiative. In the case of Aakash, this is grass-roots innovation that has Grameen Bank like possibilities.
While some get distracted comparing/contrasting tech specs, the significant impact of Aakash is that it is a disruptive innovation in the truest sense:
“An innovation that is disruptive allows a whole new population of consumers access to a product or service that was historically only accessible to consumers with a lot of money or a lot of skill.  Characteristics of disruptive businesses, at least in their initial stages, can include:  lower gross margins, smaller target markets, and simpler products and services that may not appear as attractive as existing solutions when compared against traditional performance metrics.”
I am certainly looking forward to seeing this evolve!

Disclaimers:
  • Like Aakash, I am of Indian origin. My Indian origin, however, is somewhat diluted by some English origin – making me an Anglo-Indian. Regardless, my own origin may play some role in my gushing exuberance for Aakash – and hence the need for this disclaimer.
  • I am the owner of a Motorola Xoom, but not an iPad. This may mean I am somewhat predisposed towards the Android platform.
Feel free to chime in with your thoughts on Aakash by commenting on this post.

Multi-Touch Computational Steering

About 1:35 into

Jeff Han impressively demonstrates a lava-lamp application on a multi-touch user interface.

Having spent considerable time in the past pondering the fluid dynamics (e.g., convection) of the Earth’s atmosphere and deep interior (i.e., mantle and core), Han’s demonstration immediately triggered a scientific use case: Is it possible to computationally steer scientific simulations via multi-touch user interfaces?

A quick search via Google returns almost 20,000 hits … In other words, I’m likely not the first to make this connection 😦

In my copious spare time, I plan to investigate further …

Also of note is how this connection was made: A friend sent me a link to an article on Apple’s anticipated tablet product. Since so much of the anticipation of the Apple offering relates to the user interface, it’s not surprising that reference was made to Jeff Han’s TED talk (the video above). Cool.

If you have any thoughts to share on multi-touch computational steering, please feel free to chime in.

One more thought … I would imagine that the gaming industry would be quite interested in such a capability – if it isn’t already!