RSS Thingymajig

We’re into week 2 of our LTDS DigiSkills project – in which we have been given permission to play with a few technologies (in work time) and pocket a few more skills for the future.

Last week we looked at blogging, this week it’s RSS.  I’m an intermittent consumer of blogs – dipping in when I’m forced to do things like wait for a delayed metro.  For this my tool of choice is Feedly which I jumped on when Google Reader had it’s sad demise.  Feedly works really well on my phone and is on hand to help those platform moments slip by.

In my Thing2 time I’ve chosen to have a look at an RSS reader for Chrome. It looks like this:


Now, I have to admit I quite like this.  It occurs to me that the news I wish to consume on my own time is very different to that I want to read at work.

So maybe I’ll keep this going in Chrome and add a few more worky feeds in!

Video annotation – the collaborative way

Creating videos by putting together clips from a collection of recordings is a time consuming task.  Our colleagues in Digital Media help us by providing a rough cut of the raw footage with a hard-baked timestamp on the recording.  Our job is to sift through this to find the bits we want. You’ll imagine though that this involves a lot of seeking backward and forward through a video with frequent pauses to note down timestamps. Our colleague Mike Cameron (now at Bristol) battled with this last year and cleverly anticipated that ReCap had the potential to make life easier.

What we want to do is not that dissimilar from a group of students collaboratively annotating a lecture.  Things that really help us, like our undergraduate counterparts, are searchable bookmarks, the ability to play content fast (never let it be said that students would ever listen to lecturers at 2x speed), and the ability to rewind.

Following a speedy consult with colleagues in team ReCap we requested a PCAP folder with permissions at the folder level for all of the team – that’s Digital Media, LTDS and Academic colleagues.

pcap screenshot

Uploading video was a doddle using the “Create” button, then we needed some conventions for the “Channel” we planned on using for collaborative notetaking.  Channel names aren’t listed (presumably some form of security by obscurity thing) so we decided to name our shared annotations “team” (in lowercase) and to annotate the start of any piece of dialogue with the speakers initials, the topic, and whether the delivery was good. If Nuala Davis gave a poor answer on Widgetology we’d put


In  a 40 minute interview it’s great to be able to scan and jump to the real gen on Widgetology just by clicking on the annotation.  By way of example here’s what we get one of our videos using the keyword “good”.

pcap screenshot 3

What’s particularly great about this is

  • we can jump straight in at particular annotation points without the pain of seeking backwards and forwards.
  • Our team annotations are in one place, we’re not struggling to keep up to date with the latest version.
  • Because the footage is on ReCap we can get at it anywhere (on and off campus), and we know that only our team can access it, and if we choose to we can permit other campus users viewing rights.
  • We can adjust the playback speed to skim through footage (1.5 – 1.75 is workable)
  • We can also use private notes to create personal annotations, and when we move between personal notes and shared channel, ReCAP (gloriously) stays at the same timestamp.

And one or two learning points about these channels.

  • it’s nice that ReCap shows who has made an annotation, and quite properly, permissions are such that Angela can’t edit one of my notes in our shared channel.  If we wished to do this we’d need to sign in to ReCap with a suitable role account used for the project.
  • I mentioned that channels aren’t listed.  We’ve spotted that they are case-sensitive, so it would be easy for two people to work on “team” and “Team” without twigging that they were duplicating effort.


An ode to the illustrated transcript

For each course we start with a blank canvass, we don’t have a fixed idea of x articles, y discussions and z videos, rather we attempt to make the learning needs define the mix. When video is best we are lucky in having a fantastic digital media team who have created amazing video content for previous courses.  But we know that each minute of footage is costly to produce.

So how do we decide whether something should be a video or an article?  A particularly troublesome area is the “talking head” the piece to camera without any additional visuals to consider alongside the audio.  Ant and Dec can make this look easy, but not everyone can look chilled as they try to talk succinctly, remember key points and look straight into an expressionless lens.   Yes, autocue may help, as may bullet points, but it’s still difficult to deliver well, and we can easily require multiple takes to get a good, natural and engaging result.  Without preparation it’s easy to fail the “Just a Minute test” (deviation, hesitation and repetition) – resulting in fragmented content that may not foreground the most important points before viewers tune out.

Talking head’s have their place, for example:

  • Where we need to build relationships. Video has a key role in establishing our lead educators as real people with a passion for their subject and a desire to draw learners into their enthusiasm.  Learner comments thanking the subject lead at the end of courses give testimony to their connectedness – they’ve watched the videos, and had regular emails, but the educator may not have even read any of their comments.  (We’ve created the illusion of Educator presence!)
  • Where the subject matter is sensitive or nuanced and a paper based approach would not convey this effectively. We can pick up tone, facial expressions, changes in rate and pitch to draw emphasis to key points, alert us to things to be wary of and absorb examples (stories) that illustrate.

On the surface video can be more appealing in situations where there is some associated visual content to talk though:  a plan, diagram, artefact.  But I’d like to challenge this also.

Let me explain …We know that not everyone will be able to consume video content, learners may have hearing impairments, have bandwidth issues, or maybe even have a computer without sound.  To get around this it’s our norm (oh that it was everbody’s norm) to create a transcript.

On a recent run of Hadrian’s Wall we got into discussion with a few learners who relied on the transcripts, but felt they were missing out by not being able to tie up the text to the images contained in the video.


I sounded them out about whether an illustrated transcript would help, and took the 18 likes as a definitive  “Yes please”. So we set about working through the transcripts for the 45 videos on the course, adding screen grabs and pictures to around 2/3rds of the transcripts.  The learners applauded us, but we were had to gasp at the irony involved in the process:

  1. Plan video
  2. Write script
  3. Reconnaissance location
  4. Arrange for media team and educators to be on site for filming
  5. Set up
  6. Make several takes
  7. Identify additional pictures to illustrate the content
  8. Produce video rough cut
  9. Provide feedback
  10. Produce final cut
  11. Gain signoff from the course team
  12. Produce transcripts
  13. Insert screenshots from the video to make the illustrated transcript

The document we referred to as an “illustrated transcript” was really just an article with pictures in it.  If our goal was to create this in the first place, then the production tasks are *much* simpler and fit on one line:   write article, identify pictures, get feedback, publish.

We need to be confident to make judgments on where video is really good.  There are places where it really is:   I learned how to felt a shed roof via a browse around YouTube, but I’d rather follow a recipe in a book.  The nature of the thing to be learned should inform the choice of medium of communication.  Let’s think about the “learning power” when making these judgments and broaden it out too – it’s not just video vs article, but maybe even – what else can we do to help learners to discover things for themselves?

Foregrounding this latter point not only helps us avoid the passive/transmissive criticism of x-MOOC, but also means that we can harness the strengths of social learning and all that technology can do to make this easy this over time and distance.


Grappling with Time

We were conscious after the first run of our “Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier” that many learners had struggled with time. The course covered a 400 year timespan and the thematic nature of the some elements of the course meant that we didn’t always move from 0- 400 in a linear way.

So, for subsequent runs we started to have a look at timeline tools, our favourites were TimeLineJS and Tiki-Toki.

The attraction of TimeLine JS was that it was FREE, and that we could drive it from a Google Spreadsheet.  We wanted to use timelines in two ways, to provide a course overview at the beginning, and to show the ridiculously fast turnover of emperors in the 3rd and 4th centuries.

TImelineJS was easy to set up, but we found that the number of items we wanted to plot meant that it was just a bit too confusing.  The tool would have worked well if we had wanted to give a lot of detail (and had a picture for each item), but for us the space usage on the screen didn’t work so well. There’s a screenshot of our quick test below (you can also see the actual timeline and the google sheet we used to create it).

timelineJS Screenshot

For our purposes Tiki-Toki gave a better learner experience.  We liked a number of things – there were a number of views (we could set a default), it was searchable, and we could categorise our emperors and the more adventurous learners could filter it by these categories.


Here’s a link to the 3rd Century Emperors timeline we published on the course. Our only disappointment was that while it was possible to export the entries as CSV we couldn’t import the data that we (Rob) had so carefully collated.  (That gave an excuse to experiment with AutoIT keyboard macros, but that’s another story).

We can’t prove that the timelines themselves improved the overall learner experience as too many things changed.  Notably, we placed “Timeline: Life on the Northern Frontier”  in a dedicated “step” rather than tagging the time information at the end of a video. So this brought time right to the fore.  We know from the analytics that learners spend time on this new step, and we used to track links to the interactive timeline, so we know it was viewed.

Learner comments implied that while some liked the interactive timelines, many of them were  even more happy with the printable pdfs we provided as downloadable reference links.

It took a few days create the interactive timelines. Was it worth it?  My view is yes; but yet again I’m struck that the accessible pdf can be just as valuable a resource as the whizzy clicky shiny thing – I’d see them as complementary.  The most important learning point though, is if the content/concept is important, give it the space.




Here are a few resources we’ve pulled together for this part of the session:



Add audio to blackboard

After you have crafted your audio file, you’ll want to share it. Unlike video, audio files are generally very reasonably sized and can be uploaded easily to Blackboard as they are.  Look for the “audio” item in when you use “Build Content”.

A slightly more fiddly way to handle this is to uploading the file to an audio/video site (NUVision, Soundcloud), copy the embed code for this and pasting this into a Blackboard content item. Unless you want to discourage people from downloading the file there’s really no advantage to this longer way round.

You’ll see both of these in the short screenrecording above.

Audacity Basics

Audacity is a really useful tool for creating audio files.  These can be used for podcasts;  audio feedback (as a student I’ve really appreciated “tone” and learning points);  and edit together sound tracks from different sources.

JISC’s guide on the use of Audio Feedback for Assessment gives an excellent summary of the pros and cons of audio feedback.  They also have a helpful page on Creating an Audio Podcast.

Here are some of my examples where I’ve used Audacity for specific purposes:

It’s easy to use – here are some basics:

NB:  If you are interested I recorded this using the screen recording feature that arrived in PowerPoint 2013 this February.


PowerPoint as PhotoStory

Here’s another approach to dismissing those (painful?) memories of lost PhotoStory. We can use good-old PowerPoint to insert pictures in an album and make a video from this. To me this seems much easier!

Rather than my dull screenshots imagine a set of lovely images. If you’d like to follow these instructions then have a look at this pdf of this (movie/ppt): PowerPointAsPhotoStory

Movie Maker as PhotoStory

oopsy….we were thinking about what to show at our next NUTELA and “Photostory” came up.   But, oh dear, although colleagues may have had fond memories of using it, it appears to have expired with XP.

We’ll be looking at Animoto during our session, but here are a couple of other ways of achieving the same thing.  First off Windows Movie Maker (a free download).

You can also see this as a pdf – MovieMakerAsPhotoStory

What do you think?  A bit faffy for me.

Sound Foundations

I’ve recently moved to the worlds most echoey office.

From journeys in the MOOCosphere so far we know that learners really value good quality sound – so I was keen to test out what microphones I could possibly use next time we needed to record a soundtrack for a VideoScribe or Camtasia project.

I had a collection to try out:

  • A Logitech web cam  (this really shows how nasty the room is)
  • A Plantronics dsp 400 USB mic
  • A lapel mic I got with a digital recorder
  • A Plantronics audio 300 USB mic

You can hear how I got on with this audio track

… and my conclusions – either of the USB headset microphones sounded just fine!

NB: I used Audacity (free) to create this track, saved the file on our streaming server ( and have inserted the track into the blog via the url.