Section 2: Selecting your tools
Studio and recording equipment
This section covers which hardware is necessary to get you started on building your MOOC. It will look into the best locations for recording, which video equipment you may need, how to get nice lighting inexpensively, how to ensure that audio is being recorded well, and finally, what type of presentation equipment you may need.
Where can you record videos?
Your own office may be fine, but a lecture hall may offer technology that would be hard to get at otherwise. Some things to keep in mind when choosing your location:
In order to be able to record whenever you want, the lighting has to be reproducible, so you need a room with window blinds and artificial lighting.
An echoey room is not an option and neither is a room with noise from an air conditioning system or cars passing by. In any case, you need to do a test recording, and if that recording sounds poor, it will be better to look for another room rather than hoping to fix the sound with software.
A lecture hall may offer an interactive whiteboard, a lectern with a graphics tablet, or simply a traditional blackboard, which may be useful.
If you want to do live recordings with an audience – in particular to be more focused and motivated – you obviously need seating for those attending.
A major question to consider is whether you want to show faces and include props such as a traditional blackboard or lego bricks, or whether you want to record only the computer screen and your voice, in which case you don’t have to worry about video equipment. In the former case, your safest bet is a high-definition camcorder, which isn’t exactly inexpensive but is still your only reasonable option that will allow you to record from a traditional blackboard. Another thing to consider if you choose to record with a camcorder is that you will have to transfer the files from the camcorder to the computer, which leads to a clumsy workflow. A high-definition webcam is far cheaper and easier to handle and works fine for talking heads, even in full screen. The image quality of a mobile phone may be acceptable, but the phone is difficult to handle when you‘re not holding it in your hand.
Whichever camera you use: It will be hard to shoot videos without at least a simple tripod. A final point to consider is that you need lots of space on the computer for saving videos, so keep in mind that the data is easier to transfer and backups are easier to make if you use external drives connected with a fast interface such as USB-3.
To keep things inexpensive, we don‘t want highly artistic lighting but just lighting that is good enough. The talking head must not be blemished by harsh shadows – in particular not below the nose. It must also not be blemished by glossy highlights on the nose or on the forehead. Similar ideas apply to whiteboards and other props. Cameras love bright illumination – without it, their picture becomes grainy, and motion may look jerky. The cheapest option for stable, soft lighting are LED floodlights from the home improvement store, that you direct toward the walls and the ceiling to create indirect lighting. A word of caution: don‘t mix blueish and yellowish lamps ,and check for equal color temperature.
While you may get away with less-than-perfect video quality, audio quality is vital. Built-in microphones of notebook computers and tablets are almost unusable because of their poor quality and because they pick up noise from the computer. Headsets sold for Skype and the like also tend to have poor sound. Your local music store (not the regular electronics store) will sell you a USB microphone, perhaps even in a bundle with a stand and a wind screen. That is a perfect option if your room has good acoustics – or if you don‘t want to be tethered. The best if pricey option is an earset or a headset as used on stage. These microphones are not intended for computer use, so you need an adapter to go from analog to digital. The closer the microphone is to the mouth, the less the acoustics of the room matters. However, if the microphone is too close to the mouth, you sound like a PA announcer in the stadium!
Most probably, your course will not only consist of talking heads. It will also contain slides – or text and diagrams created by hand in real time. If you are using a traditional blackboard or whiteboard, that completes your presentation equipment, together with a camcorder. If you enjoy writing on paper, a visualizer (which is a camera facing down, plus lighting) may be the way to go. Or you can make you own – and mount a webcam and lamps above a sheet of paper. An interactive whiteboard is nothing more than a supersized display that can be operated by a pen; you can directly record it on the computer, without a camera. The same holds true for computer displays with integrated graphics tablets. Or you can use a tablet computer: a shiny new one – or a dated but cheap second-hand one. The tricky thing about tablets is that there is a broad range of styluses – from the unbearable to the highly fluid. The better ones require specific electronics in the tablet; each of these styluses works only with a narrow range of tablets.
Summing up, these are decisions to make:
- Location of recording
- Lecture hall
- Outdoors for example a historical location like the amphitheater
- Style of the videos
- With talking head
- Khan style
- Recording of the blackboard
- Recording equipment
DIY Projects for your Studio
Studio technology is not always high-tech. Some very helpful equipment can be built from wood, plastic, and cardboard.
Here is a list of helpful low-cost DIY-projects to make your recording more efficient:
- Red warning light
- Crates, boxes (with clothing) and mini tripods
- Green screen
Red warning light
When you are recording, you do not want somebody to knock at your office door, so a warning light in front of the door comes in handy. The easiest option is to insert a red light bulb into a regular lamp. If you can handle a soldering iron, you can put a super-bright LED behind a transparency. At any rate, you need to be able to switch the light on and off from your seat in the studio.
Cameras, computers, and even lamps have become small and lightweight, so there is not too much need for heavy steel constructions any more. Nonetheless, none of these devices can be mounted in thin air. Crates and boxes work well for this purpose. If they are going to be visible in the video, you may want to dress them up in cloth. For cameras and microphones you want better control of where they are aimed at. The cheapest way to go may be to put a tiny tripod onto a crate or a box.
The background of your video can be replaced easily if it has a uniform color that does not appear in your face or on your clothing. Today, green is the color of choice. Try to find some glaringly green piece of fabric that is large enough to almost cover a wall. Remember that it must not be glossy: highlights appear white, not green in the video, then the background cannot be detected safely any more. To prevent creases and the shadows they cause, you can build a frame from wood or from plastic tubes, fix the bottom part of the fabric and use weights such as old books on the upper end to keep it stretched. A stretchable fabric makes it easy to prevent creases.
Presidents and anchorwomen use a teleprompter to appear to be speaking freely, even though they are reading. The trick is to project the text in front of the camera. The speaker looks like they are looking straight into the camera, but actually, he or she reads text that appears in front of it. The camera does not capture this text.
You can build your own teleprompter by using a piece of highly transparent plastic (such as the front lid of CD cover). The camera sits in the background; a black piece of cloth such as a T shirt blocks stray light; a tablet projects the text. There is just one trick: on the tablet, the text has to appear as mirror writing. But that‘s something every web browser can achieve if you open a file that looks like this:
Your text goes here.
Set the zoom of the browser to see huge letters. To scroll though the text while reading it you can for use the scroll wheel of a mouse.
Software for Presenting and Recording
There is a wealth of tools for showing slides, for drawing, and to capture audio and video. To give you an overview of what‘s available at no or low cost and what is reasonable, this section starts with some general ideas about which software to choose. To provide some structure, the software is categorized in four classes, starting with presentation-only and ending with all-in-one-tools. Finally, there is some auxiliary software. Lots of concrete products will be mentioned; but keep in mind that these are only examples. Look into our updated link list for more.
Software can perform three main functions:
- We need software to support the presentation, for instance by displaying slides or by acting as a virtual whiteboard.
- We need software to record audio and video, at least if we are not using a camcorder exclusively.
- And we need software to be able to edit the recorded videos.
Some tools cover only one of these jobs, which tends to make them more versatile, while other tools cover all of these jobs – making them easier and quicker to handle, which is appropriate for a lean production.
This section only covers editing as one in a bundle of functions. Full-blown editing software forms the subject of the next section.
As you pick a software tool to use, you will most often also have decided whether it is an app for a tablet or an application for a desktop computer. Most apps are available for both iOS and Android; most desktop software is available for both Windows and MacOS.
Let us start with software that supports only one job: presenting. The following list includes some not-so-obvious choices:
- Prezi with its tumbling and zooming was considered chic but seems to have fallen out of favour; maybe it caused too much motion sickness!
- Adobe unlocks more and more functions in its free Adobe Reader. Among these functions is one to annotate PDFs.
- You can use screen recording software to record yourself making such annotations and talking about what you are doing. This process is the same for the next two tools:
- Windows Journal – a program included with Windows – is a nice, clean tool for writing and drawing.
- If you like pencil strokes or simulated paint brushes, you can use the open-source image editor GIMP, writing and drawing in real time and capturing what you say and do with screen recording software.
- There is a large range of recording programs. First, here are two underrated choices for Windows. Both can capture from several devices – for instance webcams – in parallel. And both can, with some properly added software, also record the computer’s screen:
- TheRec for Windows is a free, very lean and straightforward program.
- Microsoft Expression Encoder is a highly evolved software. It is free but was abandoned by Microsoft in 2014, so you can no longer upgrade to the former paid version.
The next two programs are examples of software that supports both recording and editing:
- First up is Audacity, an open-source, cross-platform program for audio editing that of course also does audio recording. It is suited particularly well for longer recordings because should there be a crash, Audacity can easily recover almost all of what it has recorded.
- The second program that combines recording with editing is Camtasia Studio. This is commercial software for MacOS and Windows. Maybe the free 30-day-offer can get you through your project if you hurry. Camtasia Studio records from the computer’s screen, from a microphone and from a webcam. You can even use it for drawing and to create multiple-choice quizzes.
Finally, we come to the type of software that is highly promising for a lean MOOC production: software that integrates presentation and recording and possibly a certain amount of editing.
- Presentation software such as Microsoft PowerPoint and Apple Keynote can record audio narration along with the timing of the slides. Microsoft‘s add-in Office Mix for PowerPoint also records the webcam and captures the annotations that you make on a tablet as animated strokes. These recordings become part of the slides, which turns PowerPoint into a video editor. You are even able to correct typos in your slides after the recording.
There are drawing and screen recording tools mostly intended for interactive whiteboards.
- SMART Notebook is the commercial choice, OpenSankoré its open source alternative.
- Lastly, there is a huge range of apps for Android and iOS that record handwritten explanations and audio. If you are looking for a fancy style, VideoScribe may be the way to go: It simulates a hand that writes and draws at high speed.
- Finally, here is software that is not essential but can come in handy for a low- or no-budget production.
- First up is ManyCam, of which there is a free basic version. It takes the image from your webcam and creates a new virtual webcam to be used in almost all Windows programs that work with a webcam. The picture of the virtual webcam may have added text, changed colors, may be rotated and so on. If you pay, then you can even use a green screen effect.
If you want to demonstrate software in your videos, it is vital to use a conspicuous mouse cursor. If you record a whiteboard application from the computer‘s screen, you need software that highlights the position of the pen so that your audience knows what you are working at or what you are pointing at. We have added some choices for big cursors and for highlighting to our link list (Auxiliary software).
Software for a lean MOOC production:
- Microsoft PowerPoint
- Apple Keynote
- Microsoft’s add-in Office Mix for PowerPoint
- SMART Notebook
Video editing software
Today, almost professional-grade editing software isn’t pricey any more. But you may not want to spend your time with editing. This section looks into what you may be missing (or may not be missing) if you do not use full-blown video editing software. But a caveat first: It is far quicker to re-do videos or to live with minor blemishes in them rather than try and look professional. The learning will not suffer. Video editing software enables you in many ways to clean up what you‘ve recorded. It helps you to bring clips into the right order, to add titles and logos, and supports effects such as green screen to mix several clips playing at the same time. There are literally dozens of video, audio, and image formats to support.
Hopefully, you are mostly able to record video and audio material that can be used “as is”. Should the lighting or the acoustics be adverse, video editing software may help a little: It can improve the image or the sound on a digital basis. You do not want to manually tweak the same settings for every video clip. This is where built-in presets come in handy.
The main job to accomplish with video editing software is to carve out the part of the video clips that you want to show. You cut away pauses and mistakes and arrange the order of clips. Commercial video editing software comes with dozens of animated transitions to insert between clips. At first, these seem to be impressive, but soon they look cheesy. It is better to use hard cuts and occasionally a quick and simple dissolve.
Who the author is and what the title of your video is may be spelled out in the description on the MOOC platform or on YouTube for example. But someone may copy the video or watch it with an app that does not display such information. So it is a good idea to show the title in the video, perhaps even display a logo and play some jingle. If you film discussions or interviews, you can indicate the names of the persons in a banner. Images and videos of complicated machinery benefit from descriptions that you lay over them. You can use the same functions to correct errors: If you said nonsense or have a typo on a slide, just put some text with a correction onto the video. Again, reasonable templates in the program will help you save time.
Video editing software cannot only put clips into any order, it can also place several clips in parallel. The technical term is „compositing“: The program forms a composite of several images, so to speak. This is what you use to place a talking head onto slides. Images and video clips can often also follow motion paths, for instance to bring different parts of an image into view. There are several ways of removing the background of a clip so that clips behind become visible. The green screen effect belongs to these. The technical term for this is color keying. A very different application of using several tracks in parallel is to add audio tracks, for instance to comment on what happens in a video taken from a physics experiment.
There are many different types of video files:
- Windows Media
Plus, each of these comes in different flavors or even in combinations such as MPEG-4 inside an AVI file. Decent video editing software can work with many formats.
If you provide videos on YouTube and similar platforms, file size is almost of no importance. But if you provide videos on your own server and/or for downloading onto mobile devices, it is imperative to have good control about the output format. To keep the files small, the picture quality of the exported videos must be reduced as much as you can afford.
If all you need is to trim video clips, arrange them into order and add a title in the front, there is commercial software such as Movie Maker (which is free) for Windows and iMovie (which is inexpensive) for MacOS. Three open-source alternatives are listed below. These may not be up to everybody‘s liking, however:
Virtual Dub for Windows is very versatile if one is able to handle it; however, it only works with AVI files.
Shotcut, a cross-platform program, and
OpenShot for Windows look and work more like you would expect.
Given that these open-source programs tend to show quirks and limitations, you may want to invest less than 100 € for a commercial solution:
A typical choice would be Adobe Premiere Elements. It provides a simplified user interface for starters and lots of automatic settings.
An underrated choice is Magix Movie Edit Pro (in Germany called Magix Video Deluxe) which is great on the audio side and feels like professional video editing software – which may be intimidating for first-time users. Luckily, there are 30-day trial versions of most video editing software.
Also have a look at our updated link list.
Creating audio transcripts
In the 2000s, audio transcripts were hard and costly to produce, but today there are manageable ways to turn videos into readable – and searchable – text, and into captions. This section is about the different ways in which transcripts can be used and how they can be created – both by a human and by a computer.
People may have trouble understanding what is being said in the video – for one reason or another. But there is also a trivial reason for providing a text version: It is easier to skim through text than to skim through a video. From reading the transcript you can quickly judge whether or not you should watch the video. You can use the regular search function to find a keyword in the text. And possibly also find the corresponding position in the video, if the transcript and the video are aligned. Luckily, YouTube can do this alignment fully automatic. It can even export the timing it has found.
Alignment is imperative to turn a transcript into subtitles or captions. If you really want to invest the time and money or if there is a crowd out there to support you, a transcript also is the basis for a translation as text or as subtitles. Again, automatic solutions require much editing.
The easiest way to create a transcript is to start with a word-by-word script – and read the script rather than improvising. Then the script becomes the transcript. Whether or not this style of video works for you and your audience is a different question. If you do not have a full script, you can type what you hear while listening to the recording. This is far easier to do if you use a media player that can be controlled by the keyboard even when the word processor is in the foreground. The open-source VLC media player can do that. Another helpful feature of VLC media player and HTML video players in modern web browsers and Windows Media Player is that they have a speed control: You can slow down the video. Amara is a website to enable the “crowd” to create subtitles for your video. And, if all else fails, there are transcription services that you book online and pay by the minute.
Given the amount of labor that manual transcription requires, automatic speech recognition looks promising. Its progress in terms of quality has been great. In the course of 2016, YouTube’s automatic transcription seems to have made a sizable step in quality. However, if only every 20th word is wrong on average, you can still consider yourself lucky. In addition, YouTube currently does not guess the punctuation. You have at least to put in all the commas and periods by yourself.
YouTube does not use a specific dictionary which means it will miss technical terms and it will use expressions that are obviously out of place. At first this can be hilarious, but it demands lots of editing. For that, admittedly, there is a great editor in YouTube. Automatic speech recognition with a specific dictionary produces far less surprising results. The automatic transcription of the MOOC platform EMMA and the dictation and transcription software Dragon Naturally Speaking belong to that class.
Using Webinars to generate Content
A webinar is a live online presentation that can be recorded and thus generate reusable content for a MOOC. It is interactive as viewers can submit questions and comments during the session. It would generally be less than one hour long but there is no hard and fast rule on this and it may well be better to make it somewhat shorter. At its simplest, it consists of slides and audio and as with videos people seem to be divided on the value of having a headshot of the presenter included as well.
The advantages of using a webinar to generate content for a MOOC are as follows:
- They are very easy to create and you can argue that the presenter does not need to create a script as they will present more naturally to a live audience.
- Guest presenters from any location can easily be included in your MOOC.
- A MOOC can encourage interactivity between some of participants in a MOOC and it may give the presenter a sense of the people taking the MOOC.
- The cost of hosting a webinar is very low.
To host a webinar you will need the following:
- A computer with Internet access and a microphone (webcam optional)
- A web-based conferencing system with screensharing.
Some other features are also useful in a conferencing system:
- The ability to draw on the screen (and an input device you can draw with)
- Interaction features such as:
- Text back channel
If you plan to use guest presenters you should bear in mind that the presenter may not be familiar with the system and you should take steps to minimise the chances of a failure at the time of the webinar.The following process is recommended:
- Agree the topic, date and time with the presenter.
- Provide the presenter with presentation guidelines that not only include access details but also some simple tips on good online presentation techniques.
- Set up a practice run with the presenter to both check out their equipment and also to train them on using the system. This is best done within a few days of the event and using the same equipment they will be using at the same location.
- Ask the presenter to enter the conference about 20 minutes before the event to check everything is working.
Most conferencing systems have limited features for editing afterwards but editing will increase your workload.The best advice is to prepare well and tolerate mistakes. However, you may be able to easily cut short sections out that you do not wish to appear on the recording.