CamStudio Open-Source Screencasting Program: Tips for Teachers

A screencast is a narrated explanation of activity on a computer screen, usually to explain how to perform a particular task in a computer program or on a Website. You can create screencasts with many different software tools and Web services. This article will share some tips from my own experiences teaching screencasting using CamStudio Open Source, a free Windows program.

Screencasting is an art. When done right, it's a thing of beauty. Let me start off sharing a screencast created by two graduate students, Ms. Shuer and Ms. Johnston, in an educational technology class I teach at American University, in Washington DC. These screencast makers are high school math teachers in the District of Columbia public schools. The screencast they created for my class, the first screencast they ever made, is exemplary. They used CamStudio to create it. You can view this six-minute screencast directly from the Internet Archive, where it is hosted for free. (Click anywhere on the screencast's opening screen to start the screencast. Turn up the volume on your computer, too.)

Not only does this screencast provide value to students at the school where these teachers teach, it provides value to students anywhere in the world with an Internet connection. This screencast also reveals just how smart these teachers are. Both teachers know Excel inside and out – and have an uncanny ability to share that knowledge. Want to try your hand at using CamStudio? These instructions by Philip Cosper at Childersburg Middle School are excellent. (Scroll down to the PDF file for CamStudio instructions.)

Here are some useful tips for creating screencasts using CamStudio. Under video settings, choose the AVI video format. The SWF file format results in screencasts of small file size, but far too blurred to my eye. The AVI file size will be much larger than the SWF file size, but large files are no longer a drawback these days. YouTube lets you upload files as large as 2 gigabytes, and YouTube will compress the video down to a manageable file size. The Graphing in Excel screencast was a total of 330 megabytes when originally created in AVI format. I chose to compress this AVI video file using the commercial Camtasia Studio software, after first converting the file with an easy-to-use Windows video conversion program called Prism Video Converter.

After I compressed the AVI file using Camtasia Studio, the resulting screencast was about 30 megabytes in file size, with almost no discernable loss of clarity of video in the file.

My grad students used a regular analog headset with a mini microphone jack to plug into the Dell desktop computer they used to create their screencast. Better quality audio can be obtained using a USB microphone such as that on the Logitech ClearChat USB headset, which sells for about $30 on Amazon.com.

One of the best microphones for screencasting is the Samson C03U, which sells for about $130. You can hear the very high sound quality of the Samson C03U half way through this YouTube video.

These days my favorite microphone for screencasting is the Blue Snowball, which gives rather clear audio at an affordable price. I created this Amazon video book review with my Blue Snowball microphone.

Incidentally, did you notice how the Graphing in Excel screencast above was planned, but not overly rehearsed? Having spontaneity in your screencast can make it more interesting to watch. Here is one of my own screencasts, about Google SketchUp, where I planned the general screencast, but improvised quite a bit, too.

It's important to note that CamStudio does not record your microphone audio as a default setting. You need to turn on this setting for your voice to be recorded. To do that, simply choose that setting and you'll see the check mark appear.

Start off creating some short screencasts so that you can get a hang of the process. Remember to switch off the ringer on your cell phone before starting to record. And find a nice quiet location, where you won’t be interrupted. If you live in a house with young kids, late at night is an ideal time to create your screencasts. If you're recording a screencast at a noisy school, one quiet place may be a parked car in the parking lot.

An easy first-screencasting project is to record your voice narrating a PowerPoint or OpenOffice presentation, as in this CamStudio experiment I did using OpenOffice Presenter. All kinds of digital storytelling are possible when you master these skills. Check out this short YouTube video I created using CamStudio, back in 2007.

Looking for clip art to use in your screencasts? Your first stop should be the public domain clip art at the Open Clip Art Library.

You can also legally use Creative Commons images that you find on Flickr. (Search for a photo topic on Flickr, and then use Advanced Search to narrow down the search to Creative Commons images.)

Once you've created your education-related screencast, you'll want to share it with educators in your area as well as educators on the Internet. One of the best ways of doing so is by tweeting about your screencast and using the Twitter hashtag #screencast. People in other states and countries who monitor that hashtag will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor. And who knows, they might get inspired to create a screencast that is valuable to your own students.

If you'd like to document your experience creating your screencast, you can do so on a blog or wiki, including a link to the screencast – or embedding the screencast into your blog by copying and pasting the embed code.

Lastly, if you'd like learn all there is to know about screencasting, the newly created guidebook called The Screencasting Handbook, by Ian Osvald, is the most complete work in this field. Ian is the cofounder of the ShowMeDo screencasting Website, where you can find screencasts on many topics.

Teaching is the process of conveying knowledge from one person to another. Screencasts can be an outstanding tool for doing so. Just as exciting as creating your own screencasts is pairing up with a friend or colleague to create one. My grad students, Shuer and Johnston, sounded like they had a lot of fun creating their screencast. I had no choice but to give them an A+ for that assignment. On their first try at screencasting they exceeded the skill of their teacher.

Phil Shapiro

The author of this article is an educator and community builder in the Washington DC-area. He focuses his time on outside-of-school learning – where the largest gains can be made in reducing the education gap. He is a strong believer in free and open-source software (FOSS) and both uses and teaches FOSS whenever he can. In his free time he delivers donated computers to youth and adults who don't own a computer. He has worked for the District of Columbia Public Libraries, the Arlington Public Schools, American University, Apple Computer, PCWorld magazine and several local and national nonprofit organizations. His teaching career started in 1977 at the East Harlem Tutorial Program, where he tutored other high school students.

He can be reached at philshapiroblogger@gmail.com and on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/philshapiro

If you live in the Washington DC-area, stop on by the Watha T. Daniel/Shaw Neighborhood Library on the morning of Saturay, April 2, 2011, to learn about some free educational programs for Ubuntu Linux.

Previous Community Voices blog posts.

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