Developing Online Content

Actually, it has been ‘upgraded’ a bit since I took that image. Here is what it looks like today as I start the day’s “Series of Zoom Conferences”

With everything up in the air, it is critical to be able to produce as high a quality teaching experienceas possible. Online teaching is much more than just “recording my screen” or “listen to me talk on zoom”, particularlyfor quantitative classes where we are trying to develop hands-on skills in datascience. For classes such as ENVS543 Environmental Data Literacy, we students are learninghow to be agile in data analysis, interpretation, and communication. Prior to COVID, we could teach in a classroom with each student able to watch the screen and simultaneouslywork on their own computer. And when problems would arisein this active learning environment, we would all be there to ‘look over someone’s shoulder” and problem solve. Under distributed learning due to COVID, this is no longer possible.

In today’s teaching environment, social distancing prevents us from looking over someone’s shoulder and by-in-large we do not have enough space to teach these classes at allowed densities because our computer labs are just too small. A direct translation of previous lecture formats into “Zoom’ed” versions does not produce a level of mastery necessary for the students. This requires a different approach to the entire course development and deployment process.

At a base level, I’ve invested in the following kinds of equipment to produce quality lecture content to be deployed online. Much of what I’ve put together has been recommended by various YouTube-ers.

  • Sound. A reasonable microphone to help isolate noise and create audible tracks that do not sound tinny and hollow. I found the Blue Yeti Mic to be a reasonably priced mic that sounds pretty good out of the box.
  • Camera. A camera that does not look up you nose! Laptop cameras are fine for quick stuff but if you are going to be lecturing and recoding videos and saving content for later consumption, you should have a better image. I’ve opted to use my digital camera (a Sony a6400) as a beefed up webcam. With a 16mm 1.4f lense on it, I can get that nice fuzzy background look with no problem.
  • Lighting has been the most challenging. Trying to get good lighting throughout the day is difficult. I’ve added a few LED lights on stands so the reflection does not bound off my glasses too much.

Dyer’s mug

In addition to this, the software is where most of the time is spent. This is also where I had to develop new skills over the summer.

  • For recording slide content and interaction on the screen, I use Camtasia. It is really nice in that it can capture regions of my screen for my slide presentation, from my tablet so I can mark up slides,and the content of other software we use in data analysis and communication. This way I can give live demos. This software allows me to do the rough editing, clipping sections together, and getting it into a draft.
  • I export the audio tracks to Audacity for noise reduction, normalization, and other tweaks so that I do not sound like the pig from Toy Story (a real anonymous comment I once received from a student in my Genetics class that apparently left a long-lasting impression upon me).
  • For fine editing, transitions, and titles I use Final Cut Pro. This is where it is all pulled together.
  • I try to add a few animated elments to each of the lectures, and for that I use Motion.Then once it is packaged up, it can be exported to YouTube or Vimeo.

All this just allows me to deploy pre-configured content. We are still lacking interactivity and approaches for developing communities in our classes. Since VCU has decided that this would also be a great time to switch out our LMS system, I’m exploring how far we can push Canvas in this direction. I’ll reserve judegment for another few weeks of development to see if there are other tools and solutions needed.

Developing content that both online and effective is challenging at best. I’m excited to have the opportunity to develop new tools and approaches and can’t wait to see the effectiveness of all this effort this coming semester.

Father, Husband, Brewer, Professor

Middle aged guy trying to keep it all together and figure out how to best navigate the world as it is. Technology geek, practitioner of fermentation sciences, researcher, biologist.