Wednesday, May 27, 2020

A toolkit for efficient educational video production

This blog post describes some prototype software, which, teamed up with the right hardware, can make producing decent quality videos at your desk slightly easier. If you want to jump forward to see the demo rather than read about it, scroll down to the section with heading "A Demonstration".


A couple of years ago, my colleagues Shazia Ahmed, Ruth Douglas, Sue Milne and I did a presentation "Creating Effective Educational Videos: a toolkit for a quick and low cost approach" at our University's Learning & Teaching conference. Most of our presentation was about maths support videos, created with the help of a piece of software I created for our Blended and On-line Learning Projects, but the last bit was about a more advanced version of the software, which combined with some other software and hardware makes a powerful toolkit for creating videos or live on-line presentations. In the current situation, with the pivot2online, I think it might be worth revisiting that bit of the presentation, but as a blog post for a wider audience.

The version of the software my colleagues used for maths support videos was designed specifically for Khan Academy style videos, where the teacher writes on a virtual blackboard. My software has multipage virtual blackboards, graph paper overlays, and the ability to insert a web page or application and draw over that.

The more advanced version of the software, UPresentTo, was partly developed with the intention of starting Vlogging, and trying to make that as efficient as possible. I had found when making short training and information videos, that the time taken editing the video was often substantially greater than the time taken to record it. Editing together different parts of the video takes time, and, for me, editing out pauses as I was trying to think what to say wastes a lot of time. To address this my software is designed to help minimise editing time by providing a tele-prompter window for a pre-written script, and the ability record multiple pre-planned shots in a single take.

I have also realised, from studying with MOOCs, that videos which consist of just a voice and static PowerPoint slides are rather unengaging - a small amount of movement on the screen, such as hand annotations and the PowerPoint slides make the video much better, but having different shots, for example showing the presenter's face when there is no other useful visual information, makes for a much better video. So, one aspect of my software is making sure it is easy to put together different shots, rather than just virtual blackboards and slides.

Of course, my software is not a complete solution - it is part of a toolkit, consisting of both hardware and software, that can be used to create a certain style of video.


Hardware for the video toolkit

The (mostly) affordable hardware consists of:
  • A Novation Dicer MIDI controller, which is used to move through slides and shots, and to increment the tele-prompt.
  • A Wacom Cintiq or standard graphics tablet.
  • A decent quality webcam.
  • A decent microphone and stand - the difference between a £3 and £30 microphone is dramatic, so don't skimp on this one, but at the same time, there's no need for something very expensive.
  • A standard Windows 10 computer. (My software is Windows only unfortunately.)
  • An LED garden floodlight - proper photographic lights are fine, but a white painted ceiling and a daylight floodlight is just as good for WebCam video.


Software, UPresentTo and OBS

Just one other piece of software is required alongside UPresentTo when recording a video. OBS studio is used to actually record the video. UPresentTo sends keystroke messages to it to switch between recording the desktop (for slides, virtual black/white boards, applications and web sites), the WebCam, and any pre-recorded bits of video that have been added as scenes to OBS. In this screenshot you can see the main UPresentTo window on the left, the tele-prompter window at the top and OBS on the right. The desktop recording part of UPresentTo is being displayed on the Wacom Cintiq tablet.

Creating the script and storyboarding video is currently done in a separate web application, which was originally intended to become a web slides tool with markdown used to write the slides. By adding a few extra tags I was able to make it suitable for creating the input files for UPresentTo. Eventually I intend to get all this functionality into a single package, but this was a quick way to get going. In this screenshot you can also see how equations can be included on slides using MathJax.

A Demonstration

Here are two short videos, recorded at the same time which show the toolkit in use. In the first video, recorded on a video camera next to my desk you can see me making the video, reading a teleprompter at the top of my main computer monitor and controlling it from the MIDI controller next to the tablet. The second video is the unedited recording from OBS studio, showing how UPresentTo switches between shots, and makes a video which requires very little editing before it can be published.

Final thoughts

This is unfinished software - the University project was cancelled long ago because it does not fit within the remit of my new department. However, it isn't far from being a usable setup for creating decent quality videos reasonably quickly. By using the virtual camera plug-in with OBS, it would also be possible to use this software with Zoom, and some minor modifications could make it more appropriate for tutorials. (By making the navigation between shots less linear.)

With enough demand this project could be resurrected as a University project, but for now it's just my private video making toolkit.