Using Screencasts to teach MS Word online

For the last three years, I've been teaching a 5-week Advanced Microsoft Word course for technical writers. The course is taught 100% online as part of an online technical writing certificate program. The first year I used online text content and enhanced it with various video clips from the Microsoft Office website and a few other professional websites. There were a few YouTube clips, but most were pretty basic and did not address the complex tasks that technical writers perform.

Last year, I started to create screencasts to help my students with tasks where they were struggling. For example, one of the assignments requires that students format a document using a complex book structure (mirrored even/odd pages, title page, and roman numbers for the table of contents). For the first two years, students really struggled. To help some student along last year, I created this screencast:

This year, it has been interesting to see that far fewer students are struggling with this assignment. The ability to watch the video (and replay it as much as the want and as slow or fast as they want) appears to be making it easier for them to complete the assignment.

In one way, I think this is a huge benefit. They are learning faster. But I find myself wondering, have I made it too easy? Are they actually learning to use the tool, or are they simply just parroting the video that I provided for them? Is learning still happening?

For many of the areas where students are struggling, I know the videos do help. The students often report an "ah-ha" moment after watching the clip (sometimes several times). Sometimes the written document just isn't enough – seeing it helps them get a better sense of how to perform the procedures. In other cases, I wonder if they have lost sometime by not struggling? Is there learning in the struggle? I can only hope that I've found the right balance between the "struggle" and "frustration". I don't want the students to reach that level of frustration, as that isn't learning. I just want them to struggle enought to appreciate and remember the "ah-ha" moments that happen throughout the course.

Creating screencasts

To create the screencasts there are a bunch of different tools out there. Once that I like is called Screencast-o-matic. The cost for a "pro" account is $15/year, and it works on both Mac and PC. What makes it work for me is the simplicity of the process. I open the tool, tell it to record, adjust the recorder window to capture the part of my screen I want to record on, and hit record. When I'm done, I upload the video clip to either screencast-o-matic or youtube. The ability to upload is built right into the tool. I typically use Youtube for videos that I think others will be interested in, and screencast-o-matic for videos that are very specific to the course or specific to a single person.

I now have quite the collection of MS Word screencasts on my YouTube channel. I am considering using the idea as the basis for creating an iBook on Tips for using Microsoft Word. What do you think? Would that be useful?

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