Sunday, September 30, 2007

Are Screencasts the Future?

Before I joined ThoughtWorks I worked for Nelnet. Nelnet is a student loan products and services organization. While employed at Nelnet (around Sept 2004), I was sent to an education conference where one of the keynote speakers presented data showing that students who were born after 1981 learn differently than those born prior. The reason this data was important was because it demonstrated that students born after 1981 were far more effective at learning through watching, listening, and doing. The speakers conclusion was that the educational system needed to react by creating classes which didn't rely so heavily on simply reading a textbook. At the time I thought the information was interesting, but not particularly relevant to me.

Today, some of the more popular educational materials can be found in audio (podcasts) or audiovisual (screencasts) form. Additionally, sites like Try Ruby encourage you to give kinesthetic learning a try. After seeing the growth in each of these areas over the past few years, I think it's fair to say that the conference speaker was on to something.

I sent a draft of this entry to Geoffrey Grosenbach for review. He sent back a few more reasons why he believes in screencasts as good teaching tools.
  • Efficiency of time: It takes dozens of hours to read a 300 page book straight through. But a screencast can pack the most relevant information into an hour.
  • Passive/Active: You can sit back and pick up whatever elements are interesting to you. Some people say the most valuable part is learning auxiliary shell shortcuts or workflow tips.
  • Graphical/Textual: I don't know any tech publisher who pays an artist to draw helpful diagrams. Screencasts are inherently graphical and it makes sense to include a few diagrams that explain the topic better than paragraphs of text would.
Here's a few links for those intersted in trying out some alternative learning tools.

6 comments:

  1. Screencasts are cool, but (as a pre-1981er) they often frustrate me:

    * They're great as a tutorial or evangelical tool, but lousy as a reference. You can't be "thorough" in a screencast; alternate scenarios are tricky to demonstate.

    * They're often useless if you don't have sound (e.g. at work).

    * Therefore, they're also inaccessible (to both blind AND deaf people).

    * Most programmers are really, really bad narrators.

    * You can't skim a screencast.

    * You can't Google a screencast.

    The last point may become obsolete in a few years, but the rest will still hold. Please, if you use screencasts, don't do so to the exclusion of all written materials.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Lest I appear totally anti-screencast, I should offer that it was the Original Rails Screencast that got me so excited about Rails in the first place.

    They definitely have their uses; they're just not a good substitute for documentation.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Anonymous8:13 PM

    I have to say, I found Geoffrey Grosenbach's reasons to be problematic. For those who don't know, he's trying to sell his own screencasts, so his comments should be viewed in that light. But let me take his reasons one-by-one.

    Efficiency of time: It takes dozens of hours to read a 300 page book straight through. But a screencast can pack the most relevant information into an hour.

    But I can find the relavant portion of book to a specific topic very quickly and skip, skim, and read carefully as I see fit. This is particularly true when I have a PDF of a book. With a screencast, this is far more difficult.

    Passive/Active: You can sit back and pick up whatever elements are interesting to you. Some people say the most valuable part is learning auxiliary shell shortcuts or workflow tips.

    Again, I think books win here, as it's easy to focus on what you're interested in and skip over what you're not. The best reading is active reading.

    Graphical/Textual: I don't know any tech publisher who pays an artist to draw helpful diagrams. Screencasts are inherently graphical and it makes sense to include a few diagrams that explain the topic better than paragraphs of text would.

    I agree that diagrams can be very helpful. And better tech books will often include them. If he's saying that he pays an artist to draw helpful diagrams, then I applaud him. But the question is whether there are enough helpful diagrams in the medium, and I don't think screencasts have an advantage here over books. Besides, the I don't know of any ... therefore ... type of argument is rather specious. I'm willing to bet some, such as O'Reilly, do. Take their Head First series, for example.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I'm pre-81. I think screencasts are awesome. I have most of Grosenbach's PeepCode screencasts. Last night I was watching one on the plane home from Philadelphia (Ruby East) when I discovered they're actually better without the narration. I was also playing a drum & bass mix mp3 and the background music on the screencast interfered with it, so I turned the screencast down for the duration of a particularly good track in the d&b mix, and afterwards left it turned down because I realized I was actually learning more.

    I think screencasts have several pretty significant advantages over books, in that the preparation time for a book makes it unlikely that the technology described in the book will still match the description by the time the book is actually available, and in that seeing things in action contextualizes them in a much more efficient way than description can. I think the lack of indexing or paging through is a weakness, but I think the question about screencasts being the future is the wrong question. It presumes progress, the idea that what comes in the future is inherently better than what happened in the past, and anybody who studies history finds counter-examples to this idea all over the place. Screencasts may or may not be the future but they're definitely an excellent option in the here and now.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I think they are the future. I've made a few recently, and they are a good way to get some info out there quickly. As one of the earlier commenters noted, you can't skim or Google them, but I still love them.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think Screencasts certainly have their place, but books and articles aren't going anywhere. Books do a much better job as a reference - it is difficult to skim and search in a screencast.

    On the other hand, screencasts are an excellent way to show the process of how something is done. Something that would require a chapter full of step-by-step instructions can be shown in just a few minutes of a screencast.

    ReplyDelete

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.