Saturday, March 14, 2009

tt4t_078 Begin with the end in mind

It’s Saturday, March 14th, 2009 and welcome to episode 78 of TechTalk4Teachers, I’m Tom Grissom. Over the years we have witnessed a plethora of new technologies and the underlying standards that make it all possible. This week I was reminded about the not so long ago “good ole days” when a student was given an assignment to do a video segment for a class project. The means to the end result were not articulated for the project and neither the teacher nor the student knew the processes involved for producing the end product. Unfortunately the student chose a technology that was not the best choice for the assigned project.

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Since the invention of consumer level video cameras back in the 1980’s taping a video segment is as easy as pushing the record button. In the good ole days of recording to a VHS tape you simply ejected the tape from the video camera and placed it into a VCR player to play it back. VCR’s were a prolific technology and nearly every classroom had access to one and many still do. When the VHS format began to wane as the standard of choice a few years ago several formats evolved and competed to become the new standard. Unfortunately there has not been one standard that has dominated others like the VHS format did for so many years. The result is a mixed bag of different tape formats and file standards that do not always play well together.

Manufacturers compete to promote their standard as THE standard for the industry. If a company can win the standard wars then that company will be in the best position for future profits because everyone else would need to use their standard format.

The new tape and disk-based formats are vast improvements over the previous VHS video cameras of the past. VHS was a huge innovation, before VHS came along film had to be sent off to a photo lab to be developed before it could be viewed. For those of you that are a little older you may remember the 8mm and Super 8 formats from your childhood that were popular before the invention of the VHS video camera. Back then family movie night meant getting out the reel-to-reel player and watching home movies without sound, a lot has changed since my childhood.

So the evolution of video standards for physical tape-based recording has evolved through several different standards over the years, including the famous BetaMax / VHS wars in the 1980’s to more the more recent miniDV tapes, DVD’s, miniDVD disks, and hard disk and flash-based recorders of today.

The evolution from tape-based recording to digital is still underway. Today you can buy cameras that record directly to miniDVD disks and many models now record directly to a hard disk. The most recent trend is flash-based digital storage devices like the popular Flip video cameras that I have talked about on previous episodes of TechTalk4Teachers. This has been a wonderful advancement for teachers that need affordable and easy to use video technology for classroom projects. The technology is still evolving and the disk-based video cameras have not caught up to the high quality levels of tape-based consumer cameras but we are getting closer.

This advancement has not come without a price. Now we have to worry about what file format we want for the final product. Here is just a brief sampling to choose from today: MPEG-1, MPEG-2, .VOB, .WMV, .MOV, .FLV, and .AVI to name just a few. To make matters worse some of these individual formats have different versions and flavors within them that can cause compatibility problems.

Now back to the problem I had earlier this week. We have several different types of video cameras that faculty can use and checkout for projects from the Instructional Technology Center. Each video camera type has its strengths and weaknesses and should be matched for the particular application that it is to be used for. The student wanted an end product of a digitized file that could be watched on a computer for reviewing and easily shared with others. Unfortunately a miniDV tape-based camera was used to record the event and when the student came back to the ITC they did not have an easy way to preview the material short of connecting the miniDV camera directly to a TV for preview. This option meant that the teacher and other students would also need to checkout a miniDV camera and hook it up to a TV to preview the students lesson and pass the one copy of the tape around to others, not very convenient. To make a long story short we needed to convert the video from the miniDV tape format to a computer file that could be shared and viewed easily by others.

To convert the miniDV tape we had to connect the camera to a computer via a firewire cable and digitize the footage. This is a one-to-one process, that is for each minute of footage it requires one minute to digitize. Therefore we had a 40 minute video to convert so we had to wait 40 minutes to digitize the video. Once the video was digitized we imported it into Windows Movie Maker and produced a WMV file as the final product that could easily be viewed on other computers.

It was a bit frustrating going through this entire process but it reminded me of what we use to do all the time just two or three years ago before we switched to the Flip video cameras for use in the ITC. If the student had used a Flip video camera in the first place all we would have had to do was copy the video file from the Flip camera and we would have been finished in about five minutes instead of the 1½ hours that this project conversion took. Perhaps we may have needed to convert the AVI format of the Flip to the more common FLV format but this would have only taken about ten minutes to convert. Now imagine have twenty or thirty students in the class given the same project and I think you can see the problem that this represents. The moral of the story, begin with the end in mind and understand what you are asking for before giving an assignment.

Technology Pick of the Week

My Technology Pick of the Week this week is a website that will convert a PDF file to a Word document. A link is a available in the show notes.

PDF to Word

PDF is an acronym for Portable Document Format that was originally created by Adobe and has become the defacto standard for displaying documents online. To view a PDF document you need the free Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in from Adobe. The advantages of a PDF file is that it preserves formatting so that the document displayed on screen looks the way the author intended it to on the web. You may have noticed that if you print off webpages they may look different depending upon the type of computer you use and the type of browser you use. PDF files get around these differences and provide a consistent look. PDF files also cannot be edited without the professional version of Adobe Acrobat Reader that you have to pay for.

The PDFtoWord service is currently free and allows you to upload a PDF file and the service will convert the file to a Word document format and email it back to you in Word format as an attachment. Keep in mind that you do have to upload the PDF file to the service so I would not recommend sharing anything confidential but for common PDF files that you wish you could edit PDFtoWord may be a website you are interested in trying out.

That wraps it up for episode 78 of TechTalk4Teachers. Transcripts and show notes for this episode and archived episodes are available on the web at the EIU Instructional Technology Center website at just click on the Techtalk4Teachers Podcast link. If you have questions, comments or suggestions please send an email to or leave a comment on the TechTalk4Teachers blog. Until next time, this is Tom Grissom, keep on learning.

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