A Journey in Screencasting: Comparing Different Screencasting Platforms

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My history with screencasting has been a frustrating one.  A couple years ago I really wanted to have accompanying screencasts archived to the library page that went over the skills we taught in classes.  Obviously students can't remember everything you've just talked about when they are still reeling from the reality of having a large scale project (my dialogue: "The importance of keywords in database searching cannot be overstated..."/simultaneous student thoughts: "How many pages is this paper?  Eleven? I don't even read eleven pages in one sitting, how am I going to....").

But I was doomed.  I paid for a well-reviewed screencast software and then couldn't get it to be large enough that I could use the image (kind of a problem when you are showing all the little details of a database) and I prefer to not clutter up my applications folder.  Then I tried Jing, which was okay, but still suffered from a smallish display.  I never felt like this would actually be helpful, and the fact that I had to upload my screencast to their website and use that as the link was kind of frustrating.  I don't inherently mind it, but the website was slow to load on our school network and since almost half my student population are student boarders living on campus, this was impractical.

So when the much-appreciated Richard Byrnes, author of the Free Technology for Teachers blog (one of my favorites), presented several screencasting tools that educators could use, I thought I'd use the waning days of my summer to see if I could grab the Holy Grail and find a screencasting platform that would work well for my instruction support needs.

First up was Screencastle, which is one of a new breed of screencasting sites which needs no downloading (it uses a little Java code).  There is nothing to their website - it's one page with a big start button and a series of boxes showing you all the various links and code you'll get when you're done.  I pressed the button, gave Firefox permission to accept the Java script and in less than a minute, a little bar was at the bottom of my screen with a button that said "Start recording".  I opened an extra window, pulled up my library page, and began a rough overview of using the library catalog, specifically my Aquabrowser overlay.

When I was finished, I just pressed the "stop recording" button.  A "Preview this Screencast" button appeared on the bar now, as well as a "Save this Screencast".  I previewed it (nice and big, yay!) and while I thought I sounded a little faint, I checked my systems preferences and discovered my mic setting was at the middle point, so that's my fault, not Screencastle's.  Smooth audio and nice clear image and I was super happy.  It took no time at all (versus the hours of staying up until 2 am frustrated with my Jing screencast) and as soon as I hit "Save" I got the above embed code and/or a links to previews or a full screencast.  You obviously would have to copy all this down for yourself since with no user registration, it would be hard to retrieve it from Screencastle.

The other screencasting tool recommended was Screenr.  Designed as a screencast tool to be used with Twitter, you actually sign in with your Twitter account (so you are registered, versus Screencastle's no registration policy).  The site is pretty with more support to make a newer screencaster feel comfortable.  Your finished screencast is iPhone and YouTube compatible and you're prompted at the end to enter your tweet (with less than the 140 character maximum because Screenr saves room for it's abbreviated url for your screencast).  There is a five minute limit on recording, but that would be fine for most information literacy skills, particularly because we often break them down into chunks anyway during instruction.

After signing in with my Twitter account (handle: SassyLibr), I loaded the screen recorder (I had an error the first time, but the second time it loaded like that *snap*).  A ghost frame pops up which you can stretch to cover exactly what you want to show on your screencast, or you can use the window presets available down in the dropdown menu of the screencasting bar which is in the lower left corner of your computer.  This bar is nicer than the Screencastle one in that it shows a coundown timer (remember that 5 minute limit) and also has a sound tool so you can see how sensitive your microphone is before beginning recording.  A "Done" button allows you to indicate when you're finished, but there is a pause button in case you needed to stop and open up something else before resuming recording.

I decided to focus on Noodletools for this screencast, since a couple of our lower school students were getting nervous about its annual revalidation feature and because I am so utterly psyched about the new features it's rolled out (which you can see in the screencast - I mean, Google docs integration?? *geek fist pump*).  When I finished recording, it prompted me to add my Twitter length description, but there was a check box for me to indicate that I didn't want to Tweet it right then (remember since you've got a log on for Screenr, all your screencasts are accessible in one place).  The publishing time took a while - it hung up for about 6 minutes - and then I unsurprisingly got an error message.  The good news is that nothing was lost; I could go back to the publishing page and try again, which I did and it published in about 3 and half minutes.  I was given the option of publishing to YouTube (which I will consider since we do have a Kirby Library account and that could be a good way of reaching students) as well as the link and embed text (used above.)  If you found yourself using Screenr a lot (and I think it would become a frequently used tool to demonstrate skills and sites to students and faculty), there is actually a bookmarklet that you can embed in your browser, so you can just click and start recording.  Pretty convenient.

Last up is Screenjelly, also meant to be integrated with Twitter and Facebook, but a few differences exist.  First, the limit here is 3 minutes (versus Screenr's 5 minutes), and that could make a difference if you're demonstrating something more complicated or with several steps.  I did like that Screenjelly has a check box where you can indicate that you want your screencast to be private, so if you need to include passwords for electronic resources and don't want to have to change them (like I'll need to after my Noodletools screencast above), this could be a good option.  Once again, it's just press an onscreen button and go - no software install or download necessary.  Weirdly, ScreenJelly has a "Help" button on its site, but if you click on it it tells you that feature no longer exists.  Not comforting.

Since I realized poking around it that ScreenJelly was owned by the same company that owns ScreenToaster, another recommended screencasting platform, I decided to use ScreenToaster since I wanted to next compare Ning with my Canvas account (also a Richard Byrnes recommendation) and it was bound to take longer than 3 minutes.  No help button here either and you do register in order to archive your screencasts (you can record without registering).  When I watched the demo video the audio kept cutting out, which I found disturbing, but I still plowed along.  I did enable the beta version which said it was going to produce higher quality video (but that there might be problems), so please keep that in mind.

Similar to our other screencasts, you have to approve an applet to enable the program, and like Screenr, it uses a frame which you can put over what you wish to record.  There is a time counter, but not an audio display, so you are unaware of your level of audio input.  I recorded for a little over 7 minutes and then watched the preview.  I gave up after a while, because of all the buffering, but was a little dismayed - my recording seemed to be oddly letterboxed (which makes me feel like I'm showing The Magnificent Seven on TMC, rather than a screencast) and the print looked REALLY small, which gave me shuddering Jing flashbacks.  After 17 minutes of upload (and 22 indicated to go), I gave up.  No screencast of this length should take that long to upload (my five minute one on Screenr took less than four minutes and was a good quality) and I had been unhappy enough with the other features that I didn't need to torture myself.

So I think the winner for me is Screenr - it was a little more featured than the others and I like the interface.  I can develop the library's YouTube channel and promote that to students and link off the library page.  Having ready access to an easy screencaster will also be useful for capturing computer bugs and showing our IT office so they don't have to necessarily poke around as much to try and figure out the issue, and teaching kids how to do it (perhaps under the guise of recording gaming prowess) would be a good technology literacy and writing skill (to say nothing of public speaking).  I think we'd be hitting several ISTE and AASL standards with that one!