Creating Instructional Videos with Tablet PCs

One of the greatest benefits of using a Tablet PC is the ability to create short videos walking students through lectures or problem-solving exercises. Sure, you can create hand-outs showing step-by-step problem solving, but it’s hard to beat an audio and video combination where you explain each step as you perform it – not quite as good as the live instructor model, but a close second, especially in situations where you have students in your classroom working on different topics, or the student can’t be physically in the classroom!

Screen Capture Software

There are a variety of software packages available that allow you to do this, with just as wide a variety of bells, whistles, and prices.  These “screen capture” packages record whatever is shown on your screen (or a subset of your screen) along with audio through a microphone input, and output a digital video file in one format or another.

Starting at the high end, Techsmith’s Camtasia Studio is the Cadillac of screen capture.  Not only does it include just about any bell and whistle you can think of, it also includes an integrated editor that allows you to jazz up your video before publishing to formats ranging from Flash for the web to iPod-compatible videos to Youtube directly.  The downside – it lists at $299, with an educational discount down to $179 (and if you do decide to go this route, I’d recommend going the extra mile and purchasing the bundle that includes SnagIt for $199, a screen capture utility that you’ll fall in love with). You can try it out for 30 days for free — its features certainly justify the price if you’re going to use the software extensively, but for just starting out, there are simpler and cheaper options.

At the next tier, you can find a wide variety of screen capture software from lesser-known and considerably lower-imagesupport firms.  I’ve been using BSR Screen Recorder 4 over the past few years, which was roughly a $30 purchase at the time.  The new version, BSR Screen Recorder 5, is available for download for $50, and includes output options to AVI, Flash, and WMV.  I can’t speak to the newer version of the software, but BSR4 has performed admirably for me for videos of 10 minutes in length or less.  I’ve used this software for everything from movie analysis problems to mini-lectures to flash video creation for the website.

In general, the software works fine for its intended purpose, but if you run into trouble, I wouldn’t expect the same level of support you’d get from the higher-end products.

Another potential software package for video screen capture is the open-source (i.e. free) CamStudio, based off an earlier version of the now-commercial TechSmith Camtasia package.  I haven’t used this myself, but it comes highly recommended from a well-respected colleague who has used it to make quite a number of instructional videos using his tablet pc.

image Finally, I’d like to point out a free software package called LectureScribe put together by Brian C. Dean, a computer science professor at Clemson University.  LectureScribe is a slick little flash video creation program designed by a teacher for teachers.  It takes a bit of getting used to, but if you want a no-frills package to get you started, LectureScribe is your answer!


As far as microphones go, you can get away with the built-in mics in many laptops and web cams.  Of course, with imagemicrophones, you typically get what you pay for.  Decent USB microphones can be obtained for $30-$50.  I use a Zoom H2 portable digital recorder ($145 at Amazon), purchased a couple years back as a multi-function device.  Students use it in class for our Physics In Action podcast, I use it for creating multimedia videos, and outside of school I’ve used it for recording a reading of books onto CD for my daughter as a Christmas present.  It’s a relatively high quality microphone that automatically converts its input into digital files, so it’s very portable, or you can plug it directly into a computer for use as a microphone.  For simple video recordings, however, this is probably overkill.


The easiest way I’ve found to create these videos is to place the problem in Bluebeam PDF Revu before starting the recording.  Then, set up your microphone and screen capture software to record the Bluebeam window.  Next, solve the problem just as you would in your class, explaining your steps as you go.  Finally, hit the “stop record” button in your software, and save your video file to a format that best meets your needs!

Presenting and Blogging with a Tablet PC

In order to present content with a tablet PC, you need to have a way to project your tablet’s screen… I know of several teachers who clone their screens onto a large television in their classrooms, but far more effective is the Tablet PC in combination with a digital projector.  Connection between the PC and the projector can typically be accomplished with standard VGA or DVI cabling.

Wireless Projection

For cases where the projector is ceiling mounted, or where you’d like a little more freedom to wander about the room with your tablet, there are a number of wireless connection systems that send a video signal from the tablet to the projector. Some wireless projection vendors and dealers include:

I’m currently using an IoGear Wireless USB 2.0 to VGA Kit – it’s functional, but a little shaky when projecting video, as it appears to lose frames due to connection speeds. There are other systems with enhanced specifications, but overall, this appears to be a fairly solid option for the price.

Presentation Software

Next, you need software for your presentations. Microsoft Journal is free and comes pre-installed on most Windows OS tablets, and is a great starting point. However, it does have some limitations with regard to saving files in an easily accessible format, and its cut / paste abilities and editing are somewhat limited.

Microsoft OneNote is a terrific software package for taking and organizing notes, with solid tablet PC support.  However, it lacks a few features compared to our next software package, Bluebeam PDF Revu, that make it a distance 2nd choice for presentations in the front of the classroom:

  1. Poor printout control
  2. Fair stylus pressure sensitivity
  3. Poor quality inking (especially upon printing)
  4. OneNote 2007 had quite a few bugs that were never fixed
  5. OneNote 2010′s “Ribbon” interface isn’t well-optimized for Tablets
  6. Lacks grids, curves, good print-out options, customized pens and arrows, dashed lines, embedded hyperlinks, etc

I love OneNote for taking notes and organizing all my class files — my entire courses are organized in there. It’s been my mainstay application for several years (just in the past few months have I begun to switch over to Evernote for its integrated search capabilities and multi-platform accessibility). But for presenting and inking, Bluebeam Revu just feels much more natural, more efficient, and the resulting documents look much cleaner. I’d recommend giving it a try — I’d love to hear what you think if you do decide to give it a test drive!

Evernote is a free software package that competes with Microsoft OneNote for “best note-taking software package.”  It, too, is a great tool for organizing files, and includes the ability to scan images and PDFs.  You can create “inked” notes in Evernote, and although this is a great organization and note-taking software package, compatible with Tablet PCs, its forte is not presentations, and although I would rank it above OneNote for note-taking applications, it falls into a distant third for presentation software. Note that Evernote does offer a premium subscription ($5/month or $45/year) that includes a larger monthly data limit as well as integrated PDF scanning and unlimited file attachment types. I have used OneNote for years for organizing files and notes, and its “feel” for organization is preferably to Evernote’s, but Evernote’s multi-platform syncing ability is leading me to transfer my files to Evernote.  (Note: OneNote does have some capability on iOS devices with a recently-released app from Microsoft, or third-party software package MobileNoter ($1.25/month), but both applications feel clunky compared to Evernote’s interface).

Much more popular with Tablet PC users is Bluebeam PDF Revu, a full-featured PDF program designed with Tablet users in mind. It features pressure sensitivity, a variety of pens and colors, geometric shapes such as circles, lines, arrows (great for vectors), text options, superscripts and subscripts, hyperlinks, and a built-in camera tool that copies whatever’s selected to the clipboard.  It’s available at a discount of $75 for educators at the Bluebeam Education Store.  I’m not usually one to spend much on software, especially when there are cheaper alternatives available, but the money I’ve spent on Bluebeam PDF Revu is one of the best investments I’ve made and has paid for itself in productivity many times over.

Bluebeam PDF Revu
Screenshot from Bluebeam PDF Revu

Finally, Bluebeam’s much more popular PDF authoring software, Adobe Acrobat, is available for roughly $120 for educators (compared to a list price of ~ $450).  Although it has more general PDF features than Bluebeam, its “feel” when inking on a tablet just doesn’t match Bluebeam PDF Revu’s performance.

The summary, in order of preference, for presentation software:

  1. Bluebeam PDF Revu
  2. Microsoft OneNote
  3. Adobe Acrobat
  4. Microsoft Journal
  5. Evernote

Offline Blogging Software

For those interested in taking their classroom presentation content and quickly and easily posting this material to a classroom blog, I would highly recommend offline blogging software.  Regardless of software choices, you can save captured images as files, then upload them to the blog of your choice.  Getting your content onto a blog almost effortlessly, however, takes a little more thought.

Most popular blogging platforms support offline content creation, which means you can write your blog posts in a separate program, hit the “Publish” button, and your content then shows up on your blog. To do this effortlessly as a Tablet PC user, however, you want a streamlined workflow that is quick, easy, and second nature.  There are many good choices for blogging platforms, but for the classroom I would recommend one of these three free and popular choices:

Following many, many hours of trial and error with different combinations of software packages, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way to seamlessly publish the content you want on your blog directly from your presentation software is to copy your selection, then paste that image directly into your blogging software. The problem – not many offline blogging software packages support this functionality.  The good news – the best options for this functionality are completely free!

Windows Live Writer 2009 was available directly from Microsoft for free as part of their “Live” pack and allows you to cut and paste graphics directly into your blog posts, then upload.  Unfortunately, this functionality was lost with the “upgrade” to Windows Live Writer 2011.  If you have a copy of Windows Live Writer 2009 on your system, I recommend not upgrading.  If you don’t have Live Writer 2009, you may have to go to our second option, as Live Writer 2011 won’t work for our purposes.

Screenshot from Windows Live Writer 2009

Zoundry Raven is an open-source (free) offline blogging system that has a number of terrific features, most importantly, it supports cut and paste of graphics directly from your presentation software.

Screenshot from Zoundry Raven

Once you have these installed, your workflow becomes very quick and straightforward:

  1. Write on your tablet PC and project your screen using your presentation software
  2. At end of class, open your offline blogging software (Live Writer 2009 or Zoundry Raven)
  3. Copy and paste from your presentation software to your blogging software
  4. Publish from your blogging software to your classroom blog

For more hints and tips, check out “Tablet PCs in the Classroom

Tablet PCs in the Classroom

Over the past few months I’ve answered a number of questions from various sources (most commonly, the AP Physics Listserver) surrounding the use of tablet PCs in the classroom. Given their burgeoning popularity, this series of posts is an attempt to document best known methods for utilizing these tools effectively, with a specific focus on physics education.

Tablet PCs mean many things to many people.  For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider a Tablet PC to be a laptop computer which includes a stylus you can use to write directly on the screen, or a laptop or desktop computer which includes an electronic tablet and stylus (such as the Wacom Bamboo Tablet).

Fujitsu-LifeBook-P1610-Tablet-PC I’ve used tablet PCs in my teaching for roughly five years now, and though by no means an expert, I have had the opportunity to find plenty of things that do and don’t work. This series of articles is an attempt to share what I’ve learned and answer many of the questions that keep recurring on the listserver.  Much of what I’ve learned has been through the support and advice of the online community, and likewise, I’m hoping that others with experience and expertise in this arena will share their thoughts and best known methods. Tablet users, I welcome your feedback, comments, additions, and modifications.

For our first article, I thought it might be worth taking a few minutes to showcase some of the ways a Tablet PC can be used in the classroom.  This showcase is by no means exhaustive and will hopefully remain a living, growing exhibition.

Presentations & Notes

The Tablet PC can be used in place of a Smartboard when combined with a digital projector, and is, in many ways, superior to a Smartboard. For starters, it is typically easier to write neatly on a tablet PC compared to a Smartboard, whiteboard, or chalkboard. And with the right software, you also pick up a wider array of communication tools, ranging from pen types, sizes, and colors to geometric objects, tables, pictures, and even hyperlinks.

zzzWorkPower I use Bluebeam PDF Revu to document my presentations to the class by projecting a “clone” of my tablet screen for the class to see. Not only can I write neatly for my students, but I can also have my course outline right beside me as I lecture, assisting in maintaining organization and insuring I hit all the key points for each topic.  If my presentation includes a web resource such as a PHET simulation, I can link to it directly from my notes screen, avoiding awkward fumbling and keying in of website URL’s in the middle of a lecture.

Most importantly, when the presentation is complete, I can easily copy and paste my notes directly into blogging software and publish it to the web. Thirty seconds after the end of class, students have access to the entire day’s notes on our course website… an invaluable aid for students who aren’t able to attend class, as well as for students with special needs who require a copy of course notes.

Check out more details in the articles “Presenting and Blogging with a Tablet PC” and “Presenting with a Tablet PC: The iPad

Problem Solving

Often times I find it useful to solve problems with my students in a step-by-step fashion. This is useful as part of a lecture presentation, for homework review, and for review of formal assessments to assist students in working through a logical problem solving methodology. Using a Tablet PC in combination with PDF software such as Bluebeam PDF Revu, I can scan the homework or assessment sheet into a PDF file, project it, and mark it up in real time as we solve problems together.

It’s also quite easy to set up problems in advance, copy and paste a picture or two from the web to spice up the problem, and have students work in groups (typically with whiteboards) to solve the problem.  As I wander around the room examining student work, I can hand the Tablet PC to students who have developed unique or model solutions. They share their solutions using the Tablet PC as they talk through their thinking, and the “coolness” factor serves as a reward for both the presenters as well as the class, leading to the educational nirvana of students teaching students. Interesting problems can again be cut and pasted into blogging software for sharing with all students with just a few seconds of extra effort.

Video Guides

Of course, online notes don’t take the place of a live instructor modeling problem-solving in real time. For cases where this just isn’t practical for all students all the time, you can capture audio and video of the instructor solving the problem. Screen capture software is readily available for Tablet PCs, ranging in cost from free to several hundred dollars, depending on the required functionality. Throw in a low-cost microphone, built-in on many systems, and you have everything you need to create your video. You can even pull your example from a video elsewhere on the web and combine it with your scientific analysis to create an informative and entertaining mini-video that will get your students talking about where they see physics each and every day outside the classroom! Sharing with your students is just as easy – post on YouTube or TeacherTube, embed the file in your blog along with your class notes, and you’re well on your way to creating an amazing online resource for your students!

Over the next several articles in this series we’ll delve into each of these applications in more detail, sharing best known methods and techniques for utilizing Tablet PCs in education, ranging from software and hardware reviews and recommendations to how-to guides for specific applications. So pull up a chair, make yourself at home, and share your tips, tricks, and expertise with our growing community!