Video in the Classroom: Equipment Checklist

Teaching has always been visual, but what was once communicated on fusty overhead slide projectors or whiteboards that get erased, is now distributed to students in full HD video that they can review whenever and wherever they need. And whether you’re using video in the classroom for personal reflection, or to create new content for your students, it has never been easier to give video a go.

What Equipment Do You Need to Get Started?

Of course, you know about digital camcorders, but if you’d like to get classroom technology that has multiple uses in a classroom, here are some of the tools that will make the task of creating great visual lessons easy and impactful (check out part 2 of this blog and get tips on filming and editing):

Tablets
Notebook Computers
Smartphones
Sound

Tablets

On the verge of outselling all forms of personal computers combined, no device has ushered in the era of the visual classroom more than the tablet. Tablets are screen-centric and intuitively touch-driven. They are great capture and playback devices, and do a pretty good job of media editing and graphics composition.

The market was once comprised solely of the iPad, but has broadened since 2010. The biggest shift in the tablet world has been the move to smaller, less expensive models like the Google Nexus 7 or iPad Mini, which remain visually immersive but far easier to handle, carry, and afford.

Apple’s iPad Mini strikes me as a bit too big and quite a bit too costly so I carry a Nexus 7 that cost $229 and — of great importance to the visual educator — now includes both front and rear cameras as well as the highest resolution screen in a small tablet. (I leave the Kindle Fire HD off this list because it is more a media consumption device and offers only a subset of all Android apps.)

A tablet I like to introduce educators to is Microsoft’s Surface Pro which is the only tablet that can run PC software. They haven’t perfectly nailed the execution, but if you really want a tablet that directly replaces your notebook computer, this is a unique choice.

Tips for shopping:
• Shop with your top three apps in mind: are they available on Android, iOS or Windows?
• Remember that it only takes a 2-megapixel camera to capture full HD video.
• Apple products are tops in image quality, but Google’s ecosystem shines on Android devices.
• All iPad’s have the same interface, but Android devices can vary a lot.

Notebook Computers

Two big trends are happening in notebooks: Ultrabooks and Chromebooks:

Ultrabooks are just highly-evolved notebooks, featuring all-day battery life, weight below three pounds, very thin design, and instant-on when you open the lid. As a whole, these traits transform the notebook into a more transparent device that frees you from booting, charging, and lugging a seven-pound beast and its one-pound charger. The MacBook Air is head of the class, but excellent Windows-based competitors exist in the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and the Acer Aspire S7. And every MacBook Air has the ability to run Windows really well. I primarily use Windows 7 on my MacBook Air, but enjoy the ability to switch to OS X for certain visual applications.

A Chromebook is a new kind of notebook on which you do almost everything on the cloud (i.e., the internet or school network). These machines boot into a browser environment and while your media and files can live on the machine, the software you use to manipulate them is online. If you’re using one of these fully, you are also keeping your files on the cloud as well. The upsides are low cost, easy sharing of files and no clunky operating system or antivirus technology to maintain. On the downside, printing is a hassle to set up and you’ll likely  miss “real” programs like Microsoft Office and Photoshop; their low- or no-cost online alternatives tend to be thinner on features and less evolved.

This kind of computing is the future but, for the visual educator, I think its a stretch to think of it as the present. Remember:
• Ultrabooks are just easy-to-live-with notebooks though at a premium price.
• Chromebooks are low cost notebook alternatives, but require the internet to work.
• Consider an ultrabook for you and a fleet of cheap chromebooks for students in class.
• Avoid the the stale “Netbook” category of laptops that are just de-tuned notebooks.

Video in the Classroom

Smartphones

When it comes to phones and the visual educator I tend to go straight to the iPhone 5. No phone has a camera or video recorder of equal quality and Apple does an outstanding job of making media easy to work with. The iPhone also has a cottage industry of photo and video accessories around it like the Swivl mount and Olloclip lenses that no other phone enjoys.

That said, know that the editors at CNET rate the Samsung Galaxy S4 as a slightly better smartphone overall and sales of the device have been stunning. The S4 has a much more spacious screen, swappable battery, memory expansion slot and a great camera. Again, start with your applications to determine if you have the flexibility to go either iOS or Android. If so, the S4 is your main iPhone alternative.

If you are doing a lot with stills, take a look at the under-sung Windows Phone-powered Nokia Lumia 1020, which has a huge 41 megapixel resolution. You can put that resolution to work for either huge prints, highly-detailed survey images or deeply cropping into an image without losing quality. Again, this is about stills; 41 megapixels doesn’t get you anywhere special for video. Some things to note:
• iPhone’s aftermarket wide angle, telephoto, tripod and other accessories are unmatched.
• Android devices offer expansion, larger screens and faster processors than iPhone 5.
• Keep your top three apps in mind and see if iOS, Android, and Windows Phones are feasible.
• All smartphones have lousy built in microphones, so keep reading…

Sound

One of the most overlooked truths of visual media is that great sound is the key to compelling video. Sadly, you can’t rely on the mic in your video capture device because its usually too far from the source (your mouth) and will pick up handling noise from the camera.

For educators, the ultimate sound tool is probably the Swivl. I put it here in the sound section, but its also a robotic pan/tilt camera mount that allows your iPhone to stay aimed on you as you work the classroom. But just as useful is its wearable wireless mic that helps capture your voice clearly with all the nuance of what you’re communicating. No more of that echoey, back of the room sound that makes your words fade into the white noise of the classroom.

Another way to approach audio is dual rolling sound, which means capturing audio on a separate device and merging it with your video later during editing. It’s not difficult (download this PDF) and I use the slim little Tascam DR-08 for this purpose. You can drop it in a shirt pocket, aim it at a sound source or clip it to almost anything and it will bring back great audio. It can also connect to a wired external mic or other sound source. It’s my audio Swiss Army knife. It does go through batteries faster than I’d like, so find a cheap source for AAA’s.

If you have the money and want to get serious about lecture audio, a Sennheiser EW 112 wireless lavalier kit sets the standard under $1,000. I think you’ll be disappointed with any wireless lav set cheaper than this.

Don’t forget the output side of the equation: Great speakers are essential for classroom presentation of visual media. If student’s can’t hear the media they probably won’t look at it. There are many excellent portable wireless speakers these days, but make sure you get one that includes a wired AUX jack which is easier to set up. And think about your power situation: If a plug is typically available you don’t have to sweat ultimate battery life and can focus on other features.

Brian Cooley is Editor at large at CNET where he follows all the major consumer technologies trends behind today’s digital lifestyle. He’s known for a real world perspective on what we need and what’s just gadget-driven hype. You can interact with him on Facebook.

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