Electronic Storyboarding vs Analog Storyboarding

I use electronic mindmapping and storyboarding for my personal projects and also have my students create storyboards in a class wiki for classroom video creation.  This morning I read a blog post on indezine.com that discussed the merits of analog storyboarding, the good ol’ pencil and paper, versus electronic storyboarding for planning presentations and other projects. mindmap_iconThe point the author makes is that texture stimulates the brain and computers, phones and tablet surfaces do not have texture like paper.  He points out that braille is a language in which the feeling of the texure by the fingers stimulates a response in the brain and that touching food before eating evokes a satisfaction response in the brain even before you eat it.  However, in investigating one of his examples of how a book was designed using paper mindmapping/storyboarding, I did not see any reference to how the author’s use of analog tools was better than digital ones.  That author chose to use paper and sticky notes while other authors I know of choose to plan entire books using digital mindmapping tools.  

The article does provide food for thought.  My first idea is that no “one size” fits all and for some people analog might be better while for others electronic tools are better. I know that I can sit staring a a blank sheet of paper for a long time while I can quickly begin to tap and drag using a mindmapping application on my ipad.  Could it be that just the use of my hands stimulates the thought process?  Merely holding a pencil does not seem to work as well for me.  This would be an interesting research subject.  I would be interested in how others stimulate their thought processes.

Using Video Documentary Creation in the Science Classroom

A number of my classes have a significant project-based learning (PBL) component.  All of my classes are upper division Chemistry courses except for one, General Science, a liberal arts core course for students in the University’s Honors Program.  I team with an Earth Science colleague to teach the third term of this year long sequence course.  The students in our class are not science majors, rather, most are majoring in the arts, humanities, social sciences or education.  photographerWhile we teach some physics, chemistry, earth and environmental science through the topic of energy and energy resources, much of the students’ in depth learning comes from researching an energy topic of current interest and creating a video documentary about it.  The documentaries are used for class learning and are also presented in a public screening during Western Oregon University’s Academic Excellence Showcase. The project is a rather daunting one for our students as we are on the 10-week instructional quarter system, and in reality, they only have about 6 weeks from the time they start their research until the date of the Showcase event.  We have found over six years of using this instructional approach that production pairs work most effectively. There just is not enough time for single students to complete the work while larger groups invariably result in unequal divisions of labor.

Video production is writing in disguise, a term paper on steroids if you will.  Whereas a term paper is a very individual assignment written by a student and typically only shared with an instructor, the videos are writing shared with many people.  The project has a number of stages, and each provides students with the opportunity to learn some academically useful skills and improve their collaboration skills.  The stages are:

  1. Research
  2. Script Writing/Storyboarding
  3. Audio Recording
  4. Video Editing
  5. Proceedings Abstract Writing
  6. Presentation


The research portion of the project is very similar to what a student does for a typical term paper.  However, during this phase, students are not just learning about their topics and collecting references.  They are also looking for imagery and video clips that they might be able to use.  We use this stage to teach about copyright and the Creative Commons.  If the students find non-Creative Commons pictures or video clips they would like to use, they learn how to seek the permission of the copyright holders to incorporate the materials into their projects.  We also provide a library of video clips we have recorded for them to use and royalty free materials.  Another skill we teach is how to locate scientific information and how to determine the validity of what they find.

Since this is a collaboration between two students, we provide them with a shared folder on the university network for storing files.  We have developed a class wiki site (hosted by PBworks), and each production team has a group of pages for storing research, composing their abstracts and developing the documentary storyboard.  The wiki serves two purposes.  It allows both members of the production team to add and edit materials (also members of other teams can drop anything they find that might be of use onto another team’s wiki space), and it allows the instructors to monitor each team’s progress to ensure they are keeping on schedule and make comments and suggestions.


Once the students have gotten a significant amount of their research done, they develop a storyboard for the project.  For our purposes, a storyboard consists of a two column table with rows for each of the “scenes” in the video.  One column contains notations of the visual materials that will be on the video track, and the second column contains the audio (narration, music, sound effects) that will accompany those visuals on the audio track.  This is where the students write their narration script.   All of this is done on the wiki so we can read the scripts as they develop.

Recording the Narration

Once the script is written, students record their narration.  We use Audacity, a free audio recording software package, available for both Wiindows and Mac which does not have a huge learning curve.

Video Editing

Once the narrative recording is completed, it is laid down as the audio track to start the video editing process.  The visual track is then constructed with still graphics, video clips, transitions, titles, etc.  We use Adobe Premiere Elements, available in both Windows and Mac editions, as our video editing software. This software is quite powerful for a consumer software package and does have a learning curve.  To get the students up and running, I have created a web module with screencast tutorials of all the basic features needed to create a video.  Early in the term, we familiarize the students with the software by having them create a short 1-2 minute video clip with an audio track (learning Audacity), video from stock visuals (although they can opt to shoot their own), transitions and titles.  We devote several class/lab sessions to the actual video editing of the documentary project so I can trouble shoot and help with technical aspects.

Proceedings Abstracts

Western Oregon University allocates one day each spring (typically the Thursday after Memorial Day) for students to present academic work in a professional meeting environment which is open to all segments of the university community as well as the public at large.  This is the forum through which our senior Chemistry majors present their seminars, and the students in our General Science class show their videos.  A Proceedings with abstracts of all the presentations is published for the event.  The unfortunate part of the abstract writing exercise is that the deadline for abstract submission occurs before the students have completed their narrative due to the time frame needed to compile and print the abstract volume.  We teach about abstract writing, the students collaboratively write their abstracts within the wiki, and then we do group editing during a class session.


When the Academic Excellence Showcase day comes, the students are present for the public screening of their videos.  Each pair of producers sit in directors chairs at the front of the auditorium and introduce their video, tell why they chose their topic and share something interesting that they learned during the research process.  After the videos are shown, they entertain questions from the audience.  This process can be a bit daunting to our students who are often freshman and sophomores as the lecture hall in which the screenings occur is often filled to standing room capacity (70 or more).

Miscellaneous Comments

We do devote a lot of class time to these projects so you may wonder how we cover the course content.  The theory behind project-based learning is that students learn more about a subject if they develop their own knowledge through an in depth study of a particular topical area than by a traditional overview of a subject.  Our students learn from their own research topic as well as from the range of topics covered in their classmates videos.  The members of the class watch and critique the other students videos multiple times, and the material from these topics is queried on the final exam.  During the term, we do cover basic physics, chemistry and earth science concepts as well as topics not explored in a given year’s video productions.  Much of the course content is delivered using a flipped classroom style methodology where students watch video lectures and complete web modules I have generated, watch videos on alternative energy topics, watch videos from previous years classes, read articles on energy innovations, conduct hands-on lab exercises, etc. We have conducted surveys of our students over the years we have been teaching this class, and the majority of the students rate their class experience favorably.  Some reoccuring themes we see in the surveys are that the students were afraid of the project because they came into the class with few of the technological skills needed for making a video; the students liked taking responsibility for their own learning; they were proud of what they accomplished and would recommend the class to others.  I am old fashioned… I believe that self-esteem and confidence comes from tackling challenges, learning from mistakes, and ultimately accomplishing a goal.  Our students, who are not going to be scientists and may even be “afraid” of science, leave our class confident that they can research a scientific topic and learn what they need to know to be an informed citizen.  This is my goal for these students!

Six years ago, Philip Wade, whose specialization is Earth Science education, and I undertook this as an investigation to see how alternative learning experiences can be used in the university classroom, and we are very pleased with the results.  It takes much more effort to teach the class in this manner than if we used a traditional lecture approach.  We have presented our findings via poster and oral presentations at several meetings of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and were invited to write a chapter, “Using Video Projects in the Science Classroom”, in the monograph New Trends in Earth Science Outreach and Engagement, Advances in Natural and Technological Hazards Research published (December 2013) by Springer based on one of our oral presentations.  In addition, a number of our student videos have been selected each of the last two years for showing along side commercial productions as part of the AGU Cinema held during the AGU fall meeting in San Francisco.  We plan to submit entries this summer from this year’s class for consideration for next December’s Cinema.

It is true that our students’ videos are not technically perfect.  There is just not sufficient time to mix the audio and to get the levels even throughout the production and to fix other imperfections.  Oh, what I would give for a 15-week semester course!  We give our students freedom to tell their stories however they wish.  While most use a “Ken Burns” style, we have had students write a play and do the acting, write their own music , make their own models, etc.  I am surprised we haven’t seen a “rap” version yet…we do encourage them to be creative! Here are some examples of this year’s videos (note that each video begins with about 10 seconds of a leader so the video does not begin abruptly at the screening).  I’d love to see any comments or suggestions you have.


An excellent student effort

Cracking the Case on Fracking

This is an interesting way of telling a story.  It was “performed” and filmed by the two students.  The background image is a tree trunk section showing the growth rings in case you are wondering.

The Ocean: Energy in Waves

This one contains some very nice imagery

Black Gold – Texas Tea

A well done look at petroleum

One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Fuel

This video takes you to an energy generating facility not far from the university’s campus

The Potential of Mind Mapping for Projects

Project-based learning plays a role in a number of the classes I teach.  My Honors General Science students make video documentaries; my online Environmental Chemistry students produce podcasts; students in my Energy Resources class write chapters for an electronic textbook; and my senior Seminar students give public seminars. In developing these projects, students generate outlines from which they work.  One problem with outlines is that they tend to box you into a linear thought progression which is helpful when putting together the details of the project but not necessarily helpful in the brainstorming stage.  I have been wondering whether using a mind mapping strategy might be a better starting point for these projects since creating mind maps allows for a non-linear or radiative thought progression.  In all of these projects, the first thing the students should do is brainstorm, gathering ideas about the aspects of the central topic that should be explored.  mindmap_iconI am thinking that mind mapping might be a good tool for this phase of the project because after you get thoughts out of your head onto a “canvas”, it makes the connectivity of ideas visual giving a global view of the relationships between the ideas.  Using an electronic mind mapping application, students would open the program and just start putting down ideas without worrying about how they are connected.  As the mind map develops, they could easily move concepts around exploring different connectivities.  After fleshing out the mind map, students could analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the various ideas and decide which to include in their projects.

Mind or concept mapping (I use the terms loosely) is not a new concept.  Remember using note cards or sticky notes as oganizational tools? With the right features, digital mind mapping allows you to do a lot more.  For my student’s projects, I would like them to be able to convert their mind maps into an outline which can then be expanded into the “script” for their project.

So what mind mapping application should I use?  Traditionally, mind mapping software packages have been expensive. So, first I need something that is affordable.  Since I want the students to be able to convert their mind map into an outline, it would be helpful if the software had the capability of exporting the data either in Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) which is an XML file format created specifically for outlines or in RTF (rich text) outline format.  I would prefer to have the students export their mind map to an outlining program where they would arrange their ideas in an orderly fashion eventually generating a beginning, middle and end for the writing project or presentation.

Outline with a headline collapsed; the same outline with the headline expanded

OPML Outliner: Outline with a headline collapsed and then the headline expanded

OPML Editor is a free, open source outlining program that works on both Windows and Mac to generate an outline.  You can expand and contract elements of the outline for viewing (see graphic), and you can move entire chunks of the outline from place to place making reorganizing easy. The other option for converting a mind map to an outline is to export as RTF to a word processor.  However, having the entire outline in text format makes viewing and reorganizing a bit more complex.  I like the idea of using OPML Editor.

My favorite mind mapping application, and the one I use, is IThoughts which comes as an application for iPad and iPhone (IThoughts for iOS7) and also for OS X (IThoughtsX).  I love the ease of use on an iPad, the ability to edit a mind map anywhere an idea strikes, to sync between the mobile and desktop apps, and export your mind maps in OPML.  However, not all my students have iOS devices or Macs, and the computers in my labs are Windows machines (boy do I wish we still had that lab of Mac minis we had in our old building with both operating systems available!)  While I can recommend either iThoughts or Mindnode (another nice app for iOS and OS X) to those with their own iOS/OS X devices, I need to find a Windows solution, and I have been investigating different mind mapping applications for that environment. Even better would be a solution that works for both Windows and Mac.  Here are some of the offerings I am considering:

FreeMind – free, open source mind mapping software for Windows/Mac/Linux.  It allows you to put navigable html links into your nodes,  The mind maps can be exported as HTML,  but it does not appear that they can be exported in a form for loading into an outlining application.

Open Mind 3 ($19.99) – for Windows/Mac/Linux.  This program uses a click and drag system allowing nodes to be easily resized and moved with a mouse.  It has a range of features including the ability to embed or link to files on your computer.  Mind maps can be exported as images, pdf documents, Word documents, and to Powerpoint.  This application gets a 5 start CNET ratiing.

Mind Maple (Windows Pro version $9.99; Lite version free)- allows use from any PC via Google Drive if you have a Pro license.  There is also Mind Maple for Mac ($4.99) and Mind Maple for iOS (free for the iPad and iPhone) which allows multi-device accessibility and sharing via Dropbox.  Mind Maple allows nodes to be added or moved anywhere on the screen rather than to a preset location as in some other programs.  You can add relationships, boundaries, hyperlinks and files to the mind map.  The Windows version can export to Word, Powerpoint, pdf, text, image and html.

Coggle – a free web based app that allows simultaneous multi-user editing with chat (nice for those collaborative projects).  Nodes can be placed anywhere and links and images attached to nodes.  An added bonus is that it supports LaTeX for mathematical notation.  Unfortunately, there is no map export option.  You can take a picture of your map and download it as a pdf or image or embed a map into a web page.  Unfortunately, probably not export options appropriate to my students’ needs.

Bubbl.us – a free web application that allows online creation of mind maps with features similar to Coggle but with the ability to export the map as an XML file.

Does anyone out there have experience with any of these applications or recommendations of other software solutions that will fit my needs?  I think I will experiment with Mind Maple and Bubbl.us first.

IPads Are Now Available for Purchase at an Educational Discount

apple_logoApple has long given educational discounts for the purchase of Mac computers, but until now, iPads were only available at full price.  While you can get up to $200 off on a computer, the discounts on iPads are a modest $20-30 … but every little bit helps!  For example, a new 16 GB Wi-Fi iPad Air costs $469, a discount of $30.  A 16 GB iPad mini with retina display is $379, a savings of $20, while the mini without the retina display is $279.  A 16 GB Wi-Fi iPad with retina display (the iPad “4”) is $379.  Too bad I got a new 128 GB iPad Air without the discount a couple of weeks ago!  According to Apple’s website,  college students, students accepted to college, parents buying for college students, faculty, staff and homeschool teachers for all grade levels are eligible for this educational pricing.  If you don’t already have an iPad or wish to upgrade an older model, this might be a good time to make the purchase.compare_ipads_icon

If you are not eligible for an educational discount but are looking for a bargain, you might check out Apple’s Refurbished Store.  All products sold there are certified by Apple and carry a one year warranty just like a new product.  All refurbished models have a new battery and outer shell.  What is available varies daily.  For example as I write this,  a 16 GB Wi-Fi  iPad Air is $414 while a non-retina mini (16 GB, Wi-Fi) can be purchased for $249.