Virtual Keyboard for Languages

April 26, 2010

The bain of my life as a language teacher was trying to get the students to add accented letters in the right place in their work. This was made doubly hard when using the computer because they would have to remember a keyboard shortcut or use Insert > Symbol to do so.

This Virtual Keyboard from Soundbooth Plus is a nice solution to the problem (although it won’t help pupils remember where the accents have to be placed!)

It is a free download (here) for educators and on opening the application a new window appears with a keyboard and space for text. You can choose a language from French, German, Italian, Cymraeg, Greek, Spanish, Russian & Ukrainian, and the relevant accented letters or alphabet appear. Type in your text by clicking on the suitable characters on the Virtual Keyboard. When you’re done, highlight the text, right-click, copy and paste where you need it.


Digital Video Camera Comparison

April 16, 2010

It’s always quiet during the school holidays, and this Easter I finally got round to doing a comparison of the digital video cameras we currently have at the CLC. This isn’t so much about the best camera, rather about the most suitable camera for using with our school groups, in terms of video quality, compatability with video editing software, cost and ease of use.

I’m also aware that these may not be the most up to date versions of these cameras, but it’s what we have, and hopefully this post can still be of use to educators out there who are wondering what to buy. (Note all prices are rough guides and show the cheapest offer I found online).

The Cameras (Clockwise in image above)

  • Digital Bluemuch loved (!) by primary schools across the country.
  • Flip Mino – not the HD version, but better than the basic version.
  • Toshiba Camileo P30 – our newest acquisition.
  • Sony DCR-SR77 – a replacement camera for one that got stolen.
  • Canon MD101 – what we’ve been using for years.

The Test

Basically we filmed the same thing using each camera – me talking to camera, walking through different lighting in the CLC, filming outside using the zoom. I wanted to see the difference in quality of the video and audio. I also looked at file types, storage, ease of use and flexibility. Full copies of the video should be up on Vimeo soon, due to space issues, I’ve only included short sections below.

Digital Blue

I have to admit that I’ve never liked these or actually used one in anger, but thought it worth backing up my gut feeling with some actual footage. To transfer the video you install the software, then put the camera into the dock and plug into PC using USB. Sadly we couldn’t seem to get any video off at all, so I did a second recording whilst attached to the PC:

As you can see the quality is pretty poor. However it is the only device I tested that takes video, stills and can do animation, using a USB connection (rather than firewire, which is a problem in many schools if they have no firewire ports). It’s still not enough to make me want to use one though!

Video filetype = AVI, price = around £120, storage = internal memory (though newer versions seem to have SD card slot)

Flip Mino

These are ridiculously easy to use – point the device and press the red button to record, and they can fit into a pocket for taking on field trips. Not only that but the video quality is pretty good for the price, and audio is excellent. It picks up audio even from a distance and it’s very clear.

The zoom isn’t up to much, but I always encourage students to use the zoom as little as possible anyway. To transfer the video simply plug in the integral USB connector. There is software that comes with the Flip for editing, but it is fairly basic – however you need to install the software in order to have the correct codec for the video to play on the computer. Once this is done you can open the Flip folder and drag and drop video files into your documents. The Flip records video as AVIs, which can be edited in Windows Movie Maker no problem (this is the editing program we tend to use with younger students, as it is free and most schools hav PCs with it on). The video is stored on internal memory and you can shoot 60 minutes worth. You can’t take stills or use it for animation.

Price = £80+

Toshiba Camileo P30

This is a small, lightweight HD video camera, at a very reasonable price, so I was interested to see the quality. We tested it on the HD 720p setting (the HD 1080p setting creates massive file sizes), and the video quality was  good as you might expect, though it didn’t deal well with dull light conditions, and the audio has a bit of ambient noise in it.

On the WVGA setting (standard definition) the video quality was reasonable too, but there seemed to be a bit more hiss on the audio.

It has an optical and digital zoom, and it is very easy to transfer video to the PC using the USB cable. It has a small built-in memory with SD card slot. However the whole unit feels a bit cheap and it records video as MOV files, so you need Quicktime installed to play them on the PC, plus it can’t be edited in Windows Movie Maker. You can take still images, but it can’t be used for animation.

Since writing this blog post we ordered a whole set of these cameras. After a number of issues with trying edit the footage in Adobe Premiere we’ve discovered that these newer ones record the video as AVIs – normally not a problem, but there’s an issue with codecs and we would need to convert the video before editing! This is not in any way desirable, and there was no indication when we bought them that the format had been changed.

Price = £100+

Sony DCR-SR77

This is the most expensive of the cameras I tested, although it only records in Standard Definition. It does have an 80Gg hard disk drive, onto which you can record 60 hours of video, and it is easy enough to transfer the video files (MPG format) via USB. The video quality was good (and was by far the best quality when zoomed in), but when I played it back using Windows Media Player there was no audio with it. Putting it into Adobe Premiere I could export an AVI with sound, but the quality of the video suffered (and it won’t edit in WMM). Here is the original MPG format (it should be widescreen but has been embedded as 4:3 ration for some reason):

You can take still photos on this camera, but again no way of using it for stop-motion animation work.

Price = £270+

Canon MD101

We use these for the majority of our work with schools, for video and animation projects. It records video onto a mini DV tape and to transfer it you have to connect to the computer using a firewire, and 30 minutes of video will take 30 minutes to upload, so not ideal for projects where filming and editing happens on the same day. The quality of the video isn’t great, and the audio is affected by a considerable amount of ambient noise.

This camera won’t take still photos, but can be used for animation.

Price = £145

Conclusion

My all round favourite is the Flip Mino* – you get something really easy to use, very portable for a reasonable price, and the video quality is fine for most of the projects we’d do here. The only real issue with them is that you have to install the codec first, which is problematic in schools where staff don’t have administrator rights on the computers. (We are also yet to see how long the rechargeable battery lasts, as it can’t be replaced).

I’ll recommend we buy some more of the Toshiba Camileo P30s too, or something similar, for older students to use who are editing in Adobe Premiere Pro. Having the SD cards makes transferring video a lot quicker than off a tape, and the quality is better than the Flips.* Note added comments above. I no longer recommend these.

The Canons will now be relegated to use for stop-motion animation only, and I’m putting the Digital Blue back in the box and hiding it in a back cupboard somewhere. The Sony SR77 is nice, but not worth the money for us.

The big issue still remains what to recommend to our partnership schools when they are looking for something for filming and animation. Anyone out there got a neat solution?

(*We do have some of the basic Flip Video cameras out on loan, as soon as they come back in, I’ll take some test footage and post up as a comparison with the Flip Mino).


Extreme Weather Hits the CLC (again!)

April 9, 2010

Two classes of year 3 pupils spent half a day at the CLC before Easter to consolidate their work on extreme weather this term. In pairs the students filmed their own extreme weather report in front of the green screen. Meanwhile they contributed to a Weather Wallwisher, answering the question, “What do you think is the most extreme weather and why?”

They then created their own word clouds, using Wordle, of weather keywords. One of the y3 teachers, Mr. Yates said, “The children really enjoyed it and got lots out of the experience.”