Come on, come on, do the automation with me!

Firstly, apologies for the cringy title…I’ve been on an ’80s pop binge for the past week. It’s not completely random though, because this post is actually all about automation!

Now on this blog I talk a lot about lecturing but not that much about the other part of my job. This is primarily because the moment you mention to someone that you have a management position, in their eyes you suddenly grow horns and a tail and develop an evil cackle…

Stewie from Family Guy as a devil
How do you like my new look?

So to spare myself and everyone else, I keep it quiet. However, since of late I’ve been trying to incorporate ideas from the lecturing side of things into my management role, and vice versa. And one of the tools I’ve been looking into is Microsoft Power Automate.

The main idea behind Power Automate is that you can set up workflows to complete the mundane tasks of your job, leaving you more time to focus on the tasks that require intellectual engagement. It’s designed to be accessible to those without programming skills (like me, unless you count my pathetic attempts at C++ during the first year of my undergrad), and links to a variety of platforms, both internal to Microsoft and external.

As I reported on twitter a week or so ago, a colleague and I will be presenting some of the student-focused flows we’ve set up at the upcoming Teesside University Learning & Teaching Enhancement Conference:

But I was thinking…what about the stuff I’m doing that doesn’t relate to students (not directly, at least)? Surely there’s value in sharing that as well? So I thought I’d do that here.

A bit of background…

In my management role, I’m responsible for arranging staffing for our marketing and recruitment activities. We have a number of events (Open Days, Schools Engagement etc.) across the year and it can be difficult to keep track. For each event, I have to identify the staff, contact them and check that they’re available, keep a central record of who’s doing what and report the names to the relevant organisers. This results in a dozen or so emails for each event, and a lot of time spent on paperwork…not my favourite way to use my time!

My toolbox…

I found that the Shifts app in Teams was a neat way to record who’s doing what. However, it doesn’t really link up with anything else (yet) and therefore is of limited use on its own.

My solution is to use Power Automate to take the details of any Shift I create, and use it to send an email to relevant people via Outlook, collect their responses and record them on a Microsoft List. I still start with the same action (setting up the Shifts in the app) but the ‘following up with staff’ bit is done automatically, saving me a lot of hassle!

The walk-through…

I always share my tools and tips on my Tech Tips OneNote Notebook but that’s only accessible to those with a Teesside University account, and I wanted to share this more widely…so I decided to set up a Sway. I’d previously only used Sway for my MIE Expert applications but it seems to work pretty well as a step-by-step guide too. I was hoping to embed it here but WordPress doesn’t seem to support Sway embeds 😒, so please click through to see my Sway on the Automation of Notification and Recording of Shifts using Power Automate.

So that’s it! Power Automate has a pretty steep learning curve, depending on what you want to do…but nothing that a bit of googling can’t fix! I’m really enjoying learning how to get the platform to do what I want. You’ll have to sign up for the LTE Conference to see what I’ve done on the student-focused side but I’ll continue to present any management-focused flows here. Until then, back to my ’80s pop binge!

Lights, camera…can you see my screen?

My last post covered the cognitive load of hybrid sessions on tutors but the reality is, that’s only half of it. When discussing the ins and outs of these sessions with colleagues, one recurring topic has been the difficulty of knowing what tool to use when – it’s great that there are a lot of options, but not so much when you spend most of your time trying to choose between them!

With this in mind, I set out to write a little something with my tips for screen recordings. I initially thought I’d do a summary of each platform but then it struck me that a lot of the time, I combine a couple of tools to get the result I want. So instead, I’ve gone for a different approach…focusing on what you might want to do with your screen recordings, and how you might go about doing it. I’m limiting my tips to the following platforms:

    • Panopto
    • Microsoft Stream
    • Microsoft Teams
    • Microsoft PowerPoint
    • Windows 10 Video Editor

So here’s my non-exhaustive list (click on the links below to jump ahead)…

    1. Record a full lecture
    2. Record a mini lecture
    3. Record a little snippet
    4. Edit a recording
    5. Share a recording
Record a full lecture

Nine times out of ten, my preferred option for this is Panopto. If you turn the webcam on, it records it as a different source stream – this means it’ll appear as a picture-in-picture in the embedded viewer, and as a separate item in the Panopto player. The latter option allows the speaker to be a bit more animated on screen, making it feel a little closer to an in-person session (or maybe I just like waving my arms about a lot). Another advantage is that you can set up a Table of Contents pretty easily.

The downside is that sometimes it all feels a bit overkill. If you record the PowerPoint presentation (as opposed to the screen), Panopto appears to generate an automatic Table of Contents that’s linked to the actual animations…which is a bit of a nuisance if you’ve got a lot of them. And if you want to switch from the screen to the iPad, creates multiple source streams…like I said, overkill.

One solution to this is to record the lecture as a Microsoft Teams meeting. You can start a meeting with yourself (less pathetic than it sounds, honest) and join the same meeting from your iPad (or alternative) – then all you have to do is share the appropriate screen when you need to. The meeting recording will be automatically uploaded to Microsoft Stream and then you can do the post-processing there (more details below).

Note that I wouldn’t use PowerPoint to record a lecture, for the reasons laid out in the Teesside LTE blog.

Record a mini lecture (< 15 mins)

So if your recording is less than 15 minutes, I’d recommend the Screen Recording feature in Microsoft Stream. The advantage is that unlike Panopto, you don’t need to download and install anything, and there’s a lot less faff (yes, technical term). A recent improvement to Stream is that you can create a Table of Contents in the description by just entering the time in the correct format – even easier than Panopto!

The limitations of Stream (other than the 15 min cut-off) are with regards to editing and sharing, but more on that later.

Record a little snippet

What if you want to just record a little video clip to be embedded on another platform? Well you could use the same methods I’ve described above, and then use one of the techniques I’ve listed below. However if you’re trying to embed the clip into a PowerPoint presentation, you can record directly in PowerPoint. Simply use the Screen Recording feature to select the area of the screen you want to record, and that’s it. PowerPoint will automatically load the clip onto the slide you were working on, and then you can proceed to edit it there – or you can save the clip as a media file and edit it elsewhere.

Edit a recording

OK so you’ve recorded your lecture/snippet and now you need to get rid of the part of the video where you sneezed, or where you switched between screens and showed off your Avengers Endgame wallpaper. What you do depends on the platform you used.

If you used Panopto, the inbuilt editor allows you to trim the ends or cut out portions at any point in the recording. It hides the cuts so if you change your mind later, you can just get restore them as required.

If your video is stored in Microsoft Stream, it’s a bit more complicated. You can trim the ends within Stream itself, but there’s currently no functionality to cut out sections of the video. If this is what needs to be done, then this is what I typically do:

    1. Trim the ends of the video within Stream
    2. Download the video (whenever I’ve tried to download without trimming, the file has been in a .webm format that I can’t do anything with; when I download after trimming, it downloads as .mp4 …go figure!)
    3. Open the Windows 10 Video Editor and load the .mp4 file as a new project
    4. Trim, split or cut as required

The Windows 10 Video Editor is great. It can be a bit sluggish at times, but a quick restart usually gets it back on track. The extra advantage that gives it an edge over Panopto is that you can change the speed of certain portions. Once you’ve perfected your video, you can export it as an .mp4 and then upload to Panopto or Stream (or wherever else you want to).

Share a recording

If you’re going to share your recording, there are a couple of things to keep in mind:

Panopto: By default, it’s accessible to anyone who has access to the Blackboard module in which it was created (module and year). If you want it to be accessible to the same module year in year out, you can move the recording into its parent folder. If you want it to share it beyond the module, you can change the permissions – you can even make it accessible to individuals outside the institution if you want.

Stream: When publishing the video, you can choose if you want the entire organisation to see the video. If you want it to be visible to specific people only, you can create a group and share with that group only; so for instance I’ve created a group for a particular module and I make sure to give that group access to all the relevant recordings – any student I’ve added to the group will be able to see those videos. If your video is a recording of a Teams meeting, anyone with access to that meeting (confirmed attendees, Team members) will be able to see the video.

It’s important to note that whilst you can embed a Panopto video in Blackboard, you can’t embed it anywhere else. And whilst you can embed a Stream video anywhere (including OneNote, which is really useful), it can’t be seen by anyone outside the organisation. So if you have external guests in a Team, they won’t be able to see the meeting recordings by default (you can, however, download the video files from Stream and upload them to the Team).

So that’s it…my tips for recording sessions. I’m sure there are better ways of doing all these things, and other software (e.g. Camtasia, OBS) that have much more functionality…but what I’ve described above works for me, and I hope you find my tips useful.

I haven’t been listening to much music lately because I’ve been more than a little stressed (or maybe it’s the other way around?) but yesterday marked 9 whole years since I started working at Teesside, so let’s end with a bit of celebration, and a performance that always makes me happy.

 

A sign of things to come

I mentioned in my last post that I submitted my application to be a Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (MIE-Expert) for the coming year. So as emails go, this was a nice one to see yesterday!

Excerpt of email confirming MIE Expert status for 2020/21

In case you haven’t come across the MIE-Expert programme before, it’s a professional learning community that focuses on the use of Microsoft EdTech tools (and other connected apps) at school, college and university level. Applicants must submit a self-nomination each year (you can see mine on my MIE-E page) and if successful you keep MIE-Expert status for the entire year, even if you don’t do anything with it…but I really think it’s one of those “the more you put in, the more you get out” things.

I spent a lot of my 2019/20 MIE-Expert stint observing the way other academics were using the various Microsoft tools. It was a great learning experience but this year I want to go a bit further. One of the areas I want to look into more is accessibility.

When I was a student, accessibility wasn’t something that was considered at all. When I started working in HE, it seemed to me that accessibility was considered when a student’s support plan indicated it but not otherwise. However in the past few years, I’ve noticed an increased emphasis on incorporating accessibility into our regular operations. Microsoft has introduced a number of features to help with this, and I’m starting to learn more about them. So here are a few that I’ve come across already.

Immersive Reader

Can you remember the ‘Microsoft Sam‘ text-to-speech function? It was so mechanical and artificial that I was too busy laughing to actually listen to what it was reading. By contrast, the Immersive Reader sounds incredibly natural. And not only does it read out the text, it helps the user focus on the text (by removing background images and using accessible fonts) and allows them to choose how they’d like the text to be read (line by line, translated into another language etc.).

You can test it out via the Microsoft Learning Tools website.

Whilst looking at the site in research for this blog post I discovered that Immersive Reader can read mathematical notation as well! I’m yet to see how it’ll cope with all the differential equations in my 3rd year Reactors module but what I have seen so far is pretty good.

The benefit of this feature for students with learning differences is obvious but I’m also wondering if it can be used as a proofreading tool for final year project students. All too often they write a sentence that goes on for a paragraph and by the time you get to the end, you’re none the wiser. Using the Immersive Reader may be an easy way to help students improve the readability of their reports.

Dictate

The Dictate feature in Word and OneNote is the Immersive Reader in reverse, i.e. speech-to-text. It’s great for students who struggle with homophones (e.g. they’re/there/their) or students who lack confidence in their general spelling (perhaps if English is not their native language). And my experience has been pretty positive so far…

The unforeseen advantage of this feature (and the reason I tried it out in the first place) is that it’s also a good way to stave off the ol’ RSI!

Now there are a couple of tricky things about this – for one, it’s only available in Office 365 (so OneNote for Windows 10 ✅ but OneNote 2016 ❎). And I think it’s only available on the desktop apps and the browser version. Mobiles and tablets / iPads have their own dictate function but I believe they send the data to whoever’s made the operating system (so mostly Google/Apple) rather than Microsoft, and I’m not sure how that works in terms of GDPR compliance. I found a Windows 10 & Privacy Compliance document for Microsoft but if you’re going to use an android/iOS-based mobile device for speech-to-text, it might be worth checking the GDPR compliance first.

PowerPoint Subtitles

My last pick (for now) is the real time subtitle feature in PowerPoint. I first came across it during the year-end MIE-Expert celebration event, when I noticed how naturally (and accurately) the speaker’s presentation captions appeared. I haven’t done a live run of it myself yet but I’ve played around with it on the presentations I’ve created and I love it! I can speak naturally and it picks up and interprets pretty much everything in real time. I don’t think I have a particularly strong accent (a side effect of growing up all over the place) so I’m yet to see how much it can handle but I’m hopeful.

The only thing I worry about is that sometimes half of the audience may want subtitles and the other half might not. I’m sure there are ways around this (I have a feeling the ‘live presentations’ feature is the way to go) and that’s going to be something I look into.

So that’s a taster of what I’ll be looking at on the accessibility front. I’ll come back to this topic in the future to look at more of the features in depth but hopefully that’s whetted your appetite!

I’m currently obsessed with the new Taylor Swift album so I’ll leave you with one of its lesser known gems. Adios!