How to ruin your students' weekend in three easy steps

I live just far enough north to catch some snow and ice a couple of times a year, but far enough south that people still panic when it happens. So when we got 2-3 inches this Wednesday my university administration shut the whole place down for two days. This is problematic for me because my class meets once a week for a 2’40” block, meaning my students just lost a week’s worth of content. And in the second week no less! I was going to cover evolution by natural selection in order to set up the next three weeks of study.

I have already got my semester totally planned and I don’t want to mess with it. How am I going to get at least a modicum of the lecture to my students remotely? In this blog post I’m going to  share with  you my work around strategy.

In the classroom I’m a whiteboard guy. I like drawing arrows and grouping concepts by color as I highlight the main ideas. Some but not all of the lectures have PowerPoint slides. Since I’m not tinkering with the lectures (this is probably the tenth time I’ve delivered them) I’m going back and creating new slide shows. Students really seem to like them. It gives them something to look at while I talk. David Byrne writes in the liner notes to Stop Making Sense, “Singing is a trick to get people to listen to music for longer than they would ordinarily.” PowerPoint is the same way.

But emailing students a slideshow and expecting that they’ll get enough out of that to prepare them for the next three weeks (race, bipedalism, early Homo) is asking too much. What my distance education professors have done in the Information Science program I’m in is use Blackboard Collaborate to prerecord a lecture with slideshow. Then students can play it back at their leisure. On the plus side this allows the instructor to control the tempo of the slide changes and encourages students to sit through the whole thing at once. However, it demands that the lecturer do the recording all in one take.

I wanted something easier and less time consuming to compose than this.

Here’s the compromise. From PowerPoint, select Insert, then under Media select Audio. From the drop box select record audio. Then using an ordinary gaming/ Skype headset (an external mic is going to make a big difference in audio quality) record about 2 minutes of lecture per slide. This way if you screw up you only have to redo a short take. Once you complete this task it creates a speaker icon that you can drag to anywhere on the slide. I found that the bottom corners worked best because clicking on the icon reveals a simple control bar. I didn’t want that to overlap with the visuals so putting it at the bottom looked best.

And now the secret I’ve picked up as a distance ed student. Near the end of the lecture you embed an Easter egg. My LIS professor gave us a password that unlocked a quiz. If you don’t listen to the lecture you don’t get the quiz. I gave my students instructions to email me with a special phrase to earn participation points.

The whole file amounted to about 50MB. Just upload this to Blackboard and then email  the instructions to the students. BAM! Snow day ruined.

Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is Project Cataloger at The Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia, and currently working on a CLIR 'hidden collections' grant to describe the museum's collection of early 20th Century photography. He has a doctorate in anthropology from the University of North Carolina and a Masters in information science from the University of Tennessee.

7 thoughts on “How to ruin your students' weekend in three easy steps

  1. Sorry to ask it, I come from a different academic background and I am neither familiar with how classes are in the USA nor am I a professor, but wouldn’t it be better to have students read about what you would cover in class? Isn’t promoting independent study habits an interest idea? Plus it would take you way less time.

  2. Yeah, this supplements two textbook chapters with a multiple-choice reading comprehension quiz. Since I’m only on campus one day a week I have only fourteen chances over the course of the semester to actually interact with my students. Mostly I want to give them something interactive to do that bridges the gap until our next meeting.

  3. Have you tried Prezi? As a whiteboard person, you might like the freedom of the presentation platform. 🙂 It also allows you to add voiceovers, embed youtube and flash, and lots of other very nice things. You should check it out. (Also, if you are worried about switching from powerpoint, you can import your slides from powerpoint and then add things around them.)

  4. I have not tried Prezi, but I seriously considered it before making this assignment. Thanks for the rec! I was just trying to get it done as quickly as possible so I could play Ticket to Ride with my wife.

  5. [edited]


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  6. Update: Apparently the embedded audio in the PowerPoint slides is proving to be a problem for students without access to the latest version of MS Office. So I picked up some cheap screen casting software which I wanted anyway and created an .mp4 to upload to Blackboard. It wasn’t a perfect solution and it cost an extra $15 and took another two hours but at least I could be watching basketball while I did it. Overall, still very easy.

  7. MP4 video is a good way to go that works for most students. If you invest in software like Camtasia, you can upload to a streaming video website, such as, then simply use a link to the lecture. It doesn’t load Blackboard with more content (which may cost your university $$’s) and it’s easier to update the video if necessary. One nice feature of Camtasia is it’s easy to make minor edits, such as omitting a cough, slip of the tongue, or long pause. You can also create a table of contents within the lecture, so students can review specific topics with ease.

    As an educator, I find it helpful to jumpstart younger learners (i.e. today’s adolescents) with video introductions and lectures similar to what you describe here. I also include visual previews (thumbnails with annotations) of papers to be submitted with assignment instructions. Video has it’s limitations, but younger learners take to it so readily, I find that I need to sheer in that direction if I’m going to reach them reliably.

    Russel Stolins
    BA Anthropology, UC Berkeley

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