Screencasts vs. Whitepapers

A few weeks ago, Lawrence Liu (a senior technical PM and community lead for Sharepoint at Microsoft) linked to a few screencasts for learning how to use various features in MOSS2007. In that entry, he mentioned how screecasts are more effective and efficient in training and learning to use a new piece of software. Me, I’m a bit divided about them:

1) Screencasts are great for getting a hands-on view of the system, that’s true. A picture is worth a thousand words, and a movie is worth about 30 frames per second. I know software authors that have replaced the help file completely with a small Camtasia screencast. This, of course, only works for simple programs with few use-cases.

2) As Lawrence mentions, most screencasts are way, way too long. It’s understandable – when speaking you want to be as clear and understandable as possible. Too often it turns into a slow, repetitive lecture. To illustrate: last month Microsoft Israel held a Developer Academy conference to give lectures on new Vista dev topics. I squeezed in one Office 2007 talk. Because I was too worried about being clear and understood, I ended up repeating myself. Even a completely non-technical listener who just came in to hear me speak (yes, indeed, it was my mother) said she got the point already and that I should get on with it.

My point? Too many screencasts are way too long. Jan Tielens’ SmartPart (and sons) is a wonderful web-part to use and to learn from, but the screencast takes 16 minutes to describe what the 2-page readme.txt contains.

3) Screencasts are mostly a solution to learn the how, not the why. I can use Lawrence’s screencasts to learn how to add a library to the Records Center, but I would have found that out myself with little effort. What I would really want right now is a good set of whitepapers to understand the goals of the Records Center and how to use, not abuse it in my solutions.

4) A final tip for screencasts and webcasts – when using Windows Media Player you can speed up playback without affecting the pitch. This is to mitigate slow lecturers and needless repetition. It might require downloading the video locally first. Speeding it up to 140% is usually perfectly understandable.
On my Media Player 9, it’s under View -> Enhancements -> Play Speed. Enjoy.

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