Online education: ETS launches a one-stop production suite

With the flip of two switches — and a bit of face powder — Berkeley faculty members can now make professional-quality multimedia recordings for presentation online, at a small fraction of the going commercial rate.

Teacher's image on BLAMO laptop screen
BLAMO recording session in progress. (Cathy Cockrell/NewsCenter photos)

The place to work that bit of magic is the new Multimedia Production Suite in 111B Dwinelle Hall. There, Educational Technology Services (ETS) has carved out a space in its video-recording studio, equipping it with a flexible configuration of lights and electronic devices. The suite allows faculty to record video, audio and PowerPoint slides (or other presentation materials) simultaneously, review and tweak their presentations and publish them directly to YouTube.

The new multimedia suite, now in an experimental incarnation, was initially created to meet the needs of UC’s Online Instruction Pilot Project (OIPP), which is redesigning and testing a handful of undergraduate courses as online offerings.

 The challenge, though, was how to create a good online experience for students without breaking the bank. ETS senior producer Jon Schainker, tasked with coming up with a solution, was “not happy” with the idea of faculty recording their lectures “from a laptop in the basement.” Students are more apt to tune out, he says, if the audio is distorted or the video is poorly lit. “Rich media is important,” he believes. “We have to make the experience compelling for students.”

 The broadcast-television vet, working with ETS engineers, scavenged equipment from a decommissioned video-conferencing room and cobbled together a low-cost, lightweight, professional-quality, do-it-yourself system — and gave it a nickname inspired by all-in-one kitchen gadgets sold on late-night TV: “BLAMO.”

 Look here! Smile

John Schainker

ETS senior producer John Schainker

One of BLAMO’s first users was UC Merced math lecturer Maria Radhika Albert. On a recent morning, Albert sat perched on a stool under studio lights, reviewing her notes as an ETS staffer applied a touch of studio makeup — so as to avoid the shiny-faced “Nixon effect” that hurt the presidential hopeful in his first televised debate against John F. Kennedy in 1960.

 Minutes later, Albert — aided by friendly prompts posted on stickers (“Look here!” “Smile!”) — spoke into the camera, introducing her pre-calculus course, which is slated to be one of OIPP’s first online course offerings.

 Schainker notes that for many faculty, looking into a camera, rather than addressing a roomful of students, is initially a challenge. “In class if you fumble, you can correct yourself,” he notes. “Their idea is that a recorded presentation is supposed to be accurate, so they feel a bit of pressure and anxiety.” In fact, BLAMO users “can review and fix” their presentations before publishing them to the Web.

 Going online

 According to ETS and OIPP director Mara Hancock, the UC pilot project is meant to design and test close to a dozen online UC courses over the coming year. Most of those courses, Schainker notes, are being produced at BLAMO, which is unique in the UC system.

 Faculty can use BLAMO for other purposes as well. “If a professor can’t make it to a China conference because of illness,” for instance, he or she could “use the technology to be at the conference virtually,” says Schainker. “We’re thinking up new ways to use the system.”

Rates for renting the multimedia suite are around $100 an hour, roughly one-tenth of what a professional studio might cost, he notes. The fee includes a half-hour of ETS technical assistance, to double-check all the electronics and signals.

 The goal, though, is to make BLAMO so simple that faculty can use it on their own. Says Schainker: “We’re trying to demystify what goes into production.”

For more information on BLAMO, or to book a recording session, contact John Schainker at jon@media.berkeley.edu.