Monday, June 4, 2007

Railscasts: An example of an excellent instructional podcast

Railscasts is an excellent podcast series that provides several examples of instructional best practices.

Watch Post 10: Refactoring User Name part 1 (in browser Quicktime .mov) and note several things that Ryan does:
  • It's short, sweet, and to a specific point. It covers one aspect of refactoring; other aspects are covered in other podcasts. It is under 6 minutes long, just short enough that a viewer can watch it on a break to learn a new task skill (just-in-case training) or to watch it as a job aid to learn the new task skill they need at a specific moment (just-in-time training).
  • He starts off with a definition of refactoring; this definition provides a mile-high preview of what the user can expect to learn in the next 5 minutes.
  • Immediately following the definition, he explains how this task is relevant to the viewer.
  • He only shows you what you need to see at any one moment. For example, when he starts to show you the code, the only thing on the screen is the application TextMate. You can see the title bar, menu bar, tab bar and text editing area, each of which is useful to a viewer. What he doesn't show you is the unnecessary Mac OS X taskbar or a cluttered desktop. This helps a viewer stay focused on the task at hand by reducing cognitive overload.
  • He provides a visual indicator for which application he is currently using via the built-in cmd-tab visuals of OS X [1].
  • (If you watch later Railscasts, you will also notice keyboard commands via KeyCastr software [2]; sadly, most computer programming videos fail to provide this vital information.)
  • When he's talking about a specific section of code he highlights that section of code to draw your attention to it instead of just assuming you know what code he is talking about.
Some of these points, while clearly specific to computer programming, have parallels in other disciplines. For example, in the last point, if you're making a biology podcast, you may need to visually highlight a specific organ in addition to verbally describing it (and it may even be necessary to highlight the organ from multiple perspectives, e.g., anterior and posterior).

A couple of inherent motivational aspects of this podcast are the ability for the viewer to (a) stop the podcast and perform the same code modifications and (b) complete the same task or set of tasks in a relatively brief period of time. These two aspects respectively provide users an opportunity to increase their own confidence in changing the code and satisfaction at completing the task being studied.

One last positive example from Ryan's series is his webpage sharing the software and themes he uses in programming and the podcasts, as well as a link to access the podcasts in alternative forms.

[1] MS Windows has a similar feature.
[2] I don't know if there is a similiar application for MS Windows.

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