Friday, May 21, 2010

Teaching How to Troubleshoot

Spring semester is over. I've turned in the grades for the graduate technology course I teach to school library certification students. The padawans are starting up summer project work.

There's one project we do annually for the Physical Therapy department. The PT students take 9 medical conditions for which quality of life can be improved with strength-building exercises. Here are some of the topics: End-stage Renal Disease, Cancer-related Fatigue, Fibromyalgia, Childhood Obesity, Down Syndrome, Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. The PT students present current research and exercise strategies to 2 audiences respectively, professional and consumer.

The basic strategy is to videotape the speakers presenting off of paper notes. With accompanying PowerPoint slide durations timed simultaneously, we can then synchronize the slides to the speakers. Videotaping the speakers away from the project slide presentation allows us to avoid lighting problems. We then composite the videos together with the slide shows. I manage the instructional technology padawans from videotaping through to the video creation in Flash format. We post the videos for Arcadia University-affiliated clinical instructors to learn from and recommend to patients. We replace them every year with new presentations created by the next year's student class.

We just finished videotaping the presentations for 2010. We'll create the final 18 presentations throughout the summer. Every year we improve on the videos with more streamlined procedures, better quality, faster throughput. And every year we have to troubleshoot the new procedures.

In 2008, we composited the final presentations using QuickTime Pro. A related problem is that we had to use the videos with the exact original videotaped dimensions. QT Pro isn't flexible enough to zoom in or otherwise alter the video's appearance. For instance, if we didn't zoom in enough on presenters of smaller stature, we ended up with videos of mostly background. Also, if the video file sizes got too big, e.g., much larger than 1 Gb (or some 20 minutes of presentation), QT Pro was unable to process a final video image. We had to turn large .avi files into more modest .dv files or even smaller .mov files to be able to accomplish the compositing.

In 2009, we began using Final Cut Pro. Because our processing skills were so elementary, we synthesized clunky techniques through sophisticated software. More specifically, we turned PowerPoint presentations with timed slides into video files to composite with the speaker videos. Whenever we found timing errors, we had to program in the new slide durations in PowerPoint, create new slide videos, then composite them together again with the speaker videos. I won't go into how drop-frame time coding (a default setting in FCP that we didn't even learn about for another year) made those slide videos unpredictable in length thus further complicating the composition process.

This year, we finished videotaping on Monday and Wednesday and already had trouble that we didn't have last year simply downloading the video files from the digital camera's memory cards. The file formats are .mod. Last year we learned how to convert them to .mov files that FCP could handle. This year 25% of the files could not download without error messages.

Guessing that those files were unlikely to have been corrupted over the 2 days it took to bring them from the video site to computer lab, I guessed that the operating system on our iMac simply couldn't manage those few files. I wondered if Windows XP could do any better on a pc. And indeed it could; we downloaded the 4 troublesome files to a pc, transferred them to the server, then transferred those files to the iMac. No problem. Best of all, the downloads that took multiple hours to the iMac (alright, no doubt there are other issues with our OS) became file transfers lasting 15 minutes total. (Fine, if we worked at it, we could probably fix all the issues with the iMac, but why? This system worked fine and didn't make the process that much more difficult.)

My issue over these 3 years has been that I've been the sole person able to identify the problems and conceive of solutions. Sure I manage the lab, but I am not a computer superhero. I'm a reference librarian who has learned technology from padawans who have graduated and moved on, by experimentation, by googling effectively for solutions, and by standing back and considering the bigger issues. I suspected this year that the iMac's OS couldn't handle some otherwise perfectly decent video files. I considered another OS, albeit on a different platform. And then I tried out a hunch that worked out.

If I had left the file downloading to the padawans, they would never have completed the task. They might even have attempted to re-videotape the speakers with no guarantees the resultant files would have downloaded any more successfully.

If I have no fantastic technology skills, I often wonder whence comes any problem-solving abilities I have. Maybe fantastic technology skills come less from mastery of the technology and more from the ability simply to stand back and think, to see the picture from a little bigger perspective.

I talked through my entire thought process with the 2 padawans to help them think more. The challenge is to help them learn how to problem solve, too. Just.