Introduction: Classroom Video / Green Screen Mobile Recording Studio
As a teacher it is compulsory to set specific goals as both a professional and an educator. Those goals need to relate directly to your individual professional growth and they need to also directly effect the students currently in your classroom. My overarching goal this year (connecting to both forms of goals) was to "create a positive digital footprint for students in my classroom." By this I mean that I wanted to encourage my middle school students to build a positive digital footprint to carry them onward to further grades. With the many negative aspects of our digital world (think permanent remarks made by a student on snap chat) I wanted my students to have a strong understanding of what it means to have a digital presence and how they can create something that will have positive results.
For the past 10 years I have tinkered around with using a green screen in my classroom. I can tell you that 10 years ago the technology we used in the classroom was clunky, difficult to maneuver, and required me to do the majority of the video editing. Fast forward ten years and we now can edit quickly and easily using web-based programs that are easy enough for third grade students to maneuver. Plus, the cameras, microphones, and computers are not only less expensive, but the quality is far superior to what I was using last decade (that is a weird thing to say).
Last year I was able to convince my administrator to approach central office on the prospect of getting a school subscription to www.wevideo.com which is a web-based video editing program. We are forced to use a web-based program since we only have Chromebooks in our school and we cannot run programs that require a Mac or PC operating system. Suffice to say, we were able to secure the subscription and started using it at the end of last year (previous to this we were using their free trial version... for a few years :)
We ordered a couple of basic microphones and stands, got a basic phone holder to put on a stand and hung up a nice big green sheet to act as our backdrop. And it worked, and pretty darn well too! There were a few places that needed significant help; clarity with the video and proper cropping and clarity with the audio and proper volume adjustments. With the students using their own personal phones as cameras, many of them were recording with somewhat blurry lenses, or incompatible microphone ports... this resulted in a lot of frustration on both the student's and my end. Once the students recorded the video they typically didn't sound check it, so there was a good chance that they were quiet as a mouse during the recording. Then, to boot, they had to upload them to their Google Drive, and import it to WeVideo. A lot of steps for middle school students, although it does present some good problem solving skills! Finally, you need to be able to trust that your students are not going to add to a negative digital presence by using their phones inappropriately, that's if they own a phone in the first place!
I knew that there had to be a better way, some method to fix the problems I was encountering. A system that doesn't rely on students owning high-end cameras or phones. A system that creates a quality, clear video with properly recorded audio time and time again. A system that doesn't require uploading, downloading, uploading again, and finally editing only to find that the volume is off or there is an area that needs to be cropped out. I wanted something where a student could log into their account, push a button or two and begin to record and then the final video would be clear, loud enough, and saved directly to WeVideo.
So, I came up with a game plan. I planned to use a Chromebook as the main device but the cameras on our Chromebooks are pretty poor and they also face the wrong way. Also, the internal microphone wasn't going to cut it unless you planned on sounding like you were in a submarine. I needed a better camera, better microphones, and some way to allow the kids to sound check their video before committing to it. Finally, I needed the whole thing to be easy to use, robust enough to stand up to middle school students, and mobile.
I thought that I would share how I went about designing and building our mobile recording studio and hopefully encouraging more teachers to help students develop a positive digital footprint!
Step 1: Get Your Raw Materials Ready
Base and computer: Before you start building anything you will need to know what your constraints are with your design. I had an extra light stand ($50) that would work perfectly as a camera stand, so that was going to be the main "base" of this build. I also knew that I was going to be using an HP 13" Chromebook that the district was going to provide for me.
Camera: After a lot of research I settled on a camera that seemed to be a perfect choice for this application. I picked the Logitech Wecam Pro C920e ($70). It is 1080p High Definition and has a stereo audio dual microphone that wraps around the whole thing. To boot it has auto focus and light correction built in. It has threads that were compatible with my light stand and screwed right into it with no problem.
Microphones: Students can use the microphone built into the camera if they have more than one person on the screen at once. The audio quality is good and plenty clear for middle school and even high school level projects. Since there will be times where it is important to have the audio focused on one person at a time I also purchased some lapel microphones. I was able to find these Kimafun 2.4 GHz wireless microphones for $60. They have a receiver that plugs into the 2.5mm audio port on your computer and then a transmitter that hooks up to a lapel microphone or a headset. They are small, relatively robust, and easy to use. They matched up with the Chromebook without a problem and the sound quality is fantastic, even from quite a distance away from the receiver.
Feedback speaker: The final component was a speaker that was to be used as a feedback speaker so that students could sound check their videos before saving them. I had an old set of computer speakers and the left speaker had pumped its last bass note, but the right was ready and raring to work. I figured this would work perfectly with the audio splitter that came with the microphone so that I could pull off the audio out and set the speaker at the exact volume (half volume) we would watch the videos at.
Make it mobile: These are the parts that must neatly fit into this system, so no matter your design make sure you build the system to hold your specific components in a manner that makes them accessible, easy to use, and secure. One final part that I had in my classroom was my tripod dolly ($37). This little thing works perfectly with the light stand and allows the whole thing to be moved around easily and locked in place.
Step 2: Computer Mount and Shelf
The purpose of the computer mount / shelf is to secure the computer in place so that students can easily login and record their videos. The computer needs to be easy to remove but also needs to be secure enough where it won't accidentally be damaged by a careless student. I used scrap wood and leftover materials found in my shop to build the mount, but you could easily purchase all of these materials at your local hardware store. I am going to break this down into separate steps based upon each component to help you put it together.
Step 3: Adjustable Mounting Block
The computer mount/shelf is attached to the light stand with an adjustable block that easily slides up and down the main tube of the light stand. Basically it is a dadoed out block of wood with a couple of hand nuts to attach it to the light stand. I used a scrap piece of 2x4 as the main body of the block cut to 8" long. I then measured the diameter of the light stand using a dial caliper and then transferred that diameter to the block of wood so that I could cut a groove that was as deep and wide as the light stand tube. Give a bit of wiggle room here (1/8") so that during the summer it doesn't stick too much as the wood expands. I then cut another scrap piece of wood, in this case oak, to act as the cap that would cover the block and house the T-nuts. Two holes were drilled into the cap and T-nuts were pounded into the back of the cap. Finally, using some spare hand nuts, bolts, and nuts, I made a couple of threaded hand bolts to screw into the T-nuts to apply pressure to the light stand. I screwed the cap to the block once the block was fitted around the light stand tube and then screwed in the hand bolts to hold it into place.
Step 4: Add the Hinge and Shelf
I had purchased a pair of folding hinges ($20 each) for a project that ended up changing completely and ultimately didn't need the hinges. I figured that this would be a perfect application for one of the hinges and they had plenty of strength to hold up a computer and a couple of fixings. I attached the short leg of the hinge to the block using 1-1/2" screws. I used a scrap piece of pine and plywood to make the shelf itself (that's a fun rhyme) and then attached that to the folding hinge. The pine lip on the end of the shelf will help retain the computer in place. The nice part about the hinge is that you can fold the whole thing out of the way and adjust the angle that the shelf is positioned.
Step 5: Computer Hold Downs
You will need to mill down some wood that is the same thickness of the thickest part of your computer. Two small strips will go along either side of the computer and then you will create two small hold downs that allow you to easily slide the computer under them, holding the computer in place. The third picture you can see my strips go all the way up the computer sides... oops, guess I had no plans on plugging anything into the computer :) I ended up fixing it by cutting the strips shorter so that the USB plugs and audio plug is now accessible. You'll see the shorter strips later down the road.
Step 6: Add the Fixings!
Now that you have your shelf / mount all finished up and the computer is securely in place you can add the remaining parts. I attached my light stand to the rolling dolly first. Then I slipped my computer in and attached the camera to the top of the stand. A bit cobbled, but I ended up just tying the speaker to one of the triangles under the shelf between the light stand. I then attached a power strip to the rolling dolly with some twist ties (you could use zip ties too of course). I plugged in the power cord for the computer and the speaker and routed the wires for the computer and the 2.5 mm audio cord from the speaker up the legs of the light stand so they connected to the computer neatly. Finally I drilled four holes into the plywood shelf for the wireless microphone receiver. I attached the receiver with some pipe cleaners. Once again, I am looking at utility here, there are ways to make this sharper looking. I connected all of the wires to the appropriate locations; USB from camera to the computer, the male end of the "Y" splitter cord for the microphone into the computer and then the "microphone" female end to the receiver and the "speaker" female end to the speaker under the shelf. I plugged in the computer and then was ready to rock! A final thing I decided was necessary was a container for the microphones so that they wouldn't get damaged. I used an old screw container and, ironically, screwed it to the side of the shelf so the microphones would have a distinct home.
Finally, I wrote up a little sheet that explains how to record using the mobile recording studio so that any teacher would be able to use it when I am not using it, and so would their students. All in all, this system is working amazingly. It hits every single thing I was looking for and all for a relatively moderate price. Students can now log into the computer and record directly to the web-based software. They can then log out and use a different computer to edit... the internet is magic!
I am certain that this will further encourage my goal, giving each student the a solid leap into their positive digital footprint. I hope you give it a try and do not hesitate to reach out with any questions you might have along the way.
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