Training aids for computer skills

OpenOffice does pretty much everything that the other 'office' package does and is cross-compatible with files created there, but it’s completely free


I have been known to attempt to teach people how to use computers. Possibly my greatest challenge was a supervisor we fondly called the Sergeant Major. He was a skilled wordsmith, but a Luddite of the first order. He rejected the IBM Selectric he was given in favor of a 1919 model Remington manual typewriter he lovingly locked inside his desk each evening. I got him to heed the siren call of the word processor (WordPerfect, back then), even though several graveyard shifts were punctuated with his radio call of “Officer Dees, respond to the station FORTHWITH!”

This meant that the Sergeant Major had painted himself into a figurative corner, and he would start throwing things if I didn’t get there to fix it. I could have used some animation screen capture software back then.

The software I’m referring to records all the activity seen on a computer display, along with a spoken narrative, if desired. For example, if I want to show someone how to insert a video clip into a PowerPoint slide, I can show them in class, and give them a written cheat sheet of all the necessary steps. What I have found that works much better than the cheat sheet is a visual recording of me performing this task, narrated with an explanation of each step. I put that on a CD or make it available for download from a web page, and the student can replay the file anytime they like to bring them up to speed.

The above screen grab of the OpenOffice homepage is indicative of the simplicity of the open-source suite of software.  The ‘free and open’ productivity site offers excellent software and support.  (PoliceOne Image)
The above screen grab of the OpenOffice homepage is indicative of the simplicity of the open-source suite of software. The ‘free and open’ productivity site offers excellent software and support. (PoliceOne Image)

A Variety of Options
For several years I’ve used the excellent Camtasia Studio software from TechSmith for this sort of thing. Camtasia records every action performed onscreen, with user-selectable options for emphasized clicks and visible concentric ripples every time the mouse button is depressed, so it’s very clear what buttons were pushed. I can record my narrative as I go, or dub it in afterward. Once I have a collection of screen recordings, Camtasia will help me produce a menu-driven CD or DVD with colors, labels and graphics of my choosing. It’s an excellent software package and I have never regretted its $299 purchase price.

Still, $299 is more than most cash-strapped agencies can afford these days. For you, I have a worthy alternative in the form of CamStudio. CamStudio is part of the SourceForge family of software products which are mostly free. SourceForge fosters “open source” products, where the source code is made available to anyone who wants it and may be able to improve on it. One of their better-known efforts is OpenOffice, which is now distributed from its own website. OpenOffice does pretty much everything that the other “office” package does and is cross-compatible with files created there, but it’s completely free.

CamStudio doesn’t have quite the feature set that Camtasia does, but you may not notice the difference. Some of the authoring features of Camtasia aren’t included in CamStudio, and CamStudio’s video editor lacks all the tools you’ll get in the commercial package. Technical support is strictly volunteer, sourced from the online user’s group on the CamStudio website. If you post a question there and don’t get an immediate response, be patient. Complaining about the level of service or expertise is likely to get you slammed with suggestions that you take your business elsewhere.

Making an instructional video is not much more complicated than just performing the task and describing the steps as you go, or adding the narration afterward. If you bungle a step, stop the recorder, delete the file, and start over. When you’re done you have the option to save the recording in one of several formats. Before you move to mass distribution, make sure whatever video format you choose plays on the computers of the people you intend it for. Playback of video files depends on an interpreter application called a codec, and both Camtasia and CamStudio have their own. If the video won’t play, have your students install the appropriate codec (they’re shipped with the software and are free for distribution) and that will probably fix the problem.

As with most of TechSmith’s products, Camtasia has a free trial version you can download and try for 30 days with no obligation (after that, it stops working if you don’t enter an authorization code, but the videos you produce will continue to play just fine). CamStudio’s version is free, period, although its producers won’t refuse a voluntary donation. Even if you only occasionally have to train people in computer-based tasks, either program can save you and your students much time and frustration.

About the author

Tim Dees is a retired police officer and criminal justice professor. He has been writing on criminal justice technology issues for virtually every U.S. police publication and commercial website since 1988. Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, and a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

He can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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