One studio fits all: a Q&A with educational media innovators

Self-recording studios come in all shapes and sizes. They can be as simple as setting up a webcam in your bedroom or sophisticated as soundproofing an entire floor, depending on your budget and needs. But where can you find a private space that lets you record videos without compromising on either quality or convenience? Enter the DIY Studio. Business CoDesign at the University of Sydney Business School has built an innovative, new production facility which is making waves in the field of education. I spoke with the two brains behind the studio – Boyd Britton (production and design lead) and Alex Bury (software integration specialist and technical operator) – to learn more about the project’s origins and development.

The idea of the DIY studio

Firstly, when did you come up with the idea to set up the DIY studio?

BB: We actually didn’t come up with the idea!  There was a facility already in place – it was just too complicated for educators to use.  The studio, in its current form, has been in operation since about 2019.

What was the reasoning behind setting up a self-recording studio at the Business School?

BB:  Demand for bespoke learning media has been steadily increasing, as has the appetite of educators to engage more directly with production technology.  We realized early on that despite having a team of in-house media makers, we couldn’t service every request for audio-visual content.  Some projects could be channelled to DIY, if the right tools and scaffolding existed.  A solution developed from there.

The DIY studio

What are the main features of the DIY studio?

AB: The studio itself has a number of features like a pencasting touchscreen tablet, digital background selection, teleprompter (with remote control or voice recognition), AI audio de-noising, live scene switching, and avatar face tracking. This can all be controlled by the user, or a trained operator in a remote facilitated recording. We also run DIY orientation sessions so you can book the studio on your own and work at your own pace.

You can sit/stand, read from a script, use a PowerPoint, record your screen, host a webinar, lecture via zoom, or with our newest feature – become an animated avatar. There are a lot of possibilities, and I’m sure we could facilitate any ideas educators have.

Feedback from users played, and continues to play, an important role in helping identify opportunities for improvement.

Boyd Britton

Who is the studio intended for? Who else might be interested in it?

BB:  It’s for all staff – academic and professional.  The main application has been production and delivery of learning content, either synchronous and asynchronous, however the studio has also been used to facilitate research, promotion, staff comms, even live meditation! We’re interested in how students appropriate these tools as well, and there are some pilot initiatives being developed to further explore the possibilities there. 

Is there a cool feature in the studio we should know about? What aspect of this facility are you most proud of?

BB:  If I had to single one out, it would be the height adjustable design, which gives users the flexibility of presenting seated or standing. Sounds simple but involved synchronizing three separate systems – camera riser, desk and digital background – using electric lifting columns.  As with other elements of the design, there wasn’t an existing solution we could readily integrate, so we needed to develop one. 

What I’m most proud of is the collaborative effort that produced the final product.  It required diverse expertise and support from all quarters – I’m super grateful for that. 

On a scale of 1-5, how easy do you think it is to use the self-recording studio?

AB: 2, The setup of the studio is very straight forward but there are a lot of options to choose from. Once you get your footing with an orientation session I find people get the hang of things quite quickly. 

An academic uses slides during a recording. Source: BCD Media

Do you think the studio has been useful during the pandemic? Has it been popular?

BB:  Yes, during the early stages of the pandemic, when educators could still access campus but face to face recording wasn’t really feasible, the DIY studio was our only production facility still in operation.  Users could either self-record or an experienced operator could remote-in and guide them through the process, or just provide an orientation.  These workflows were set up prior to the pandemic, so there was very little adjustment required.  When the lockdown hit, we simply pivoted to supporting educators self-recording from home and offering remote production facilitation when required.  The end result has been that, despite all the challenges posed by the pandemic, the quality of learning media experiences available to students has remained high.    

The response from staff has been very positive – so much so we had to open up weekend bookings to cope with demand.  There’s also been strong interest from other faculties and institutions.   

Describe what a typical workday is like for you

AB: We run a number of facilitated recordings and orientation sessions that are booked through our booking portal.

I usually have a couple of these bookings a day and I run them from either onsite or home. I would start by remoting into the DIY studio. When someone physically enters the room I simply say hello virtually and display my video preview. It is truly a Wizard of Oz moment when people first come in. We can control every aspect of the studio remotely and run the recording, depending on the type of booking.

Has your production workflow changed much since setting up the studio?

AB: Yes, with a production workflow you have to take into account lighting, camera, sound, and background. The studio has this all pre-calibrated, so it is very easy to turn on and use.

Since we use OBS, we can do scene switching with PowerPoint to create live motion graphics with music stings. We can then record everything in camera without having to do post production. The end result is a fast-turnaround workflow, virtue of this live-broadcasting approach that gives videos a more natural lecture style.

The process

Did the pandemic have any effect on the development of the studio?

AB: When the pandemic hit we began to focus more on running the studio remotely and providing support for staff’s content creation needs. This would further help promote social distancing and assist educators with their online recordings. The studio and remote workflows were already in place but we were able to develop these ideas further. Before we knew it, most of our in-studio webinars and pre-recorded production, as well as production training for staff, were being run off-site.  We then had time to improve and upgrade the studio with the latest and greatest tech, while carefully thinking out the best workflow for easy video recording.

We started with three main objectives: usability, quality and flexibility.

Boyd Britton

Can you talk about the design process for the studio?

BB:  We started with three main objectives: usability, quality and flexibility.

We then looked at existing solutions – turnkey ‘one-button’ studios and various custom facilities – with these criteria in mind.  There were definitely some interesting ideas and approaches but we found each design addressed only one—or at best two—of our core objectives.  So, we took a deep breath and decided to go DIY ourselves.

Teleprompter allows a smoother text delivery. Overall, it’s among the most used tools in the studio. Source: BCD Media

Did you encounter any challenges?

BB: One of the first things to nut out was the recording platform.  We wanted a scalable workflow – one that could be replicated easily by any user, whether in-studio, a recording booth, office or home. OBS (Open Broadcaster Software) fit the bill, as it was open-source and cross-platform, in addition to just being an incredibly versatile recording tool. It became the central nervous system for the studio, though most users wouldn’t know it’s there – which is probably a good thing, as the program’s UI isn’t one of its strengths.

How did you overcome them?

BB: It’s been an iterative design process.  We were able to arrive at a functional prototype relatively quickly but then spent several months – in between other projects – optimizing it, including the systems and resources that support the DIY studio. Feedback from users played, and continues to play, an important role in helping identify opportunities for improvement.

The future

What do you hope to achieve with the studio? What will it change?

BB:  We hope it will lead to more educators experimenting in this space and developing new kinds of artefacts and techniques that can be integrated into their teaching practice.  It’s worth noting the DIY studio is part of a much wider DIY ecosystem, which includes portable media kits, remote support and facilitation, and customized production and post-production templates.      

Finally, where do you see this studio heading?  What is the potential value of the remote-recording studio?

BB:  We’ll continue to try to improve user experience by making operation more intuitive and layering in new features as user needs evolve.  The core design won’t change much, I think, at least in the short term.

We’re doing some interesting work with avatars at present, and I’d like to see where that goes. And, we’ve only just scratched the surface in terms of student produced content.

Overall, I think the value of this work is linked more to the scalable workflows and methodologies that are being developed, which support the studio but are also independent of it.  The pandemic has very much brought this to light.

USyd student media producer dabbling in multimedia storytelling

Published by Iris Zeng

USyd student media producer dabbling in multimedia storytelling

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