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|Streaming Video Goes to College|
|Written by Ron Miller|
|Wednesday, 20 February 2008|
Video advocates must continually work with (sometimes reluctant) professors to understand the power of video and to find a simple way to deliver it to students who are using a variety of equipment, software, and internet connection speeds.
It was just a generation ago that a college professor stood in front of the room and talked at a group of students who took notes. Other tools consisted of a blackboard, chalk, and, perhaps if you were really high-tech, an overhead projector. Times have changed, and today’s college lecture halls are often wired for sound and video. The professor may project a PowerPoint presentation, slides under a microscope, or excerpts from a journal article. Some students may come to the lecture hall while others may participate in distance learning and watch a live stream or watch on-demand video of the lecture at their convenience.
The fact remains, however, that although many colleges have been delivering streaming video in various forms for many years, there are still many obstacles involved in distributing video in a heterogeneous environment such as a university. Video advocates must continually work with (sometimes reluctant) professors to understand the power of video and to find a simple way to deliver it to students who are using a variety of equipment, software, and internet connection speeds. In addition, a university setting may have political wrangling over formats and delivery methods that IT pros simply wouldn’t face in a corporation. That means video administrators have to find a way to deliver video to students in a manner that satisfies these many different constituencies—no easy task when some students and professors defend their operating system choices with religious fervor.
Despite all these obstacles, streaming video has thrived in the university setting, and as time marches forward, it’s apparent the use of streaming video in higher education will increase.
Cue the Video
One trend pushing video into higher education, according to Sean Brown, VP of education at Sonic Foundry—a company that makes Mediasite, an appliance designed to simplify video capture of the entire lecture experience (including PowerPoint and other digital supplements to the lecture)—is the evolution of the classroom itself, which has had a lot to do with the development of video at the college level.
Now 40, Brown recalls a classroom that consisted of "a chalkboard and screen." Today's modern classroom, he says, "has a digital projector and any number of sources going into it. It could have a computer or laptop dock, a microscope or a document camera, where you can [project] a picture of newspaper or book. It’s wired for sound so the professor’s voice is projected to [the] audience. A lot of classrooms [today] have the capacity to be prewired for a camera or have a camera in them for distance learning or for archiving. They have digital/smart boards to make digital annotation instead of chalk.”
All of this, he says, makes delivery of streaming video of classes easier and more likely, but how it gets delivered is another matter.
Does Format Matter?
With so many choices out there, from Windows Media to Real to QuickTime to Flash, the format choice depends on many factors. In some instances, the video administrators encode the video in multiple formats to ensure that students can view it regardless of their individual computer setups.
Paul Riismandel, digital media instruction and support at University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (and Streaming Media contributing editor), says that format doesn’t matter much because there are so many factors in play. “Format choice is gong to be dictated by your budget and your audience, and that seems to be a similar thing I’m hearing from my colleagues.” For example, Riismandel says if you have a Windows server infrastructure, you are more likely to choose Windows Media because your administrators are going to be familiar with Microsoft tools.
But in the politically charged college atmosphere, format is more than a choice of convenience, says John Morris, director of academic technology innovation at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Let’s start with the fact that an academic institution is typically the Wild West. Part of that has to do with the fact that along with academia comes a certain level of freedom. If we were to enforce a specific format we would probably get an awful lot of flack. We generally leave format to the discretion of the instructor, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have general preferences and for good reason.” Morris reports that Drexel’s primary media server is a Real Helix Full Mobile server farm, which enables them to serve up a variety of formats, not just Real.
In fact, Ted Leonard, general manager of technical products and solutions at RealNetworks, says that unlike in corporations, you can’t dictate format to a college audience, which is why it developed a product like the Helix server in the first place. “I think flexibility around format is important, especially in the educational space, which historically I’ve seen as a heterogeneous environment where you have people accessing all kinds of clients,” Leonard says.
While colleges struggle with formats, Flash has emerged as a way of delivering streaming video content without worrying about players and operating systems. Almost every machine in the world has the Flash player, and Morris sees this as an up-and-coming format in spite of the fact that it may not offer the same quality as some of the other choices. “Flash in the long run is going to be the preferential media mainly because it’s much more ubiquitous potentially across platforms. You don’t get into the Real vs. Windows war. It sneaks around the side of it. It’s very, very rich already in what you can do with it.” Morris adds, “Quality in Flash is up there. It may not be digital TV quality, but it is more than enough for what we do in academia.”
Tony Klenja, director of educational technology and distance learning at Daemon College in Buffalo, N.Y., has been serving streaming video for years. Klenja has stuck for the most part with Windows Media encoding, but he also sees Flash as a viable alternative in the future. “I’m doing a secondary encode into Flash—secondary for now, but as we move further down the road, it will be predominantly in Flash unless there is some compelling reason to use Windows Media for high-def or whatever,” Klenja says.
What Do Students Want?
Format is often driven by what students want. For video administrators like Klenja, students have been fine with Windows Media at his school, but he can see that changing as students raised on the simplicity of YouTube begin to enter school. “I think with incoming classes that really don’t know all that much about it, maybe Flash is an easier way to go because it doesn’t require downloads, and if it does, it downloads in the background and they never even know it.” He adds, “With Flash—particularly on YouTube—you click once and it plays every time, even streaming progressive download. I’m a big fan of up-and-coming Flash.”
According to Morris, students want to be able to watch and listen to lectures on PDAs and iPods, so Morris and his team have been working to deliver that for them. “Of course, they would love to have this stuff in iTunes or in MP3. We have a lot of students who listen to lectures during commutes in auxiliary ways, and that’s one of the real benefits in academia to be able to capture a lecture or content to make it available for on-demand playing,” he says.
Riismandel says his students don’t want to deal with codecs or players. They just want it to work without too much effort. “They want an embedded player where they don’t have [to] think too hard about the player or plug-in or codec. We have a fair number of Mac users, and Windows Media becomes a problem. You have to use the WMV plug-in for QuickTime, and that becomes a stopper for many users. Vice-versa, Windows users don’t have QuickTime installed.” To resolve this, Riismandel says he may encode the video in a variety of formats.
He says that he doesn’t get a lot of direct feedback from students, but when he does, it is often complaints about the university’s approach to video delivery, which is generally out of his control. “The complaints we hear more often have to do with access. For instance, some of our content is streamed only due to copyright reasons or instructor desire. They don’t want people downloading. So inevitably we’ll get complaint emails from students in these courses saying, ‘I hate using Real Player or I hate using Windows Media Player. Why can’t I just download it?’ We have to explain the department chose not to take that option. This was a choice. This [is] not just something we are too stupid to do.”
Students also complain at the end of the semester or exam time when there is a heavy drain on bandwidth as every student is trying to access the video at the same time. Riismandel says this is due more to broadband issues—everyone in an apartment building trying to view video the night before an exam—than anything he can control on his end.
Do They Have Faculty Buy-In?
Just because you offer video doesn’t mean professors are ready or willing to use video either as part of the curriculum or as a supplement. As you would expect, there are various levels of buy-in, which tend to break along generational lines with younger professors more willing to use video than their older counterparts.
Morris reports that about 150–200 out of 700 full-time professors make use of Drexel’s services. This accounted for about 2,500 VOD or podcasts last year. Drexel is known for its online courses, but Morris says it’s still a struggle to educate faculty about the benefits of using streaming video.
“We tend to approach things in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary[,] way. ‘If you build it, they will come’ is not true. The cutting-edge people will come because they will come to anything, but the people who are technophobic or are just not interested, they won’t come,” Morris says.
He says the way to get professors on board is for students to pressure them, and his staff tries to deliver based on those preferences. “What we have tended to do is let students do the job in pushing the faculty in their directions because the faculty are trying to adhere [to] what students are looking for in content, richness and engagement and interactivity,” he says.
Klenja agrees that it’s the students who drive the use of streaming video on campus, but he says a lot of it also has to do with the age of the faculty. “The whole online thing is student-driven, it’s not faculty-driven. We still have a significant number of faculty who aren’t doing the online thing, no matter what, no matter how, but we have a significant number of new faculty we are hiring every year who want to do video and occasionally we get more requests than we can handle in a reasonable amount of time,” he says. In fact, the college is building a $12 million Instructional Technology Center, and the ground has already been broken, Klenja reports.
Does Production Quality Matter?
Do students and faculty care about production quality for classroom video? The answer depends on whom you ask, but the general consensus is that for most users, it doesn’t need to be television quality, so long as students can hear the lecture and see relevant materials, such as a PowerPoint presentation.
But that’s not to say you can release just anything. You still need to have decent sound and lighting, no matter what the content is, says Riismandel. “Production value is always important to them whether they realize it or not is what I learned. We won’t turn out crap, so there is always a sophistication in production. When we record every instance of a class lecture, it’s ephemeral. The life of that video product is that semester. We’re not going to throw a ton of value on it, but it’s still very important that students never have to struggle with video or audio in whatever they are watching. The quality should be in service to the content. It’s great when they say video looks great, but better when they say the content is great,” he says. Riismandel says he refuses to record if he can’t capture the content with at least a modicum of quality, and he has told professors he can’t record in their space because the lighting or sound is not of sufficient quality to produce a decent video.
That doesn’t mean that the video has to be National Geographic or Discovery Channel quality says Morris, and if it were, it would need to be choreographed very differently. “Students are used to stand and deliver. They don’t need National Geographic production value. Can they see [and hear] the content?” He says this gives students the luxury of just listening to the in-person lecture without having to take notes, try to type, and understand at the same time. When watching the video, they can pause and rewind to get a good feel for the material, which is what he considers the goal of this effort.
At Daemon College, Klenja says students care only about hearing what’s said in the video unless it’s something like an on-campus morning news broadcast, for which they put equal emphasis on video. “The students have never mentioned they wanted production quality of a television. It’s more of a review thing, but I’ve been pushing for us to have a morning news show on campus, and there I see a higher value in looking at production … but for just a review of course work, [quality is] never mentioned even if it’s in poor light. As long as they can get the gist of what the professor is saying and the audio is half-way decent.”
The classroom has come a long way in a generation, and streaming video is a big part of that change. As more classrooms are updated with increasingly sophisticated setups and better lighting and sound, the quality of the video will only get better, and its use will increase. The increasing use of Flash has made format less of an issue, but as Real, Windows, and QuickTime work to add further improvements in delivery quality (such as high-definition viewing), choosing a format remains a difficult decision for some applications.
Regardless of the method or the format, it’s about making life more convenient for students, many of whom are increasingly doing more work away from campus. Being able to save a commute into class not only saves time, but having a video of the lecture timeshifts the content, making it available for the student whenever it is convenient. It seems as the college experience itself shifts and changes, streaming video will be a big part of it.
Sidebar: Sonic Foundry Takes a Hard Look at Video in Education
As Sonic Foundry VP of education Sean Brown sees it, higher education has been looking for a simple way to take advantage of the (increasingly) wired classroom. His company built Mediasite to fill that void and provide a way to capture and then deliver video and related digital content.
Rather than only looking at the problem in terms of format or delivery, Sonic Foundry was looking at finding a way to simplify content capture. What they came up with is an appliance with three inputs: camera in, audio in, and VGA in. The common language—the lingua franca—was the video cable. Instructors were comfortable interacting with an audience by connecting their laptops to a projector via VGA cable. Brown says this simplified the process because the professors didn’t have to do anything they weren’t doing already. What’s more, the appliance includes a piece of software that communicates with back-end web servers to serve up the content in real time (or later on-demand).
Brown explains that the appliance takes the input from the three sources and encodes the content, then creates a navigable piece of content, all on-the-fly using the Mediasite Server software. “You can administer the content and give it a name. For instance, if the professor is in biology, his content will appear in our portal in the biology catalogue or area,” Brown says.
Unlike many systems today that require the professor to post the PowerPoint (or other digital content) to the Learning Management System (LMS), the Sonic Foundry solution includes any digital content as part of the presentation, providing a handy way to navigate the content. “Prior to our invention, the PowerPoint was a separate object, and the professor typically posted this [to the LMS] with the syllabus. Our system doesn’t work that way. The web page you watch has your entire conversation in the left frame, and next to you in a frame are images of your slides [that accompanied your presentation], not the slides themselves. What you have on screen is a VGA perspective if what has been captured and each image transition becomes a navigation point in the web page,” Brown says.
This means if the professor showed 30 slides, there will be 30 thumbnails, each one representing one slide in the presentation. If the student wants to fast-forward to a particular slide, it only requires finding the appropriate slide—for example, the thumbnail of a graph—and clicking that image to view the video synchronized with it.
What’s more, it doesn’t have to be a PowerPoint. Whatever the VGA source content—whether a slide under a microscope or a journal article in a doc viewer—the Sonic Foundry solution converts this to individual images, which the student can use to navigate in the lecture or presentation. From the student perspective, Brown explains, the content plays Windows Media in an embedded player.
Brown says this approach solves both the capture and the presentation of the content with little or no intervention on the part of the professor or the video administration staff. He says there are no complex plug-ins or fat clients for students to deal with. It may not be the perfect solution for everyone (especially with its reliance on the embedded Windows Media Player), but it will solve video delivery and capture issues for those universities looking for a unified solution.
Source: Streaming Media Magazine (Streamingmedia.com)
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|Last Updated ( Wednesday, 20 February 2008 )|
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