Learning On Demand

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The technology behind custom-order TV and movies is storming the educational market.

PATIENCE MAY BE A VIRTUE, but don’t tell that to consumers, who have come to expect prompt—even immediate— delivery of services. Over the last few years, we have transformed into a society that wants everything on demand—from the TV shows and movies we watch, to the radio programs and music we listen to. So why shouldn’tlearning be the same way?

The 'Net

Considering that kids would be lost without their iPods and TiVo, it’s understandable that the way students consume content and expect to be educated is different from the way things were done in the past. And as each generation becomes more technically savvy, this new breed of students has come to expect a learning environment where content is accessible anytime, anywhere, at the click of a button. Witness the growing popularity and excitement surrounding podcastingat the K-12 level.

Even so, podcasting is already yesterday’s news. Digital media experts, including those at Business 2.0 magazine, predict that 2006 will be the year of Internet video. It’s a forecast that’s reinforced by a 2004 study by Wainhouse Research (www.wainhouse.com), which projected that the market for ondemand rich media would grow from $68 million in 2003 to nearly $1 billion by 2007. And it seems to be on course to hit those numbers, thanks in part to new solutions from companies such as VBrick Systems and Sonic Foundry that are now making Webcasting feasible and affordable for schools. “There have been people for the last decade or so who have seen this vision, yet the technology wasn’t quite ready—the Internet wasn’t fast enough; the storage was too expensive; the bandwidth wasn’t there,” says Rimas Buinevicius, Sonic Foundry’s chairman and CEO. “We’ve been able to overcome some of those barriers so that we can work with the progressivelyminded institutions and educators.”

One such cutting-edge educational solution, launched in April, is VBEduCast, a webcast kit from VBrick Systems. Priced at about $5,500, the kit is an out-of-the-box presentation streaming solution that combines real-time audio and video; live, synchronized multimedia slides; and Web content, as well as interactive audience polling and Q&A capabilities. The portable system comes with everything necessary for a user to power up and start streaming in about a minute. It includes a VBrick Windows Media Appliance to stream video, a Sony Handycam with a built-in microphone, and a new software component, VBPresenter, which is a plug-in for Microsoft PowerPoint, plus prepaid streaming/hosting service from PowerStream. The kit can record and save presentations so users can go back and watch the webcasts at any time—whether the user is a student looking to review a lecture, or a teacher looking to take advantage of on-demandstaff development.

To help districts understand the possibilities of the new digital video solutions, VBrick started a marketing campaign called “Did You Know?” which provides simple one-page data sheets and Flash presentations showing common uses of webcasting for schools, such as broadcasting the principal’s morning announcements, cable-TV distribution, distance learning, remote field trips, and various HR training. Another of the kit’s creative applications, according to Pat Cassella, VBrick’s senior director of Marketing for Education, is that it can be used at graduation to deal with audience overflow. By just taking the kit to the field, he says, a school can stream the ceremony wirelessly and have friends and family tune in from anywhere. He also cites the kit’s ability to multicast, which enables an unlimited number of LAN users to view a video stream, yet only requires the bandwidth for a single stream. “Webcasting is an emerging market that is still in its infancy,” says Cassella. “But where video used to be a luxury, it’s starting to become a required componentin the classroom.”

Evidence of this can be found at Edina Public Schools in suburban Minneapolis, where VBrick digital video capabilities are being employed for ondemand educational programming andfor faculty and staff training.

Casting Agents

A brief primer on the ed tech industry’s two new broadcasting technologies.

Podcasting

  • Inexpensive, push-based technologies that send files to individual users.
  • Files are audio-based, without graphics or video; it’s like listening to a next-generation cassette recorder.
  • Sites such as Yahoo! Podcasts and the Education Podcast Network feature hundreds of education-related podcast programs.

Webcasting

  • Audio and video channels are synchronized for live, on-demand playback.
  • A more expensive and resourceintensive technology that gives institutions total control over streaming files and their content.
  • Used by organizations such as CoSN for professional development. Mediasite.com houses thousands of on-demand presentations.
  • More of a true IT-level solution; podcasts are more like a consumer device that is finding some utility in the education world.

The district upgraded its network backbone to converge all communications— voice, data, and video—onto a single IP network. Edina has even started digitizing its 4,000-title VHS library so teachers can play selected video content on demand, without worrying about whetheror not a tape is already checked out.

Another sign that rich media communications is entering a breakout phase could be seen in last month’s Sonic Foundry announcement of enhancements to Mediasite.com, a publicly available, searchable Web site that focuses exclusively on providing expert information in full rich media. The site allows users to search for specific keywords that are contained within the graphical content window of a rich media presentation, such as PowerPoint slides, using proprietary algorithms that incorporate optical character recognition (OCR) technology. What this means is that search results include not only all publicly available presentations on the subject, but also the exact slides where the keyword appears. This saves users time by taking them directly to the point in a presentation where they’ll find exactly what they’re searching for, without having totroll through hours of video.

The next level beyond OCR technology will debut later this year, according to Buinevicius, when Sonic Foundry introducesa phonetic search capability.

“This will provide an even greater accuracy in terms of finding contextually relevant information,” he says. “The way to think about Mediasite and its platform is to really view it as a technology that combines audio, visual, telecommunications, and the traditional IT universe into a single platform. IPods are really just a first-generational technology; what we do with Mediasite is leaps beyond what iPods currently do.”

As the iPod generation continues to drive market demand for digital media outside of the classroom, educators need to stay up on the latest technology trends. Even if your school isn’t ready yet to dive into webcasting or podcasting, it’s important to be prepared to embrace the latest on-demand technology when your time comes, to ensure the learning curve is navigated as easilyas possible by faculty and staff.

“You have to keep it simple for teachers, because there is still that fear factor out there when it comes to technology,” says Cassella. “You just have to get them to ignore the technology and look at it from the user-interface standpoint—and focus on what the technology can do to help the classroom learning experience.”

Matt Miller is eNewsletter editor for T.H.E. Journal and public relations editor for Chapman University (CA).

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2006 issue of THE Journal.

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