Institutions Expand Rich Media Efforts

Institutions Expand Rich Media Efforts

As software applications get more user-friendly and bandwidth gets more robust, institutions expand their rich media efforts beyond online courses.

For most of its 2006 season, the football team at Ohio Wesleyan University attracted a record number of spectators not just its loyal fans but also thousands of enthusiasts for every visiting team, going well beyond the capacity of its stadium.

Standing room only? Try couchside seats. For the past year, the university has been offering streaming video of live games, and the online events have attracted local interest from those who can't attend in person, but they have also drawn fans of visiting teams to watch from home.

"As soon as we began providing this, our online message boards lit up with praise," says the university's IT director, Jason LaMar. "There were many challenges, but we consider it a success from both a technical and a marketing standpoint. The response from alumni, students, and other schools has been outstanding."

Larger sporting events draw between 70 and 100 viewers, he adds, while lectures attract about 50 online viewers.

"It's not huge viewership, but then again, we're a small school," he says. "We thought we'd have a dozen, maybe, so we've been very encouraged by the numbers."

The university now covers other campus events, such as a visit from the local orchestra. Now that OWU's technological hurdles have been largely surmounted, LaMarnotes that university officials are looking forward to expanding the program.

OWU's exploration of rich media which can be comprised of digital video, digital audio, or more commonly, a combination of both is an excursion that many IHEs are undertaking.

Less than a decade ago, there weren't many applications that would allow a nonprogrammer to create multimedia, compress a file, stream it online, and then archive it. But with a wealth of new, easyto- use tools developed within the past few years, more and more non-IT professionals are creating their own rich media projects.

"We're hearing that people from other teams and other universities are asking their schools, 'Why can't we have this?' "
-Jason LaMar, Ohio Wesleyan University

Although there are still challenges when it comes to putting multimedia together, many colleges and universities are finding it's easier than ever in this era of YouTube, GoogleVideo, and MySpace to create compelling rich media projects that win cheers for more than just the football team and that reach new viewers.

The initiative at OWU was envisioned as a high-profile project that would appeal to prospective students, giving them a flavor of campus life, and would give parents, alumni, and others the chance to see events they couldn't attend in person.

Once the institution made a commitment to begin streaming campus events such as sports, lectures, and music performances on its website (www.owu.edu), LaMar began developing the infrastructure and decided on using Apple QuickTime as the basic platform.

The university already had a Quick- Time Streaming Server in the IT department and Apple laptops that could be used, so LaMar simply had to connect a laptop to a digital video camera and plug into the audio equipment for the stadium, and the event would be recorded.

Once the content is in the server, the media can run on any standards-compliant media player on either a Mac or a PC, as well as be played on devices such as cell phones or PDAs. Within the server's system is QTSS Publisher software, which can manage the media in a more automated way than has been done in the past. For example, it takes only a few clicks to upload the content to the server, prepare it for streaming, and publish it to a website.

Although the system has a number of advanced features, LaMar notes that there was a great deal of trial and error involved in learning to compress and optimize the video and tweak the multicasting the process by which a single piece of content such as a football game is routed from one server onto many data streams.

"Apple QuickTime seemed the easiest to implement," says LaMar. "But you still have to think about server infrastructure and how the connection is working. At this point, the tools are very advanced, but you do need some savvy on the technical end."

Learning how to archive was one crucial lesson, he adds. Rich media files aren't like Microsoft Word documents; the file sizes can be huge, necessitating a great deal of digital storage to be archived properly. The file size for every hour of footage is about 250 MB, LaMar notes. But shrinking the size of the image into a small viewing window has helped, he adds.

"We're hearing that people from other teams and other universities are asking their schools, 'Why can't we have this?' " he says. "That's nice validation."

Rich media can also boost an IHE's visibility beyond potential and current students, as DePauw University (Ind.) is demonstrating. As tools for rich media became more robust, the university's director of media relations, Ken Owen, felt that snippets of streaming videos of visiting lecturers would make for ideal sound bites for the media.

Having spent 18 years in television news, Owen had the journalistic instinct to know what material made for good radio and TV broadcasts, but until just a few years ago he didn't have the rich media applications that could make lectures available quickly.

Also using Apple QuickTime, Owen captures the speeches and puts them on a special section of the university's website. It's not quite as seamless as Owen would like, though, since there's still some editing that needs to be done. He takes the file and uses a program called Cleaner 5 from Terran Interactive Media to go through each lecture and choose clips. The suite of tools prepares audio and video specifically for the web by encoding files for QuickTime and other formats.

The use of rich media paid off recently, when the university was thrown into the spotlight during a situation involving the Delta Zeta sorority. After The New York Times ran a story about Delta Zeta allegedly ousting all members who were deemed unattractive or who were members of minority groups, the university removed the sorority's DePauw chapter. The university president's announcement was captured with rich media and put directly on the IHE's site. From there, several media organizations, including the Associated Press, took audio portions and used them in news stories.

"Because we'd recorded the announcement with rich audio, they were able to have clean, broadcast-quality sound," says Owen.

Another popular tried-and-true application is Adobe Flash, which is a classic in the industry and boasts significant feature enhancements that were added during the past few years.

"Flash gave us the flexibility we needed in making the Rocket Pitch program come alive," says Elizabeth Santiago, Instructional Designer for the Curriculum Innovation and Technology Group (CITG) at Babson College (Mass.).

Engineering students were videotaped by faculty doing sales presentations, called "Rocket Pitches." The same faculty approached CITG and asked if they could partner in creating a program using the videotaped Rocket Pitches.

In-house instructional designers and Flash developers collaborated to create a media rich program that included the videos, instructional activities and weblinks to other resources. Users of the program could view any video they wanted at any time, or participate in activities to help them understand the process of creating a Rocket Pitch.

"Five years ago, putting something like this together would have been like trying to fly an F-15," says Tova Garcia Duby, Operations and ePlatform Manager at Babson College. "We didn't have the in-house expertise nor were there easily accessible tools to use to pull all the pieces together."

Although there are many examples like those at OWU, DePauw, and Babson, where rich media is being used by different departments, the use of digital audio and video is definitely having a great impact on academics as well, particularly on how courses are delivered.

In the past, recording a lecture might have required a clunky video camera and many hours of turning digital images into usable footage. But with today's tools, someone at an IHE can not only record more effectively and archive those classes but can also add more features for students who are attending virtually.

For example, at Villanova University's College of Engineering (Pa.), professors are able to create multimedia presentations with SonicFoundry's Mediasite, a system that records classes and webcasts them live online. One of the unique aspects of the system is the ability to tweak the presentation to incorporate different aspects of the class, says Sean O'Donnell, director of distance education for the college. For example, professors can include relevant weblinks, chat room comments, images from textbooks, or snippets from online videos.

"Five years ago, putting something like this together would have been like trying to fly an F-15."
-Elizabeth Santiago, Babson College

Professors use tablet PCs that are hooked into the projection system, so that whatever's on the computer screen is also made visible to those sitting in the room. But because the information is computerized, it's easy for the Mediasite technology to capture those images, place them alongside a streaming video of the professor lecturing, and incorporate live chat controls on another portion of the screen. Students who can't attend in person can ask a question via chat and have it answered by the professor, O'Donnell says.

There's one operator who runs the rich media controls at the back of the classroom, he adds, but there's no interference with the professor by placing a camera too close, or asking him or her to learn a new system.

"Every other system we tried was too invasive," says O'Donnell. "We tried document cameras and digital whiteboards, but the faculty members would get frustrated. They said, 'I just want to grab a piece of chalk and start teaching.' With these rich media tools, they can do exactly that."

Now in its third year of using a media distribution system from VBrick, Oklahoma State University is moving in a similar direction. The system creates a link between two sites, such as different rooms across campus, or a classroom and a site anywhere in the world. Called EtherneTV, the system has a browser-based interface so that professors can retrieve video easily by tapping into the university's library for stored programming, says Marshall Allen, director at the university's Institute for Teaching and Learning Excellence.

With EtherneTV, an OSU staffer only has to set up a camera to record the class, says Allen. The system captures the feed, digitizes and compresses the video signal, and delivers it over an IP network. VBrick servers store the video and put it in an on demand repository accessible through the university's library site.

"It's relatively maintenance-free," Allen says. "The only challenge is for educators to get used to having their lectures made into an archived lesson."

In order to be able to troubleshoot the VBrick system, Allen sent members of the IT staff to VBrick's training program in which company technicians explained how the recording and archiving worked to faculty, advisory committees, and departments that might be interested in using them. Currently the athletic department is discussing ways to employ EtherneTV in the future.

The ability to bring different sites together, as OSU does with its linking system, has become compelling at several institutions, particularly those that have smaller classes in different geographic locations. At National University (Calif.), using a service that can do converged video and voice allows the IHE to do distance education, says Eileen Heveron, the university's IT director.

"Often we might have three students in one place and three in another, so we bring them together to make up a full class," she says. The university employs technology from iLinc Systems. Much like a chat room with video, the tool lets students use webcams and headsets to see and hear each other in real time. The software also has online whiteboard capability and application sharing, so students and professors can be on the same digital page.

For instance, an accounting professor might get a question about QuickBooks from a student. With the iLink program, the professor can show the answer directly on the student's computer by "taking over" that application momentarily.

The university also uses the system to hold weekly faculty meetings, and Heveron notes that it has "revolutionized" the way that discussions are made, because faculty can log in from anywhere, use their computer's webcam, and join the meeting.

In terms of using more rich media in courses, the university has turned to technology that develops and supports online curriculum products, including multimedia design. Rather than having university personnel do the work, National University has asked a service to upgrade its online courses so that they can be viewed on multiple platforms, and to assist its library with bandwidth issues.

"The library wants to provide more streaming videos so they don't have to ship tapes all the time," says Heveron. "But there's never enough bandwidth for everything. We have a very robust network, but new technologies, rich audio, rich video, and web applications just take every ounce of bandwidth that we have. It's tough, and it's a huge issue."

National University isn't the only IHE trying to balance bandwidth limitations while exploring more rich media applications, but the drive to create more innovative projects using audio, video, and the internet is worth the bandwidth battles, Heveron says.

"There are so many options for rich media tools and services out now, compared to only just a few years ago, that one of the biggest challenges is figuring out what to choose," she notes. "But that's a good problem to have."


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