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Streaming Video in Higher Education Has Had a Slow Evolution
Colleges and universities were among the earliest adopters of online video, but getting it right took some time. Here's a look back at a 21-year history.

In a recent blog post, Streaming Media’s Dan Rayburn reflected on the 20th anniversary of the streaming media industry. He marks the April 1995 launch of RealAudio 1.0 as the industry’s birth. I’ve also been thinking back on the field’s evolution, especially in education.

Though it often seems like it took a long time for educators to embrace streaming media fully, colleges and universities were among the earliest adopters. With easy access to broadband internet when most homes only had dial-up, some faculty and staff could cobble together the resources to experiment. Often this only required a free or reduced-cost server license and a good-enough computer to do the serving. Still, it would take most of the past 20 years for streaming in education to mature.

My first opportunity to play with streaming media came as a graduate student around 1997. As a graduate assistant I worked at a language lab that deployed a Real Server, mostly as a testing ground for technologically savvy faculty. Because I had a strong interest, I was tasked with understanding it and figuring out how it might be used.

It would be a few years until my department was ready to consider seriously offering streaming media as a service. That happened when I started my first full-time position in 2000. I started digitizing foreign language programs that students listened to on cassettes in language labs, with the purpose of then delivering them online. It was a fun process, but a challenging one, because our service level quickly went from “good luck” to “has to be there.”

I recall vividly the resistance I encountered from faculty who were not ready. I found an ally in one professor willing to investigate his colleagues’ trepidation. What he discovered is that several members of the faculty had computers that were too old and slow to play back even audio streams. Quite understandably, they reasoned that if students had similar problems, then that would interfere with their assignments.

Similar situations would pop up over the first decade of the millennium as my department started producing and serving video. Each step forward in quality and commensurate increase in bandwidth required careful consideration. Although students living in dormitories enjoyed access to the high-speed campus network, we also had to keep in mind off-campus students with slow connections or bandwidth-hogging roommates. Believe me, if students can’t watch a required video the night before the exam, you’ll hear about it whether there’s a problem with your infrastructure or not.

You see, most educators couldn’t afford or didn’t even know about online video platforms that could automatically transcode and catalog their videos, matching the user’s bandwidth as necessary. Instead we simply transcoded manually, often in multiple bitrates, uploaded files to the server, posted links to websites, and hoped for the best. Primitive, but functional.

So when the first OVPs designed for education arrived on the scene in the late 2000s it was an absolute revelation for those of us working on the front lines. It was a great leap forward because we could reallocate the effort previously dedicated to keeping track of files, versions, and links, and put more time into producing better video.

Though many of these concerns seem quaint now, online learning professionals still must deal with questions of compatibility. The shift to mobile devices, in particular, still presents a challenge. Whereas just a couple of years ago you might have been able to tell a class that they had to watch their video assignments on an actual computer, today there’s a growing number of students whose only computing device is a smartphone or tablet. It then becomes an issue of equity and accessibility when you assign videos that aren’t mobile-ready.

It’s clear to me now that most educators weren’t afraid of online media. Instead, they understood that to support a service is to make a commitment to your stakeholders.

Today’s video-rich education is built on those early experiments and risks taken by forward-looking administrators. The past two decades have been quite a ride. I’m excited to see what innovations come next.

This article appears in the April/May 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "21 Years of Streaming."

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