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Find a Place for Live Video and Audio Streaming in the Classroom

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On-demand streaming media has proven to be a transformative technology. Counterintuitively, on-demand streaming media has more convulsively disrupted the traditional broadcast industry than has that industry’s more direct competitor, live streaming. While live streaming was merely another—initially worse—method to broadcast media, on-demand spawned a fundamentally different consumption and production model that is approaching the tipping point of relegating its forebears to a prior era. Consumers have grown accustomed to having their pick of video materials specific to their tastes and available on their schedule, rather than arranging their lives around the broadcast times of their favorite shows, as we did in previous eras. There are surprisingly few events compelling enough to watch live outside of sports; consider the contrived made-for-TV productions the major networks air today. A parallel challenge is finding a compelling use case for live, one-way video streaming in education, outside of para-educational, ad-hoc events like athletics, commencement ceremonies, or presentations by distinguished speakers.

Consider that tomorrow’s students will be born in a post-cord-cutting world. The majority will have never experienced f lipping through channels to “see what’s on,” sitting through a show they didn’t particularly like until the next show starts, or discussing with a potential friend the previous night’s must-see TV. They’ll think it absurdly unfair that you can’t make the radio station play the song you want without calling the station to request it. They’ll come of age on the other side of mass media’s transition from yesterday’s limited menu of broadly enjoyable network television and radio programming to today’s practically unlimited selection of personal media players, YouTube channels, and podcasts that are hyper-specialized to every conceivable interest niche. Not to set too dystopian of a tone, but tomorrow’s students will only ever know echo chambers of their own designs.

Our students need to wrestle with the social costs of the transformative era in which they’re coming of age, which is this loss of community that was enabled by mass communication shared in real time. Prior generations had their three network television stations and syndicated radio programming that, unfortunately, crowded out non-mainstream, minority opinions and perspectives in their programming, but just as surely provided a cohesive social force for a broadly appealing, consensus viewpoint. Communities are built on shared experience: Broadcast media provided a significant one throughout the 20th century. Today’s students will decide how a mainstream culture is nourished in the 21st.

To demonstrate the existence of social benefits to live media, I suggest building a lesson plan around an internet-based radio station run by the class using Icecast as the streaming server. Icecast is used today by many radio stations, but is freely available for anyone.

One idea would be to have each student compose an audio recording attempting to persuade the listeners to change their minds about something. You’d string them together and broadcast them in a continuous loop. Each student would then be tasked with listening to the station periodically, perhaps by setting aside 10 minutes of class time per week, and rating how much the pieces they happened to hear made them change their opinions. This assignment would force each student to advocate for something that he or she thinks other students might not share their views on, since the goal is to sway opinions toward you instead of arguing for things that they and their fellow students already agree on, and it would require them to compose their arguments in a manner they think would be appealing to their peers.

Hopefully, then, the exercise would challenge students to see each other's perspectives, both in how they advocate and how they critique others’ arguments. Furthermore, the live nature of the technology would force students to tolerate whichever piece happens to be on when it’s time to write their critiques. Moderation, tolerance, and a willingness to listen are civic virtues worth teaching. To easily set up a radio station, visit this GitHub site and get started with Icecast.

[This article appears in the April/May 2018 issue ofStreaming Media magazine as "The Obsolescence of Live."]

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