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Do Off-the-Shelf Video Solutions Make the Grade for Elearning?

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Building a great learning environment online almost always revolves around the video experience. Bigger projects with multiple developers and user experience (UX) designers can afford the luxury of creating customized video players that integrate with a “built from the ground up” learning management system (LMS).

Smaller clients often don’t have the resources to build their own LMSs. These companies are desperately looking for an off-the-shelf (OTS) solution, preferably with a “community” edition without any licensing costs. The good news is that several options are available, including those from recognized names such as Moodle and Canvas.

There are also license-based LMS offerings such as Blackboard, as well as hybrid solutions that use open source tech (WordPress) and paid plug-ins (LearnDash).

But these ready-made solutions don’t suit every project, and they don’t offer customization and user interface (UI) control in the video experience. A great elearning video framework needs the following features:

  • Variable speed playback: Students need the ability to slow down or speed up the playback of elearning content. You have to use HTTP range request (or progressive download) video in order to have playrate control in HTML5 video. HLS or DASH playback does not natively support variable speed playback.
  • Adaptive streaming: Mobile delivery of video necessitates that lower-quality bitrates are available for instant start for most playback scenarios. However, adaptive streaming over HTTP doesn’t allow variable speed playback. Some systems I’ve developed for clients initially use adaptive streaming and then switch to HTTP range requests on a specific bitrate/quality if the student wants to change the playrate of the video.
  • User-assigned markers: Students need the ability to mark areas of interest by using time markers that can be saved for later reference. These markers can be shared with course instructors.
  • Live streaming: Some elearning systems need to offer live video delivered by the instructor. Live streaming architecture is much more complicated than video-on-demand (VOD).

On the business side, LMS solutions may need to take into account the protection of video assets. If you’re selling elearning content, you probably don’t want your video material shared with people who haven’t paid you to watch it. You may also need to adhere to licensing agreements with your video if any third-party content is integrated. On the extreme end, digital rights management (DRM) solutions using PlayReady or Widevine encryption can be costly to implement. More importantly, though, DRM playback involves specialized libraries in mobile applications and requires efforts for packaging, deploying, and licensing content well. All of those factors need to be supported by an LMS and its video integration.

As a video solutions architect, I fully acknowledge the complexity of aligning encoding, playback, and streaming/delivery options for video in any content management system. Most if not all LMS offerings need to have a supportable framework that works with a more simplified video architecture. A system that only enables, for example, a single MP4 file as a video asset will be much more easily maintained and supported than one that requires myriad URLs, from HLS/DASH manifests to HTTP range requests to Flash RTMP. The lack of consistency in HTML5 features such as playrate control across different formats, though, won’t make these tasks easy for any LMS.

I would love to see more OTS solutions that offer robust features to support elearning content. The more people who use video online, and the more demanding audiences get, the more interesting the problems are that I get to solve. That’s a future I can get excited about.

This article originally ran in the June 2016 issue of Streaming Media magazine as “Off-the-Shelf Video: Fresh Enough for Elearning?”

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