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Advanced Learning: Education Year in Review

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Education Video Goes Social
There was definite growth in the use of video-sharing sites by universities and colleges in 2008. The biggest player, YouTube, launched its university channels service at the end of 2007, and it’s safe to say that institutions nearly tripped over themselves to establish their own channels. While many schools had a YouTube presence before 2007 just by signing up for a regular account, the new channels give them, or any tax-exempt nonprofit organization, a channel that can be custom-branded and is devoid of advertisements.

The videos featured on a school’s YouTube channel are uploaded by school administrators, not the public. So any student-generated video such as Texas A&M’s is already reviewed and approved by the school before it appears on its channel.

That same level of control comes with Apple’s iTunes U, the first broadly available, free educational media platform. Launched in 2006, iTunes U remains very popular with schools as a way to distribute audio and video content to students and to the general public. Apple doesn’t publish any statistics on iTunes U, although member schools do get usage numbers. However, the number of schools publishing public content certainly has grown. A Washington Post article from November 2007 noted 28 colleges with offerings on iTunes U. A little more than a year later, in December 2008, 136 schools had public content available.

Schools also have the option to make their iTunes U content available only to authenticated students and users. So the total number of colleges making use of the service is likely larger than 136, though it’s hard to know how many more there are.

Integration in a Multicodec World
The growth in iTunes U adoption is no doubt helped along by Apple’s Podcast Producer software. Integrated as a free component of the Mac OS X server, Podcast Producer made its debut as part of the upgrade to Leopard in late 2007. The package simplifies the ability to record, transcode, package, and distribute audio or video lectures, primarily using Apple hardware. Podcast Producer doesn’t exclusively upload to iTunes U—you can publish to any platform that supports RSS syndication—although Apple certainly makes iTunes publishing easy with built-in workflows.

Integration of all these tools and platforms saw a baby-step forward in 2008, with the principal point of convergence being the learning management system (LMS). Blackboard is the 800-pound gorilla in the commercial end of this space, and Panopto and Echo360 added their names to the list of lecture-capture platforms with plug-ins called "building blocks" that simplify accessing content via a course in the LMS.

Still, the end of 2008 saw very little integration or convergence regarding the rich media produced by the major lecture-capture systems. All of them will produce some sort of standards-compliant podcast audio or video that can then be distributed through any podcast system, including iTunes U. However, by producing content in this fashion, you typically give up interactive features such as chaptering, visually navigating by slides, polling, and such.

Nevertheless, the de facto podcast standards of MP3 audio and H.264 video still serve as a common denominator for curricular audio and video. Schools’ adoption of more than one codec or format was another growing trend. It is increasingly rare to find institutions that only offer RealVideo or Windows Media. With greater frequency, we see colleges that offer both an in-browser experience using a Flash or Silverlight plug-in and a download in MP3 or MP4.

Openness and Collaboration
The spirit of scholarship is one of sharing, and we’ve seen that aspect emphasized in the last few years, especially with the first universities that started sharing their lecture videos with the general public. MIT’s OpenCourseWare project (http://ocw.mit.edu) and Stanford University’s iTunes U (http://itunes.stanford.edu) site are among the first institutions that made a splash by opening up access to content that used to be available to students only. As I mentioned earlier, the number of universities offering content of all kinds on iTunes U, YouTube, and other platforms took a jump in 2008.

But sharing is not just about making content available to the public. Although it’s a laudable practice, it’s not always practical for all courses and disciplines. Some classes deal with proprietary or confidential research or are more interaction-driven, raising privacy concerns for students who participate.

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