Buyer's Guide to Education Video Platforms 2015

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As video suffuses contemporary education, schools and learning organizations are inevitably faced with managing these instructional assets in a smart and purposeful way.

The video in use at your school has value for learning and assessment, as well as applications such as training, promotion, knowledge sharing, publicity, and recruitment. Moreover, your organization’s videos represent intellectual property that can grow in value through sharing, or might require careful safeguarding. Using an online video platform is the most important move your organization can make in order to gain control of your video assets and leverage them to improve learning outcomes.

The field of platforms tailored for education has matured significantly in the past 5 years. While there are many great choices, it’s important not to just select the most well-known or the least expensive. Rather, a careful assessment of your organization’s needs should drive your decision. There are several factors that are often overlooked, so this guide is intended to help you with both obvious and less obvious considerations.

Narrowing the Field

Though there has been consolidation in the industry, there are still many different video management platforms to choose from. A first step in narrowing the field is to look at the platforms in use at peer institutions. Companies like to wow you by touting their Ivy League and research university customers, but such a product might be outsized for a small college. Find out if those companies also have clients on your scale.

Many learning organizations belong to consortia or associations that negotiate group rates. Beyond preferential pricing, other advantages are that the vendors have been evaluated and vetted, and there should be experienced users at partner institutions who can share experience and expertise.

However, it still pays to do additional research and consider competing platforms. Reach out to people at other campuses who use your candidate platforms, rather than just relying on references offered by the vendor. You want to get a sense for what it’s like to use the platform in real classroom and instructional scenarios. Ask how many total users the platform has, then compare that to the projected scale of your usage.

Users, Permissions, and Securities

A critical question to answer early is this: Who is making, manipulating, and viewing video on your campus? You need to know not just who they are (e.g., student or professor), but how many of them there are.

A common assumption is that teachers acquire and produce video, while students view it. That leads to treating video the way you’d treat reserve materials in the library, where the primary need is efficient distribution to students. But choosing a platform that only supports one-to-many distribution will quickly frustrate faculty and pupils alike.

Don’t only look to instructors and students. Video is probably created everywhere, by people in every role, whether it’s a screencast demonstrating a new accounting process or a group project by students.

Think about what kind of permissions your users would require. Which users need to upload, manage, and share video? How much should users of each class be allowed to upload? With whom should they be allowed to share?

More concretely, if students will upload video for use in class, should they be able to share this immediately with their friends, just their class, or only their instructor? Can students make any of this video public?

Just as people have different roles on campus, you will want to be able to assign roles in your video platform. So it’s important to know what kinds of roles and groups a video platform supports, and if they can be managed in batches. It is much easier to assign a specific set of permissions to all students than to manage each one individually.

If your campus has single sign-on or an identity management platform (IdM) you’ll want to integrate your video platform with it. This will make for one less account everyone has to deal with, and it will simplify adding and removing users. To imagine how important this is, do you want a student who dropped out or an employee who resigned to retain access to your video platform, just because that account is entirely separate from the canceled primary account?

If your IdM is supported by video platforms, find out how. For instance, if your IdM has groups, will the video platform recognize them and immediately associate them with its own permission groups? In practice, this means a user identified as a student in the IdM automatically receives student permissions in the video platform.

It will be enormously helpful if a video platform can access registration information, or course information in your LMS (see below). That way, a student can be assigned to a particular class group, with automatic access to course materials.

Metadata

Rich metadata is one of the least heralded reasons for having a video platform. Yet, searching for videos based upon authorship, description, tags, or even format is what turns your video content into a true video library.

Most platforms offer sufficiently rich metadata, but it might be a good idea to consider metadata standards. Perhaps your campus library would like to include video in its catalog search, or maybe your organization uses digital asset management, knowledge management, or a platform such as SharePoint, and it would be useful to share video in those environments.

A video platform can offer direct integration with some of these systems. Even if it doesn’t, with a flexible metadata scheme, you still may be able to exchange records.

LMS

If your campus uses a learning management system (LMS)—such as Blackboard or Moodle—you will want your video platform to integrate as holistically as possible. This makes the difference between a platform that sees robust usage, and therefore good return on your investment, and one where the friction of deploying video in courses discourages adoption.

Don’t confuse LMS integration with the ability to embed a player, the way you can with YouTube. If that’s the only way video makes it into a course site, that means forcing instructors to manage two platforms simultaneously. If student-generated video is involved, then you’re also asking students to deal with multiple platforms, too.

Ideally, your video platform will have a native plugin or widget for your LMS. Features to look for include the ability to access and manage video libraries from within the LMS and then easily make them accessible to students through the course site. Having a video drop box, so that students can upload media files through the course site, will make video assignments more practical.

The more video features users can access directly in the LMS, the happier those users will be. In fact, for most schools, the best scenario is one in which most teachers and students only deal with the video platform through the LMS.

CMS

As an LMS manages course content, your campus probably has one or more content management systems (CMSs) for both public and internal web content. These should integrate with your video platform as well.

A common complication arises when several CMSs are in use at a single organization. Major video platforms should integrate with popular CMSs, such as WordPress or Drupal, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you run into esoteric systems that aren’t supported well. In that case, embedded players might be your best, or even only, option, assuming your CMS allows for that. (Believe it or not, I’ve encountered CMSs at major universities that made that difficult. So double-check.)

If you must choose which CMS is supported, pick the one with the most users, or the one delivering your highest value content. For instance, you want the system behind your campus’ main public website to have tight integration.

The features should mirror those you want from an LMS integration. In the best case, a user should be able to access and manage video content from within the CMS interface and deploy it to sites, based upon permissions associated with the content in the video platform.

For public-facing sites, your platform should support players with rich social features, including sharing on services such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as embedding. It’s good to be able to turn off these features, too.

External Platforms

Even with a great video platform there are sound reasons to use services such as YouTube, Vimeo, and iTunes. You’re probably already using them, anyway.

Many video platforms also integrate with external services, letting you include YouTube or iTunes sharing into your workflow. Being able to publish to YouTube with a checkbox in your video platform rather than having to use the YouTube interface can save minutes or even hours in the long run.

Local vs. Cloud

Choosing between cloud and local hosting seems simple, but there are factors to consider beyond your organization’s ability to host locally. The cloud is attractive because you can outsource most of the infrastructure and labor costs associated with running servers.

It’s a good option for many organizations. However, take security into account. There might be laws, regulations, or contractual agreements that dictate where and how video data can be stored and managed, especially content that involves grant projects, experiments with human subjects, or minors.

A factor that is less commonly acknowledged is bandwidth. If your organization’s video platform is entirely hosted in the cloud, that means all video content coming from or going to your campus travels across the public internet. So when the majority of users uploading and viewing video are on your organization’s network, they’re using your internet bandwidth. Depending on the number of users, this could degrade network performance or increase internet service costs.

A locally hosted platform might be the better choice if most users are on campus, and there are the IT staff and resources to support it. It also helps if your infrastructure already supports pertinent security protocols. Still, look out for spikes in viewing from off campus, which could put pressure on your internet gateway.

Bigger organizations with significant on- and off-campus use should look for hybrid solutions, such as the ability to cache and serve high-volume content locally, while everything else happens in the cloud. If you anticipate having high-volume content, serving users internationally or doing live streams, make sure your platform has the option to work with a content delivery network (CDN).

Capture

Although much of the video on your campus likely is shot with cameras or smartphones, it’s advisable to keep desktop and lecture capture in mind. If your organization already has a lecture capture solution, then it is critical that lectures can either be accessed through your video platform or actually ingested into it. Many lecture capture systems have bolstered their management features in recent years, so it is worth looking into what management options your lecture capture vendor already offers.

If your campus doesn’t have lecture capture yet, but is considering it, many video platforms now offer their own solutions, or can recommend partner vendors.

Desktop capture is another common feature that video platforms offer. It is particularly useful for distance learning and flipped classrooms. Making lecture and desktop capture tools available to faculty will likely increase adoption of video, along with potentially lowering the cost of production.

Integration Responsibility

Even if your video platform advertises integration with your LMS, CMS, and lecture capture system, be sure to ask whose responsibility it is to make all the parts work together. A difficult integration can bog down your IT team and delay your rollout. Find out the real time and labor costs involved, and include them in your budget and plan. If you know you’ll need help, make sure it’s in your contract.

Analytics

If you need to justify the purchase of a video platform to upper administration, make sure that you can deliver them reliable stats from your video platform on who is using the system and how much they’re using it. Analytics also can assist in defining and assessing learning outcomes.

Reports to look for include how much of a given video is watched, when it’s watched, where viewers are, and with authenticated viewers, you want to know exactly who has viewed what. When it comes time to prove ROI to the administration, wouldn’t you like to show how using more hours of video for class is correlated with higher grades?

Conclusion

While this guide outlines some of the most important factors and features to consider in your video platform search, understand that because of priorities, budget, or infrastructure, you may not be able to get everything you want right away. Make sure your own priorities are in proper order and you don’t sacrifice a big requirement for something that would just be nice to have.

Also, ask for a vendor’s road map to see what features are on the horizon. Just don’t bet on anything that you can’t see demonstrated or try out.

Careful planning and evaluation up front should ensure that your investment today will reap rewards for years to come.

[This article appears in the 2015 Streaming Media Industry Sourcebook.]

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