Changing in a Flash

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The academy is a breeding ground for innovation and discovery. Yet, when it comes to adopting technology for everyday use, education sometimes has a reputation for moving more slowly than the outside world. Such an argument can be made for digital media.

Unless you’ve been offline for the last year, it’s hard to miss that Flash Video has become the sensation of the internet media world, spurred on by the success of YouTube and Google Video. Leveraging the enormous penetration of the Flash player to deliver rich media content without a separate player was a smart move, and plenty of other major video content sites have followed.

It’s no wonder, then, that I have an increasing number of faculty asking me why they and their students need the right media player installed—whether it’s QuickTime, Windows Media, or Real—in order to watch their stuff. In almost no time, students, instructors, and researchers have come to expect that their videos will play in their browsers, with no plug-ins or programs to download.

Of course, I’ve been keeping a keen eye on Flash Video. But, like many universities and colleges, the investment we’ve made in our streaming delivery infrastructure is significant—not just in hardware, but in labor and training too. Changing platforms is not something we do overnight, or even over the course of a semester.

I also stay current with what some of the big players in educational media are doing and what platforms they’re supporting. A quick look at UC Berkeley’s wonderful site shows that they’re still delivering most videos in Real, just like my department is. So is MIT’s well-respected MIT World site. Down the road from Berkeley, at Stanford they’re making the most of iTunesU to deliver MPEG-4 video podcasts.

I can’t claim that schools and universities aren’t using Flash Video. But it’s informative that we haven’t yet seen the massive switch evident in consumer-oriented sites.

The problem that educational media makers face is that their return on investment is a little different, and comparatively slower, than it is for big media sites. When more viewers flock to watch news videos online, the hits go up and, ostensibly, so do the ad dollars. But when hits to my server go up, I don’t necessarily see a bump to my budget or bottom line, even if my clients are more satisfied.

Moving to a new streaming platform, or even adding a second platform to the mix, must be a careful process. Depending on the department or school, any number of stakeholders, like IT managers, might have to be involved in the decision. Some of them, especially non-technical administrators, may not understand the technology at all. Still, just like in business, you have to show them that their investment will result in a demonstrable benefit, and that they won’t end up with all their content in the digital version of the 8-track.

And changing your platform means changing your workflow. Though not as significant as upgrading to digital from analog, moving to Flash from Windows or Real means mastering new tools, codecs, and idiosyncrasies.

Nevertheless, there’s a sweet spot on the adoption curve, and that’s the time to act. For me, it’s when just enough of the enterprise sector has rolled out a technology, our students start asking for it, and my colleagues start to raise eyebrows. That’s where we are with Flash.

The fact is, I’m looking to get Flash Video up and running in my department this summer. I was nearly convinced in March, when I calculated that the cost of installing the server could be kept under control. Then, almost immediately, I heard from a couple of other departments on campus asking for help getting video online, and they both emphasized Flash.

Adopting Flash, however, doesn’t mean I’m giving up on the other guys. I’ve got more than a decade of archived content in other formats. My department has neither the time nor money to transcode or re-compress it all.

Adding Flash to the mix also doesn’t mean that I intend to put all of our new content only in Flash. Change comes slowly to the educational desktop, and I’ve got what we kindly call "legacy users" to support. I’m not yet convinced that Flash is the right choice for our webcasts.

Instead, my plan is to be as flexible, multi-platform, and multi-codec as is possible (and reasonable). Just like I get the occasional complaint from a professor who hates the Real Player, or a Linux-head student who hates Windows Media, I’m certain that there will be someone who resents having to use the Flash player.

Thus, the plan is to not leave anyone out while we move ahead. After a few calm years, streaming media got exciting again. Educators cannot afford to stand on the sidelines. In the end, our job is to serve students with media that enhances and fuels their education. How it gets to them is our problem, not theirs. So we'd better pay attention to what they're watching when they're not watching us.

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