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Class Act: Making Educational Video More Accessible

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At the end of March, YouTube quietly unveiled YouTube EDU (www.youtube.com/edu), which aggregates content uploaded by colleges and universities. Launched as a volunteer project by a group of company employees, YouTube EDU builds on the university channels the site rolled out at the end of 2007.

When I first saw the project, I was excited to have an easier way to search for educational videos from actual higher education institutions. Increased accessibility of instructional content is an unequivocally good thing, and the ability to search across institutions is even better.

Yet I was also a bit disappointed because the site only features videos uploaded to YouTube. Despite being owned by the 900-lb. gorilla of web searching, YouTube doesn’t have much incentive to send you to content located elsewhere. Beyond that, it’s also a much bigger task to effectively sift through all the video on the web in order to come up with the educational stuff, even when the search is restricted to .edu domains.

Anyone who’s searched for audio, video, or images on the internet knows that it’s much more of a grab bag than searching for text. Even the best search algorithms are often left to rely on file names and the text on the page in which the media content is embedded or linked. So it’s easier to find video fitting your search terms when it comes from a major sharing site; Vimeo and Veoh pages contain a lot of text, including author-specified information and tags, directly related to the video’s content.

All this information is metadata. Nearly all video file formats have some provision for embedding metadata such as title, author, and keywords. For the most part, this metadata is accessible to major search engines, but only when the original file is available. All of the major video sharing sites transcode uploaded video, a process in which the metadata goes bye-bye. Although you can enter that information into the video’s page on the site, there’s no guarantee there will be fields for everything in the file’s metadata.

What’s missing is a centralized clearinghouse for academic content that spans the web, from college websites and video sharing sites to www.archive.org.

Apple’s iTunes U predates YouTube’s university channels by a couple of years, and, arguably, it houses more educational content from more schools. Also working in its favor is the fact that iTunes U videos are all original files as uploaded by the participating institution, retaining any and all metadata. While in the iTunes store, one can choose to search across only iTunes U content, and search options are a little more finely grained than YouTube EDU, with search fields for title, description, and institution. Nevertheless, iTunes U’s search shares the same weakness as YouTube EDU’s: It only includes content inside its walled garden.

Academic Earth (http://academicearth.org) is a new site that aims to address this issue. It doesn’t host videos; it only provides search across participating institutions. Right now, that list contains only six prestigious universities: Berkeley, Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and Yale. Besides prestige, what unites these schools is that they all have an established online video initiative that makes their content accessible in an organized fashion.

Despite the fact that the number of universities and videos is limited, what’s important about Academic Earth’s approach is that it attempts to leverage the power of metadata to make educational videos more accessible. The real challenge comes with attempting to include videos from schools that haven’t tagged and organized their content in such a consistent manner.

That’s the next crucial step in educational video online: developing a common standard for cataloging, organizing, and sharing content, regardless of platform. We already have a model in libraries, which have common standards for cataloging physical assets such as books and discs. The successes and failures of this decades-long process should provide direction and insight for educational video.

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