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Commentary: Class Act—Educational Media: Changing in a Flash

This installment of Paul Riismandel's Class Act column appears in the June/July issue of Streaming Media magazine. Click here for your free subscription.

The academy is a breeding ground for innovation and scientific 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 application was a smart move. And every indication is that many of the major video content sites have followed, from Comedy Central and MSNBC to The New York Times.

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 this new entrant to the streaming world. 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-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 I think it's informative that we haven't seen yet the massive changeover that's 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 a big media site like MSNBC. 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 streaming server go up, I don't necessarily see a quick 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.

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