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Commentary: Streaming in the Ivory Tower

The American research university is arguably the birthplace of the modern internet. I work at the University of Illinois, the institution that developed the first graphical browser. I can still remember using Mosaic for the first time thirteen years ago, staring in awe as those first few crude websites appeared on my screen. Not long afterward I started learning about streaming media. One might expect that I picked up these skills working beside experienced digital media producers.

That’s not actually the case. I've felt more like an entrepreneur than an employee, learning the art and science of streaming on my own. Starting as a lowly graduate assistant, I was lucky enough to inherit an aging production studio built during the multimedia boom of the ’80s. When I came onboard the TV studio had lain nearly unused for a half-decade, after grant money and interest ran dry. It was left to me to slowly drag this facility into the digital age, fueled by my own passion and what few pennies my supportive but underfunded director could throw my way.

I would never say that there has ever been resistance to bringing streaming media into the academy. Rather, for much of the last ten years it simply hasn't been on the radar. Speaking with fellow streaming media professionals at other major universities, I've heard similar stories. Often there are plenty of forward-thinking faculty, instructors, and students eager to start making and using internet media in classes and research. But mere interest is not enough.

Universities can be very tolerant and encouraging of independent experimentation with new technologies. But they're not utopias. That freedom sometimes comes with a trade-off: do whatever you want, as long as you don't need much funding.

While individual faculty and staff may be free to develop streaming media, eventually they need resources if they're going to serve thousands of students. Inevitably, resources are doled out by administrators, who in turn are dependent on tuition, taxpayers, donors, and endowments. Even if administrators say they support internet media, they also have decided where that money is going to come from. If state revenue is down, the stock market is in the tank, or a tuition increase will cause a student revolt, what is a brave dean or provost going to cut in order to invest in streaming media?

Because of these circumstances, a lot of the innovation in using streaming media has come from community colleges and, especially, distance education. Pressed with the challenges of teaching students coming from dispersed locations, often trying to fit classes into hectic full-time work and home lives, the benefits of streaming media were proven as the technology matured.

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