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Futurewatch: Education

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While colleges and universities are often sites of technological innovation, when it comes to widespread adoption of new technologies they often follow rather than lead. However, I think that the gap between enterprise and consumer on one side and education on the other is narrowing. So the trends I think we’ll see in 2008 for educational video don’t look a lot different than what we see in these other verticals.

I recall just a little more than 2 years ago at Streaming Media West 2005, a big question up for discussion was "Is streaming dead?" Podcasting had only recently burst on the scene. At the same time, broadband penetration finally was reaching levels that made downloading content feasible. Still, HD—and its bigger bandwidth requirements—seemed a long way off. A lot of bloggers and observers were ready to predict the imminent obsolescence of streaming.

Flash-forward to 2007 and the big industry headlines are about the CDN market; that’s where the big money’s going too. Podcasting and downloading haven’t gone away. But as your average internet user acquires a taste for experiences beyond 320x240, the appetite for bandwidth grows gluttonous. Streaming is a big deal again because it’s still an efficient way to deliver and manage high-bandwidth content.

Just like NBC and Metacafe, schools and universities are facing the question of but how to deliver an expanding library of media. The days of running a single streaming server are coming to an end. Increasingly educational institutions are going to have to look at content distribution like they look at other network and telecommunications services.

In the same way, they will be faced with the question of building their own infrastructure or outsourcing. In 2008 we’re going to see an increasing number of educational institutions considering CDNs to help them manage distribution.

One way that some schools can sidestep the distribution conundrum is by taking advantage of solutions that are being offered free to them, like Apple’s iTunes U, Google Video, and countless startups. Oursourcing your institution’s hosting, distribution, and bandwidth for free is pretty attractive if you can deal with the restrictions, such as limited support for security features or true streaming. Nevermind the question of when free turns to fee.

Of course, YouTube and its offspring are having another effect on the academy. Just as user-generated content is a huge topic in the streaming media industry, I’m hearing more educators talk about how they might leverage student-generated content.

There are a few issues here. First, what kind of student content do schools want? Second, what’s the purpose of having all this video? In the dot-com world the answer is pretty simple: to monetize it (even if the question of how isn’t so simple). But what’s the instructional goal? To motivate students to be constructively creative? To foster a sense of creativity? Or just to keep up with the Joneses, Stanfords, and Harvards? Finally, a big issue is who sees all that video. Privacy concerns must be addressed when student videos are made public.

None of these questions are roadblocks; they’re just speed bumps to be smoothed out by each institution according to its outlook and needs. Yet there’s still a larger question looming in the background: how to organize all this stuff? Dozens of commercial solutions are available … for a price. But merely posting links to video streams and podcast downloads on course websites isn’t cutting it any longer. Both consumer-oriented sites and the enterprise sector were ahead of the curve on this one, though many of the solutions geared to these verticals are too big and bloated for education or priced out of most schools’ reach.

Schools that use a CDN or a free service like iTunes U typically get some level of content management and search as part of the deal. But schools that host their own content face a rougher road.

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