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Schooled in Streaming

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While streaming media has not yet achieved BMOC status at colleges and universities, it is no longer a wet-behind-the-ears freshman plebe. Many schools have caught on to streaming media and tried it, and now they are ready to take it to the next grade level.

Such is the case at Lamar University, Marist College, Seattle Community Colleges, and on the main campus at Sandia National Laboratory (an institution of higher learning, if not a college per se). Each has adopted streaming video and is currently advancing its use. But each school is a taking a different approach, using different tools and formats as befit its unique needs. And the schools are achieving different goals, enjoying different kinds of success, and learning a lot of lessons along the way.

Lamar University
Founded in 1923, Lamar University’s attractive 270-acre campus in Beaumont, Texas, sits 80 miles from Houston and 40 miles from the beaches of the Gulf Coast. During ordinary times, students may love this proximity to the beach, but in times of extreme weather, they probably feel otherwise. One such time was September 24, 2005—the day Hurricane Rita hit the campus with a fury. Of the university’s 155 buildings, 80 percent received hurricane damage. Particularly hard-hit (due to a roof collapse) was the building that was the central site for the school’s telephone and networking services equipment. It was also at this time that Lamar’s IT department was just beginning to implement its Enterprise Video Communications (EVC) project, at the heart of which was a suite of video applications provided by Media Publisher, Inc. (MPI). Obviously, the project had to be put on hold while the university cleaned up and rebuilt. Even today, some buildings still have temporary roofs and progress on the EVC has slowed a bit, but Lamar is still marching forward.

It wasn’t long ago that Lamar was still providing video-based instruction to local K–12 schools by mailing them VHS tapes. The university was using H.323 point-to-point videoconferencing technologies from Polycom and VTEL for most of its distance learning ventures. Live webcasting was limited to things like the university president’s convocation, says Kim Allen, Lamar’s director of data, voice, and video networking.

An early project that showed Allen the power of streaming was a webcast she and her staff did for the Texas state comptroller’s office. State employees came down from Austin for training, but since the only classrooms available were limited in size to only 12 people, the university decided to webcast the event live. "Being able to broadcast the event live meant we didn’t have to worry about class size anymore," says Allen. "Plus people in the finance department, for example, could still have coverage at the desk and watch the video live there at the same time that the other people were experiencing the training live in the classroom." Lamar also archived the event for later on-demand viewing.

In the Eye of the Storm
Allen and her IT staff also wanted to try to leverage the infrastructure investment the school had made in a Cisco Content Delivery Network that had gone mostly underutilized. (Early uses of video in the classroom consisted mostly of instructors showing students news clips from CNN or Fox News.) So Lamar decided to implement the MPI system. In the midst of the implementation, along came Rita. Besides causing destruction, the hurricane brought new urgency to the need for efficient communications.

"While Lamar was recovering from the devastating effects of hurricane Rita, it needed to find a cost-effective way to provide diversity in training and integration of technology in both employee education and in the classroom," says Allen, who lists Lamar’s other general reasons for implementing system-wide video:

—Growing demand from faculty to include video in their courses as well as archive classroom sessions
—Need for a management system to centralize existing video assets and allow users to easily locate, publish, and re-use them
—Desire to enhance faculty-to-faculty communications leveraging live video
—Desire to enhance employee education and training opportunities with video content delivery
—Desire to enhance communications with students related to available technology.

In December 2005, Lamar began working with Media Publisher to implement enterprise video to support four key applications, including video-on-demand (VOD) publishing, archiving classroom sessions, managing a video library portal, and faculty communications. Lamar integrated Media Publisher’s suite of enterprise video applications with its existing Cisco Content Delivery Network, as well as elearning applications from SunGard SCT and webCT. Maintaining the system is the responsibility of Lamar’s IT department, which has a staff of 52.

"We wanted to have some place that would serve as a central video courseware repository, where we could control the access, and we wanted to do some reporting to see who viewed it when, and for how long, and whether they completed it," says Allen. "Our IT division is broken up into five different departments, and all their training needs are different. So we needed to be able to manage diverse courses and diverse content."

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