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Streaming Video Goes to College

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Does Format Matter?
With so many choices out there, from Windows Media to Real to QuickTime to Flash, the format choice depends on many factors. In some instances, the video administrators encode the video in multiple formats to ensure that students can view it regardless of their individual computer setups.

Paul Riismandel, digital media instruction and support at University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign (and Streaming Media contributing editor), says that format doesn’t matter much because there are so many factors in play. "Format choice is gong to be dictated by your budget and your audience, and that seems to be a similar thing I’m hearing from my colleagues." For example, Riismandel says if you have a Windows server infrastructure, you are more likely to choose Windows Media because your administrators are going to be familiar with Microsoft tools.

But in the politically charged college atmosphere, format is more than a choice of convenience, says John Morris, director of academic technology innovation at Drexel University in Philadelphia. "Let’s start with the fact that an academic institution is typically the Wild West. Part of that has to do with the fact that along with academia comes a certain level of freedom. If we were to enforce a specific format we would probably get an awful lot of flack. We generally leave format to the discretion of the instructor, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have general preferences and for good reason." Morris reports that Drexel’s primary media server is a Real Helix Full Mobile server farm, which enables them to serve up a variety of formats, not just Real.

In fact, Ted Leonard, general manager of technical products and solutions at RealNetworks, says that unlike in corporations, you can’t dictate format to a college audience, which is why it developed a product like the Helix server in the first place. "I think flexibility around format is important, especially in the educational space, which historically I’ve seen as a heterogeneous environment where you have people accessing all kinds of clients," Leonard says.

While colleges struggle with formats, Flash has emerged as a way of delivering streaming video content without worrying about players and operating systems. Almost every machine in the world has the Flash player, and Morris sees this as an up-and-coming format in spite of the fact that it may not offer the same quality as some of the other choices. "Flash in the long run is going to be the preferential media mainly because it’s much more ubiquitous potentially across platforms. You don’t get into the Real vs. Windows war. It sneaks around the side of it. It’s very, very rich already in what you can do with it." Morris adds, "Quality in Flash is up there. It may not be digital TV quality, but it is more than enough for what we do in academia."

Tony Klenja, director of educational technology and distance learning at Daemon College in Buffalo, N.Y., has been serving streaming video for years. Klenja has stuck for the most part with Windows Media encoding, but he also sees Flash as a viable alternative in the future. "I’m doing a secondary encode into Flash—secondary for now, but as we move further down the road, it will be predominantly in Flash unless there is some compelling reason to use Windows Media for high-def or whatever," Klenja says.

What Do Students Want?
Format is often driven by what students want. For video administrators like Klenja, students have been fine with Windows Media at his school, but he can see that changing as students raised on the simplicity of YouTube begin to enter school. "I think with incoming classes that really don’t know all that much about it, maybe Flash is an easier way to go because it doesn’t require downloads, and if it does, it downloads in the background and they never even know it." He adds, "With Flash—particularly on YouTube—you click once and it plays every time, even streaming progressive download. I’m a big fan of up-and-coming Flash."

According to Morris, students want to be able to watch and listen to lectures on PDAs and iPods, so Morris and his team have been working to deliver that for them. "Of course, they would love to have this stuff in iTunes or in MP3. We have a lot of students who listen to lectures during commutes in auxiliary ways, and that’s one of the real benefits in academia to be able to capture a lecture or content to make it available for on-demand playing," he says.

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