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In-House Higher-Ed Streaming at UPenn’s Kelly Writers House

University of Pennsylvania IT and Multimedia Manager Christopher Martin discusses streaming operations, use cases, and workflows for UPenn's Kelly Writers House, both in-house and on the road.

For about eight years, I’ve been IT and multimedia manager at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, where we do tons of live streaming across campus. We stream commencement, we stream sports events, we stream live speakers, totaling about 150 events per year. We also do a lot of on-the-road webcasting, mostly in conjunction with events that are taking place away from campus that need a live stream.

It’s amazing how many events we’ve started streaming since I’ve been at the university, and how many departments, offices, and organizations on campus are requesting streaming services for the events.

Some of the major use cases we have in addition to some of those obvious use cases are things like office hours for faculty who teach online courses that are prerecorded and available for students. These online courses are a way to give students an opportunity to actually see a live event and ask questions in real-time, and that’s our biggest use case at this point. Taking a live stream out to a different part of the world is a great way to engage with those students and to also create content that feels real and alive to students who are tuning in from across the world.

Streaming the Kelly Writers House

I work in the writing area, so we have poets and authors and screenwriters and playwrights and musicians and critics and scholars who are on campus, and we have a special live event space called the Kelly Writers House (Figure 1, below) where we house all of those presenters.

Figure 1. The Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania

Most of my work is on the day-to-day, smaller event side of things. We have people in the room who are there to watch, but we’re also making the stream available for everyone who wants to tune in worldwide, so our workflows are a little more on the day-to-day lower level, something that have implemented also so that students can run, work-study students and can gain some skills in the process hopefully.

We just completed a large renovation at the Writers House. The front room shown in Figure 2 (below) is now an extension of our live events space, which is the arts café. We just redid this whole space, and we’ve been streaming at the Writers House for many, many years, going back to before my eight years at the Writers House when audio-only streams were a thing.

Figure 2. The Kelly Writers House front room

The Old Setup

We cobbled together pieces over the years to do the live streaming. Figure 3 (below) shows a breakdown of the streams we do. Some of the things that we do stream are daily live events. ModPo is a poetry MOOC that’s on Coursera, a massive open online course. It’s been very popular. We’ve had more than 150,000 students enroll over the past seven years, and that’s a use case we have for live streaming to bring an otherwise prerecorded online course to life with a live stream, a way for students to engage with the instructor and the teaching assistant.

Figure 3. What Kelly Writers House streams

We also have the Wexler Recording Studio, where we generate a lot of audio content such as podcasts, and we also do streams on the road as I mentioned. Figure 4 (below) shows our original workflow that we had cobbled together in our arts café space pre-renovation. This illustrates where we were before we had a chance to completely overhaul it into our new setup.

Figure 4. The Kelly Writers House’s original recording and streaming setup

Originally, we had three Sony HXR-NX100 cameras that we would set up manually as we needed them, and we had Blackmagic Intensity Extreme Thunderbolt HDMI capture cards that we were using to ingest into a Mac Pro because Mac Pro is Thunderbolt. That was our option at the time when we were doing this original setup.

We were using Telestream Wirecast to encode our stream to YouTube, Facebook, or to disk. Usually, we were outputting to at least two of those destinations. We were also using Wowza Media Server on campus for many years. We still use that for certain use cases.

It was a pretty straightforward setup, but it took a lot of work, a lot of running cables. We just completed an overhaul of this space.