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Becoming an online media mogul

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by Clive Shepherd
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The Internet makes learning more accessible and it connects learners together around the world, but it does so at a price. Limited bandwidth has severely restricted the media mix for e-learning and, as a result, limited what we can realistically achieve. Now, alongside ever-improving bandwidth availability, new streaming media technologies are making rich media a reality for more and more organisations. In this article, Clive Shepherd dips a toe into the media stream to check how well it works and what it has to offer the e-learning community.

Contents
Keeping video in the picture
Who needs streaming media?
The market for streaming
Making streaming work
Case study: Microsoft Developer Network
Resources

Keeping video in the picture

If you stick around long enough, it soon becomes evident that the relentless march of progress is actually taking us round in circles. Take the use of video in training. Once upon in time, we had video completely under control; we bought our John Cleese training film (and it really was on film in those days) from Video Arts, and we played it back to our trainees full-screen and at full frame rate, just like at the movies. It worked great in the graveyard shift after lunch, because the trainees could have a good laugh and we could take a quick nap. Then, in the early 80s, IBM launched the first PC and, ever since, we’ve been struggling to return to the glory days.

The first PCs were about as powerful as the average washing machine, but they were good at text and, in the hands of a skilled designer, could host a highly interactive piece of training material. In time they could display reasonable graphics, but, if you really wanted to engage an audience, you needed sound and pictures. Solutions were quickly found, firstly by connecting VHS players to the PC (with the obvious handicap of slow random-access to individual scenes) and then, more successfully, through videodisc, the 12” analogue predecessor to the CD. Videodiscs could store 30 minutes of high-quality video per side or tens of thousands of stills. Once again we had video under control, the only problem being that a full kit (PC, interface card and videodisc player) cost about £5000.

About 1990, much cheaper solutions became available with the advent of CD-ROM. However, because CDs were designed for music and not data, bandwidth was set relatively low at about 170kbps (still more than three times better than a 56K modem) and so video had to be sacrificed. Only with the introduction of higher speed CDs and really clever compression technologies such as MPEG did rich media reappear as an essential part of any technology-based training solution. Just in time for the Internet.

As we all know, for the majority of users, Internet bandwidth has been, and continues to be, a major problem. Although this hasn’t necessarily affected the scope for interactivity, when it comes to presenting information, our media choices have been constrained to good old text and graphics (and not too many of the latter, please). Once again – you guessed it – video has been sacrificed at the altar of technological progress.

But not for long. Ever resilient, video has made yet another comeback and now looks odds-on to make a return to a prominent position in the media mix. Streaming provides the means to, once again, get video under our control, which is just as well because, as Allen Ginsberg once said, whoever controls the media controls the culture.

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Who needs streaming media?
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In fact, it always has been possible to obtain high-quality video over the Internet, if you are prepared to wait for the video file to download. You click on the link and then sit back and wait. And then wait some more. If learners had plenty of time at their disposal and weren’t likely to lose their attention during the downloads, and if pigs could fly, then this method might just work. In the real world you need media that plays as near as possible to immediately, engages the learner and keeps them that way. That’s how streaming helps.

Streaming is the transmission of synchronised video, audio and graphics over the Internet or intranets, not on a ‘download now, play later’ basis, but in real-time. After the few seconds required for buffering, the media plays continuously for as long as the clip lasts, whether that’s less than a minute or for hours on end. Streaming not only removes the wait from watching video, it also provides you with the option of seeing events live, as they happen, perfect for sports or important news.

Streaming also provides an important benefit for network administrators. When video is downloaded normally, all available bandwidth is utilised, potentially clogging the whole network. With streaming video, only the amount of bandwidth allocated in advance is deployed, meaning no nasty surprises. What IT people will be less pleased about is that there is still a standards war going on, with three main competing formats. The contenders are RealNetworks, Apple and Microsoft (so no trouble picking the eventual winner there then), each of whom provides a streaming media server and provides playback through their own player – RealPlayer, QuickTime Player or Microsoft Media Player. This is no problem if you’re streaming to a defined audience all using the same player, but if you’re publishing to the Internet, you may have to provide each file in more than one format.

Trainers aren’t worried about formats and nor are learners; the issue for them is the quality of the learning experience. Video not only engages the senses, it has the ability to depict real-world events more powerfully than simple text and graphics. It may not be essential to all training but video certainly broadens the scope of what’s possible. If streaming technologies can help us to add video to the e-learning mix, then we’re moving in the right direction.

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The market for streaming
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Kevin Smith, VoleraThe flurry of entrants to the streaming media market over the past few years was driven primarily by the vision of piping sports and entertainment to the homes of millions of Internet users. Leaving aside the purveyors of porn, who are never slow to spot an opportunity and exploit it, consumers haven’t really taken to streamed media in a big way. Kevin Smith is Technical Strategist, EMEA for streaming media enabler, Volera: ‘People do want streaming media, but not the size of a postage stamp. They want full screen, full motion video and that’s simply not possible with the average video connection. You can have DVD quality, with surround sound, but you’ll need a 768K stream, which is fine as long as you have 1000Mbps ADSL.’

Catharine Trustram Eve, ServecastSmall video window sizes may not work for watching films, but for the loyal football fan, a glimpse of the action is great, whatever the size. Catharine Trustram Eve is Marketing Director for Dublin-based Servecast: ‘We provide streams for Liverpool, Celtic and many other clubs. These teams have fantastic support all over the world and many supporters are simply unable to see the games on TV.’
By comparison, the corporate market may seem a little boring, but for many providers, it is seen as the future for media streaming. Andrew Robinson is UK Managing Director for Unit.net: ‘The pay-per-view model for streaming entertainment media was ahead of its time, as the bandwidth for consumers is simply not there. We believe that the main potential is for business communications. The number one application for us is investor relations.

Andrew Robinson, Unit.net Streaming allows a public company to communicate announcements and pictures from its annual general meetings directly to all shareholders. Another growth area is customer communications. As an example, UBS Warburg makes available a daily economic briefing, in sound only, for all of its clients and this has been exceptionally well received.’
Of course, streaming media also has tremendous potential for training. Trustram Eve: ‘The training market can be a bit slow in its take up of new technology at times, but the opportunities are there. Our software allows lectures and presentations to be streamed live, with facilities for polling the audience, testing and chat. If a learner misses the live event, all is not lost as they can view the class later on demand.’

Robinson: ‘The more time-sensitive the subject matter, the more effective streaming is, which is why, at the moment, the City is the biggest user. Another example is where products change rapidly, as in high-tech industries. With shorter product cycles, the authoring of training materials has to move nearer to the source of expertise and the tools have to be exceptionally user-friendly.’

And tools are coming available. Trustram Eve: ‘Our Enterprise Media Studio allows trainers to capture sound or video footage and synch this up with slides. All they have to do then is upload this data to one our streaming centres. It’s even possible to do this work in the new XP version of PowerPoint, using the broadcast facility.’

Just how big an impact can streaming media have on training? Robinson: ‘Streaming media can include more much than video – the mix can include audio, slides, Flash animations, diagrams, even PDF files. And with add-ons such as Q and As, threaded discussions, chats and feedback forms, the process can be made highly interactive. Of course, streaming is unlikely to meet all training needs and will usually form part of a blended solution, but assuming SCORM-compliance, trainers will find no difficulty in combining streaming media objects with other training media and events.’

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Making streaming work
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So what’s involved in implementing a streaming media solution for your organisation? First of all, you’ll want to update your IT people. Smith: ‘Network staff need a better understanding of streaming media and the issues involved. Although they don’t need to have a detailed technical knowledge, they need to be aware of the requirements in terms of hardware and software, and the implications on bandwidth. The overwhelming majority of enterprises use an external provider to compress, encode and then serve up the content, but where there’s likely to be a significant internal audience, they should also look at ways of reducing the impact on the network inside the firewall. For example, Volera provides software which can take a single, live Internet stream and split it to a large number of internal users. The alternative would be every user requiring their own stream from the outside and that’s often simply not possible. Even more important is caching, so that archived media streams can be accessed as locally as possible. Our Velocity CDN product uses a single management console, allowing enterprises to anticipate demand for content and cache it as near as possible to the point of need.’

Adrian Snook, Training FoundationSome care also needs to be taken in the preparation of content. Adrian Snook is Business Development Director for the Training Foundation: ‘To aid compression, which is vital when preserving bandwidth, it helps to shoot with high contrast, a minimum of detail and no fast cuts. It’s the same with PowerPoint – keep the slides simple and bold. You may have to prepare the media files at a number of window sizes to suit the availability of bandwidth for different categories of users. And, where window sizes are small, you don’t want the user to be looking at a lot of fine detail. Another consideration is that sometimes streaming alone is not the best way of distributing video content. Where a user is going to want to watch a clip over and over, which might be the case with, say, a skills demonstration, a download might actually be the best solution, or at least an option.’

Jeet Khaira, Video ArtsIn the end, until content providers get on board, streaming media is in danger of being a solution looking for a problem. So what plans do the owners of rich media content have to make use of streaming? Jeet Khaira is CEO of the UK’s major supplier of training videos: ‘Streaming is our future. We are embracing it big time. We have conducted trials and are now going ahead to make available anything from whole programmes to short clips through an Internet portal. We see the audience for the portal as large corporates, for whom we’ll use a licensing model, through to SMEs and individual learners, who’ll pay per view. Our huge library of content can be accessed by anyone from a trainer in the classroom to an employee at their desktop.’ And to which company is Jeet referring? Why, it’s Video Arts, which, unless I’m very much mistaken, is where we came in.

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Case study: Microsoft Developer Network
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If you were looking for obvious examples of how streaming media could enhance e-learning, you probably wouldn’t look first at the training of programmers. But Microsoft in Switzerland has done just that, using streaming media to communicate over the Internet with members of their Microsoft Developer Network. So far, six 15-minute programmes have been made available, each providing an overview of a particular coding problem. Streaming solutions provider Unit.net hosts the programmes and developed the unique format, which includes a talking head, an index that allows viewers to random-access the part of the presentation that they are most interested in, and the piece of code to which the presenter is referring.

Sascha Corti is a Systems Engineer at Microsoft: ‘The project has been successful at reaching our German language speaking members of the Network. We’ve already produced another set of six programmes and are planning a third series. The programmes were released at two week intervals and backed up by marketing on the web site and by email. Although we get the most hits when the marketing goes out, all the programmes are available in the archive to view at any time. We sat down first to scheme out a list of topics that we thought would most interest our members – security, working with mobile devices, .NET and so on. We then scripted each programme in full. Presenting to the camera did take some getting used to, but we’re now completely confident about the process.’

So how has the project gone? Corti: ‘The interface includes a feedback button, so we’ve been able to gauge reactions to date. Comments have been positive, although one viewer did spot a bug in the code.’ Proof, perhaps, that streaming media is capable of grabbing the learner’s attention.
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Resources
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Streaming media services
Volera www.volera.com
Servecast www.servecast.com
Unit.net www.unit.net
Vision 360 www.vision360.net
Groovy Gecko www.groovygecko.com
MediaWave www.mediawave.co.uk

Streaming media formats
Windows Media Technologies www.microsoft.com
Apple QuickTime www.apple.com
RealNetworks www.real.com
Clipstream www.clipstream.com

Content
Video Arts www.videoarts.com
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E-learning's Greatest Hits by Clive Shepherd
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E-learning's Greatest Hits
by Clive Shepherd
Available now from Above and Beyond

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