Video goes back to school

When I went to an Ontario university in the late 1960s, the psychology department took pity on the professor teaching the massive first year cohort. His lectures were recorded in black and white video and grainily projected on a huge white screen, so they could be shown to several classes of 700 or more each week instead of forcing him to repeat it live.

Forty-five years later public schools and universities are making better use of lecture capture video, thanks largely to the fact that it is IP-based.

Now educational video is a big business. Here’s two recent examples: This week in Toronto, Dell Inc. announced it has started to resell Echo360 Inc.’s learning and lecture capture solution in Canada and the U.S. Meanwhile in Calgary, the University of Alberta is polishing a classroom with videoconferencing equipment from LifeSize Communications for physiotherapy students to use this fall.

“Video is really hot in education right now,” says Alan Greenberg, an analyst at Wainhouse Research who has covered the education industry for about 20 years, “and its going to get hotter – whether it’s two-way video or Web conferencing that includes video or taking captured content and making it available to people.”

While he doesn’t have market data for Canada, he knows from experience that this country has been a hot-bed for distance learning for decades.

The U of A thought about videoconferencing about three years ago when the province realized there could be a shortage of physical therapists in rural parts of Alberta.

“The idea was if we could train students rurally” – in the U of A’s Camrose campus rather than Edmonton — “they might stay and work rurally,” said Dave Polvere, IT manager at the university’s faculty of rehabilitation medicine.

One problem was standard-definition video wasn’t good enough for the intricate therapy that would be demonstrated on large screens. Students “really need to see when you’re applying different pressures on the skin,” Polvere said. “You can see the skin colour change – that’s the kind of detail they require.”

The university also wanted two-way communications between the instructor in Edmonton and the students in Camrose. (Sometimes the instructors go to Camrose and teach to the students in Edmonton.)

At the time high-definition video cameras and codecs were starting to be introduced.

After testing equipment from several suppliers a physiotherapy lab and a classroom were wired with cameras, microphones and codecs from LifeSize. Cost was one factor in choosing the supplier, Polvere said – fitting out a room runs about $25,000.

The university also liked the ease in which an assistant professor in Camrose can set up the video system. That has been made easier with the recent addition of a LifeSize Video Centre, which also streams the video and records a session if wanted.

It helps that the Camrose campus is on the Alberta SuperNet, a high-speed educational and research network.

The program has been successful enough that the course will be offered this fall from a video-equipped room at the University of Calgary for rehab students in that city.

U of A has also tested the cloud-based LifeSize Connections videoconferencing solution linking outside experts to the classrooms from their offices. Polvere said Calgary students may use the service for individual meetings with Edmonton instructors.
The Echo360 partnership is a deeper foray for Dell into the education field. It already partners with Microsoft Inc. to sell an education data management solution built around SharePoint to give teachers and administrators a heads-up on students who may be falling behind. That solution will be brought here within the next 12 months.

On the video side, Dell will package Echo360’s video capture appliance with its server, storage and networking equipment, as well as third-party video cameras and microphones, to offer schools a full solution.

Echo360 equipment is already used by McMaster University in Hamilton, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Ottawa.

The appliance can record live Webcast, with later playback for students through a Flash-based player-collaboration tool.

Jon Phillips, Dell’s global education director, couldn’t put a price tag on a solution because it depends on the size of the implementation.

Dell’s role will be to create a plan for the school and oversee the implementation.

“We believe that lecture capture technology is a solution that helps address some of the pain our customers are seeing in advancing classroom interactivity and even, more importantly, to re-define what the classroom is – no longer bounded by space and time.”

Competitors in the lecture capture market include well-known names like Cisco Systems Inc., and Polycom Inc., as well as startups such as Tegrity, Sonic Foundry, VBrick Systems Inc., and Panopto. Some are software-only solutions that need cameras and microphones to flesh them out.

Analyst Alan Greenberg points out that some universities have embraced video to the point where they offer all of their classes online so students – and the general public — can take lectures anytime.

“When used effectively, and with savvy, it (video) is a tremendous tool,” he said.

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