Streaming Content in Sakai – What service do you use?

Before I really begin this post, I have to mention how much I love being an instructional designer.  It might be that I’m just in the sweet spot of my ‘job’ life right now (seeing the culmination of my technology exposure along side my education and life experiences) but is that so bad?

I had the opportunity today to be a guest panelist for a segment on using Video in Sakai the LMS (learning management system) we use at my institution.There’s no question about the viability of video or video content within an instructional or learning context – it has value and can add value to other aspects of learning and education. The explosion and diminishing expense of video content creation has really led to a boon in ‘regular’ people being able to put together quality content and use it in their own courses or build it for other courses if they’re a course designer or instructional designer.  I’ve even had faculty tell me how excited they would be if they could ‘retire’ just designing course curriculum with video!

In any case I think there are some major or critical aspects of choosing a streaming host you need to look at from an institutional standpoint, and a few questions you should examine.

First, let’s get the elephant out of the room – COST:

Cost is typically the bottom line for just about any great foray into adopting a new service or product.  This is a recurring cost year after year, and will probably grow in time.  It can grow in two ways, typically. It can grow based on the amount you store (storage cost of all the stream able content), and it can grow based on the bandwidth cost (how much or many streams are being watched and accessed annually or monthly).  We user a provider who charges a flat rate for both (storage and bandwidth) so it’s an easy to manage operational cost year after year.  The storage is unlimited and so is the bandwidth – a great feature.

The next feature everyone else really should examine is, well – FEATURE SET:

Just what are you getting for your money?  Do certain features cost more or are all features offered under a flat rate?  Do certain providers offer the same features that are referenced differently or not offer certain features at all.  One of the more significant features today is HTML5 compatibility.  It’s critical for us to have students (and faculty) be able to access content regardless of device.  You never had a student email you and say, “My pencil told me I need a certain plugin for it to work on the paper I bought from Walmart.” I needs to work for everyone, regardless of platform. Other features might include (or that you might consider):

  • user segmentation – (one institutional repository, but aligned with specific userid’s and passwords for everyone who access the service – in some cases some services leverage LTI to do this, others can do so based on LDAP, ActiveDirectory or something similar)
  • LMS integration – this takes two forms, and both have to do with the functional ease with which faculty/course designers can add video content to the course.  The method we use follows the process most are accustomed to using in YouTube.  You grab the embed Share code at the bottom of the video area and paste it into a special text area of the LMS. Other more sophisticated (and $$$) platforms do this with a customized API or set of APIs, which you may or may not have to figure out yourself.  For a small school like ours – we don’t have the man power or extra $ to figure it out so we just do the standard copy/paste of an embed code provided to us by the streaming service we use.
  • HTML5 – This is a big one – probably bigger than the LMS integration, but it also hits on an issue that can affect those who are accessing the content once it’s created and published.  In the early days of video on the internet everyone came up with their own proprietary format – because no ‘standard’ format existed, and everyone out of necessity had to create their own. Now instead of people creating their own video format, we have devices begging for a standardization of format (think iOS, Android, Windows/OSX) regardless of the device. So while the market is profligate with devices variants there’s a determined push toward standardizing the coding that video uses to display on all devices.
  • Metrics – This is just a nice to have, but can (depending on the amount of video content and how granular the metrics are) help inform you about the instruction that’s using the videos.  How often are videos being watched completely? How often are videos being watched, and by whom?  Which parts of the video are being watched over and over again? At which points are videos being stopped or paused? To think about metrics in a different sense, what would it be like if you knew what text(s) students in your class actually read – down to the word in the text? This is sort of like what it would be – only with video content in a course.
  • Copyright/Fair Use/Digital Rights Management (DRM) protections – does the platform provide a mechanism (or mechanisms) for addressing this?  If a course designer is paid to develop video content, are there functional protections in place with the streaming platform to enforce intellectual property rights on that content.  Further, does the institution have policy (published and shared with those designers) that there is such a policy and what that policy is?
  • Bandwidth constraints – Video takes up space – somewhere on some server or server farm, so you’ll get charged for storage in one way or another.  You may also get charged (separately) for how much bandwidth you eat up. Most platforms will provide some type of initial price point and then provide an overage cost. Keep in mind though if you host your own service, you may be eating into the amount of bandwidth already being used by other faculty/staff and students on your campus, so off loading the service might be a good idea just to segment the bandwidth needed to provide the video assets to your courses.

There are other features you may also want to investigate including but not limited to: presence of an administrative portal, being able to brand the content, organize or tag the content, add other types of assets other than video (audio, documents, images, etc.), the ability to add captions for accessibility, the ability to browse the entire institutional library, being able to use the content outside of your LMS (such as for special events, admissions and advancement uses), the ability for the platform to provide a live stream (such as for graduation or commencement ceremonies).

You should also consider what type of mechanisms you want to use to create the content initially.  In our case, most our faculty and course designers are familiar with PowerPoint – and have lots of their lesson content organized using it as a framework.  We used to just put the presentations into the LMS and expect students to download and review them – and sometimes that happened.  More so, though we looked into how we could take the PowerPoints and add voice to them and still make it easy for students to engage with.  The solution was clear – we needed to ‘vidioify’ the PowerPoints – adding the lecture part as voice over to them.  There were several software ‘add on’ solutions we could have considered.  Instead we decided to go with a web-based  (java dependent) screen capture service – which would allow any of our faculty/designers to capture any content on their desktop or laptop screen including audio so long as they could login to the service.   We used screencast-o-matic for this – and we did the right thing and snagged a license that allows 25 concurrent users to access the service in a given 30 day timeframe, for less than $200 annually. With designers who prefer Mac over PC or otherwise, the fact that some of our faculty and designers are scattered across the world and the headache of possibly having to deploy software on end-user’s computers – the choice of a web-based service was obvious.

There are likely some other things you should consider before formally adopting a platform but these were some of the aspects we wrestled around with.  While our solution isn’t the Cadillac of options, it does fit with what we need.  It’s scalable, functional and provides us with a methodology that is supportable, and helps to standardized the way our institution is using video in our LMS and online course design framework.

There are several services that provide this functionality out there and here are just a few that we took a look at:

Service Name URL Approx. Cost*
Kaltura www.kaltura.com $ 14k initially **
Brightcove www.brightcove.com $ 14k initially **
MediaCore www.mediacore.com $ 15k initially **
MediaCast www.inventivetec.com ?
Sharestream www.sharestream.com $ 18-22k **
Avalon Media System www.avalonmediasystem.org ?
Matterhorn (OpenCast) opencast.org/matterhorn ?
Longsight www.longsight.com $ 2500.00

* for a school of our size
** may vary based on selected tier level, storage and bandwidth needs and feature set needed

Just make sure you do your homework and ask lots of questions. Know what you’re getting and if it’s a good fit for your institution or organization.

UPDATE: If you’d like to see a webinar on the subject – take a listen to the one below:

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