Picture Perfect

Traditional television-based media are falling by the wayside as colleges and universities embrace high-definition digital video.

VideoUsing videotaped lectures to practice American Sign Language (ASL) used to be a pretty tiresome process for hearingimpaired and other students at the University of Rochester (NY). In order to access the videos, students had to trek to the campus library, reserve an audio/visual station in the media center, take out the appropriate tape, and watch it right then and there. In the spring and summer months, the process was manageable but inconvenient. In winter, however, with lake-effect snow blowing off Lake Ontario, the journey to and from the campus library became possible only for the intrepid.

But last year, digital video revolutionized the ritual for Rochester’s ASL students. With the help of the cLabs digital video solution from cDigix, the school has been able to digitize the entire library of videotapes and offer them online through a portal of digital media that includes movies, MP3s, and more. Lisa Brown, manager of the school’s Educational Technology Center, says that today, students in all of the school’s 14 ASL classes can practice hand signals from the privacy of their own dorm rooms, all with a few clicks of a mouse.

“You have no idea how inconvenient accessing this information used to be,” she says. “Now, if a student wants flexibility in accessing this information, he can get it whenever he wants it.”

While the application of digital video for ASL at the University of Rochester is unique, the school certainly isn’t the only institution to improve its video technologies. A handful of other colleges and universities are starting to deliver highdefinition video in various formats, both online and via handheld devices. In particular, schools such as the University of Nebraska, Case Western Reserve University (OH), and the University of Michigan are blazing trails, adopting exciting video initiatives that are opening up new avenues of learning for students and teachers alike.

From a performance perspective, the new technology is better than traditional Internet video: 1280x720 pixels—more than 10 times the quality of the technology of yesteryear. The older technologies suffered from disruptions during highvolume sessions, and pixilated pictures. Newer, high-definition feeds run at 1MB per second and rarely, if ever, experience major problems. Charles Phelps, provost at the University of Rochester, says that on his campus, the new solutions have revolutionized the way data is delivered, setting the stage for an exciting era.

The Wave of the Future

HIGH-DEFINITION VIDEO isn’t just a bigger and better version of “the same old stuff.” In most cases, the technology that colleges and universities are streaming over the Internet is made possible by a video compression scheme called MPEG-4, the latest in a series of compression approaches that makes video easy to watch over the Internet.

MPEG-4 is an extremely comprehensive system for multimedia representation and distribution. Based on a variation of QuickTime from Apple, MPEG-4 offers a variety of compression options, including low-bandwidth formats for transmitting to wireless devices, as well as high-bandwidth for studio processing.

MPEG-4 also incorporates Advanced Audio Coding (AAC), which is a high-quality audio encoder. AAC is the newest audio coding method selected by MPEG and became an international standard in April 1997. It is a state-of-the-art audio compression toolkit that provides excellent performance relative to the alternatives, even at bit rates as low as 16 Kbps.

Another major feature of MPEG-4 is its ability to identify and deal with separate audio and video objects in the frame, which allows separate elements to be dealt with independently and compressed more efficiently. User-controlled interactive sequences that include audio, video, and text, as well as two-dimensional and threedimensional objects and animations, all are part of the MPEG-4 framework.

“Compared to the video technology we’ve seen in years past, what we’re dealing with today is light-years ahead,” says Phelps, who notes that school educators plan to expand the hi-def video program in the months ahead. “These technologies really are delivering television-quality images over the Internet, and the bottom line is that having educational video of this caliber opens up whole new worlds beyond entertainment alone.”

Using a ‘Brick’

Yet the University of Rochester isn’t only using cLabs for teaching ASL; in all, 39 classes across various departments have embraced the technology. Hi-def video technology on campus is relatively new; while classes have used other services from cDigix for years, the cLabs component was added as a pilot program at the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year, and is expanding each semester. At last check, teachers had uploaded more than 230 video and audio objects to the system— everything from sign language files to National Geographic videos.

At the University of Nebraska, technologists have turned to their own solution choice: VBEduCast from VBrick Systems. VBEduCast is an out-of-the-box video streaming and multimedia solution that empowers the university’s schools to deliver dynamic presentations easily and economically. It includes a video camera; a briefcasesized appliance to stream live video; and VBPresenter, providing seamless Power- Point and related multimedia content.

VBrick CTO Rich Mavrogeanes maintains the solution is perfect for live presentation recording and archiving. “Just as it took 40 years for the overhead projector to make its way out of the bowling alley and into the classroom,” he jokes, “today, our video solution is a simple kit that makes virtually anybody instantly successful at streaming video.”

With this in mind, officials at the university’s remote campus in Kearney, NE, recently installed the VBEduCast solution for 59 different distance-education courses, as well as for 15 other classes with live streaming. Together, the offerings provide both synchronous and asynchronous (one- and two-way) communication. According to John Horvath, director of Distance Education Services, this approach enables professors to deliver lectures while students, in real time, can send in questions or respond to polls. Students also are able to view course content, any time of the day or night.

As Horvath explains, those classes that incorporate streaming video utilize the technology to provide a blended approach to learning. A biology course, for example, requires course text, a professor’s visual instruction and lectures, and video that provides further insight into the animals or species that are being studied. Students can access this information directly through accounts with Blackboard, which handles the back-end technology for all of the school’s distance-learning programs. The cost to the students for all of this? Nothing beyond ordinary tuition.

I Did It My Way

SURE, THERE’S A WAVE of new high-definition video technologies sweeping academia. But you don’t need expensive solutions from high-profile vendors to deliver video content. At Creighton University (NE), Brian Young, VP of Information Technology, is doing all of it himself. The best part, of course, is that his approach is working wonders.

Young has devised a weekly routine by which he delivers his MBA course about IT management and leadership via a hi-def video file that students can download to play on their computers or handheld media devices. According to Young, the online lectures free up class time for guest speakers, discussions, and other topics.

"Students are mobile; they learn differently," he says. "As educators, we need to adjust to this and plan accordingly."

The process begins on Sundays, when Young spends a few hours planning his lecture and developing a PowerPoint file that he’ll use during the talk. Next, on Mondays, he presents the lecture to an empty office, working off the presentation on his laptop as he directs his gaze toward a Logitech QuickCam.

Young makes the lecture available immediately even though, technically, the class isn’t held until Thursday evenings. This way, he says, students can download the lectures and watch them in time for class, so they are prepared for whichever guest lecturer or discussion will take place that night. Young says students love the flexibility of listening to lectures on their own time. He notes that while this approach is extra work for him, transforming the class to this new delivery method is a pleasure because of the way students interact with and embrace the new content.

"Who says classes have to be taught traditionally?" he asks rhetorically. "With all of these new technologies, we can approach the same subjects in a variety of new ways and make them more appealing to everyone."

“Whether users want to watch a class live or watch it in the archive, thanks to this new system we have everything available for students—the way they want it, when they want it, and in a format that they want. And they can use it no matter what kind of computer they are running,” says Horvath, who notes that if students’ connections aren’t fast enough to support video streaming, the school will mail them a CD-ROM with the materials, free of charge. “When it comes to distance learning, the more interactive something is, the better it will be.”

Larger Than Life

At Case Western Reserve University, CIO Lev Gonick feels the same way about the importance of interactive media. In recent years, Gonick has poured tens of thousands of dollars into making sure that university students who aren’t on campus can experience the educational process online without missing a beat. Today, he notes, department goals are to integrate providers of rich media and high-definition media services into the advanced network infrastructure as a whole—a perfect reason to turn to a technology like digital video.

At the heart of this effort is a videoconferencing solution from LifeSize Communications. The solution consists of a high-definition camera, a VCR-shaped box to compress video signals into the right format, a conference phone, and a small handheld remote. With these pieces in place, Gonick says the school is now delivering hi-def video over the Internet for a multitude of purposes, from teaching classes to holding board meetings with members in different parts of the state. The technology also enables students in Ohio to interact with students all over the world.

“This takes us away from the idea of local, ‘postage-stamp’ delivery, and closer to the notion of the ubiquity of watching the Super Bowl,” he says. “With us, especially now, the sky’s the limit as to what we’ll try on this new solution.”

Implementations of the new technology at Case vary wildly. In one, an educator is using this solution to empower students in the school’s medical school to work with scientists in the lab. In another, students can use their computers to receive reference-desk training in the physical library—a procedure that used to be handled in person but now can be carried out with the help of videoconferencing online. Regardless of a student’s connection speed, Gonick says the files come over the network transom quickly; thanks largely to MPEG-4, the newest and fastest video connectivity today.

Video

VIA A SOLUTION FROM LIFESIZE
COMMUNICATIONS
, Case Western
students—and those worldwide—can
now access Case’s hi-def video classes.

Still, performance isn’t always stellar. Reports indicate that at a recent LifeSize trial for an audience of representatives from Internet2 schools, the image of a cellist playing her instrument appeared pixilated when the system could not keep pace with her bow strokes. What’s more, subtle color mismatches clued viewers that this was not something they would see on any TV. Craig Milloy, LifeSize CEO, insists that these kinds of service hiccups will decline as bandwidth increases, noting that the higher the transmission speed at a particular school, the better the picture quality will be.

In Their Hands

While technologists at many institutions are focusing on delivering video over the Internet, those at the University of Michigan are trying a different method of distribution: the Video iPod from Apple. Via what’s come to be known as “video podcasting,” certain departments at the school have embraced making hi-def video something students can download and take with them on their handheld digital media players, wherever they go. In the School of Dentistry, for example, professors are delivering videos of critical procedures so that students can watch and learn no matter where they are—even on a bus, or hanging out at the student commons.

The effort wasn’t exactly a concerted one. Dan Buell, director of the school’s Digital Learning Lab, says the project began when one professor in Orthodontics and Pediatric Dentistry wrote a grant for a dozen iPods from Apple and initiated a pilot program to offer video content for these tools. Other professors soon followed suit, developing their own hi-def video files and making the lot of them available for download. According to Buell, these videos can deal with just about anything. The only requirement: Files must be under 100MB apiece, so as not to degrade network performance.

“If people go through the trouble of watching something digitally, they definitely don’t want to look at garbage,” he says. “The flipside is: They want high-quality images, but they don’t want the process of downloading the files to take all day. There’s got to be a balance.”

Video

DIGITAL MEDIA PORTAL. Rochester’s
Cdigix service provides lightning-fast access
to movies, MP3 files, and course content.

Buell decided that to maintain a high level of available, quality video files, the school would have to foot the bill for some post-production services, in order to make sure all files meet the same standard of excellence. The process is lengthy and Buell says that for every one hour of video, he spends four hours using Apple’s Final Cut Pro to edit and sharpen files. Progress has been slow for the new video program: At the eight-month mark, only six videos were in the queue. With a staff of three handling all of the work, Buell says he’s simply moving as quickly as he can.

Still, he certainly isn’t giving up. To expedite the video-capturing process, Buell has started taping certain dental procedures himself, with the help of a DSR-250 DV Camcorder from Sony. He’s also put together a faculty questionnaire, so that his department can create a verbal storyboard to capture the high points of a particular taping. Via questions such as, “What’s the professor trying to tell?” and “What’s the educator trying to show?” educators can give Buell a crystal-clear sense of what they want, and make possible communication that was lacking in previous years.

“Video is a critically important component of digital learning,” Buell explains. “Anytime we can use technology to give our students something to learn, we’ll take that opportunity—and so should every other university.”

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