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2007 Campus Technology Innovators: Rich Media

2007 Campus Technology Innovators

Innovator: Drexel University

Creating a user-friendly digital drop box to enable seamless publishing of rich media elements for academic use

Rich Media

At Drexel University (PA), rich media has long been an integral part of the school's academic offerings. Yet, deploying that content was often a painstaking process; university instructors and staff would bring audio, video, graphic, and textual content to the school's Faculty Development Center (FDC) to have it made web-accessible, and such requests would require hours of FDC personnel time to handle, via a manual process.

The need to minimize the staff handling time necessary to encode and publish rich media, as well as a desire to simplify access to the university's archive of web-based, on-demand rich media, led John Morris, director of academic technology innovation, and his team to develop the Rich Media Conversion Project (RMCP). By creating a user-friendly, automated digital drop box, RMCP greatly simplified the process of getting audio, video, text, and other rich media objects into highly compressed and streamable formats, suitable for web delivery. "The great thing about RMCP is that it satisfies both major constituencies: IT and Drexel's faculty," enthuses Morris. "It satisfies IT by significantly reducing staff time associated with the publishing of rich media, and it satisfies our academics by significantly simplifying their publishing of rich media."

Streamlining a complex process. Built entirely inhouse (originally written in PERL and now being converted to ASP.NET2), RMCP is a user-friendly web-based graphical user interface (GUI) that automates the rich media deployment process. Using AJAX components linked to back-end systems, the GUI allows authenticated users to create new content channels (i.e., categories); upload rich media content and metadata to new and existing channels; select appropriate encoding schemas based on input media type; create and manage playlists that can aggregate cross-channel content; and manage content access rights. An Apache web server houses the web application, authorization information, and system metadata, and a proxy/load-balancing platform receives input files and encoding information from the web application, and passes the dataset on to the appropriate encoder software. The various encoders convert the original input into specified format(s), deploying the resulting content files to a RealNetworks Helix Mobile streaming server, as well as creating and deploying XML syndication and HTML web access files.

Rich Media

simplified the process of
getting audio, video, text,
and other rich media objects
into highly compressed and
streamable formats.

RMCP's complexity is transparent to the user; Morris and his team worked closely with faculty and staff content authors to create a system that does not overwhelm users with too many choices, yet retains flexibility and power. For example, the technologists decided to restrain fine-grained control in many instances of the encoding and publication process, in favor of sensible default choices.

Easy as 1-2-3. Take, for instance, the conversion of an AVI file to RM 56-kbps, 256-kbps, and MP3 formats, all in one "drop." A user simply launches the RMCP web interface and enters his university username and password. He selects a channel, types in an event name, provides a brief description, and clicks the browse button to locate the AVI file on his computer. He then selects the desired output format(s) and clicks the send button to complete the process. When the encoding process is complete, the RMCP system sends the user an e-mail indicating the URL for the individual content item (it can also provide a URL for a user-defined catalog of content items, or a URL for an iTunes/RSS-valid XML file suitable for podcasting or syndicating to a news feed reader).

Listening to the users. Each step in the project development has been a direct response to user needs. For example, when faculty wanted to organize and control their rich media elements, the team enhanced RMCP to include channels, playlists, password protection, public/private characteristics, etc. When users asked for syndication capabilities, the team added RSS features. Morris notes that the system's RSS functionality is particularly significant, because it enables end users not only to subscribe to a particular content channel, but also to receive notification of any updates to the content (additions, deletions, or modifications).

Reaping the benefits. "The real beneficiaries are the viewers of rich media elements: students, employees, the university community at large," stresses Mike Scheuermann, Drexel's director of online learning. Indeed, in 2006, more than 7,600 rich media objects were created and deployed through RMCP. That means Drexel's 16,800-plus students can access myriad multimedia video and audio clips, lectures, demonstrations, and the like—in their favorite formats, compatible with video iPods, cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, and RSS feeds.

Morris adds, "Once in a blue moon, all the stars align. This is the case with RMCP; we have the alignment of faculty, faculty development and support, IT developers, and systems administrators—all for the common good."

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