The Next Teaching Technology: Digital Content Servers

Did you know the next big thing in educational technology is probably something you’ve never even heard of?

Believe it.

Digital Content Servers are coming that will make life easier for everyone on campus using PowerPoint and other digital media as part of their lectures and presentations.

Imagine TiVo, iTunes and a DVR (high-quality digital VCR) all rolled up in one. Why differentiate TiVo and the DVR? Well, cable companies started offering DVRs for homes in 2004, allowing people to perform TiVo-like TV show pausing, recording, archiving and commercial skipping. But the TiVo is all that and a whole lot more. TiVo is customizable network TV. Its user interface means that there is, literally, no learning curve–something no cable DVR can claim. No way.

What d'es this all have to do with the Educational market? A lot, actually. The future of the presentation market will be driven by customer needs to manage content-–a lot of content, from all sorts of sources and places. Many of today’s classrooms were designed to be self-contained. Some were equipped with the “give me everything I may ever need” philosophy and others with the “I’ll take anything I can afford”-–which isn’t much–- philosophy. The problem with that is that it’s not scalable and very difficult to control–-many educators are left with little training. Sure, you can tack on an AMX or Crestron control system and make the control easier, but still, it leaves a big hole for managing content, truly and simply. You still have to know where that videotape is, or where that PowerPoint lesson is stored that you used this time last year.

Today, if a professor on a college campus enters a room to make a presentation, he lugs his laptop, connects it to the VGA port on the podium or wall-plate, finds his presentation using one of the most difficult and counter-intuitive user-interfaces on the planet (known as Windows), turns on his projector, lowers the screen and lights and voila – projection. Then, add in the need to show a clip from a VCR tape or a DVD, and the complexity multiplies. But, that’s not even the real point. The tough issue is how to deal with the fact that dozens of professors use the same room and they all have to go through the same cord and cable juggling acts over and over again to get the presentations to the students. Then, what do you do if there’s a visiting professor stepping in to present a class? Sure, he can haul in his laptop, but what about all the other supporting materials he or she should be presenting along with it?

While we know that the old-fashioned way of handing out the PowerPoint slides on copier paper is hackneyed and just not what they want anymore, we also know that some still resort to doing that just in order to save their sanity. Bottom line: the current way of accessing and sharing presentations is too clumsy and redundant.

This is a complicated issue. Even though in many cases we have rooms that are over-designed, user needs outpaced the rooms despite our precautions, because content is now available from everywhere. It’s no longer simply PowerPoint, DVDs, VCRs and a MAC. It’s the Internet. And, adding the browser to the room d'esn’t offer the complete solution, either. It’s content--the variety of it, the amount of it and the ever--changing formats of it.

That’s where Digital Content Servers come in. Imagine having every lesson, every video clip, every PowerPoint presentation, every TV show scene you needed, every audio file and every educational presentation available on-the-fly, whenever or wherever you are. That’s what a Digital Content Server will do. It’s like a giant hard drive capable of storing multiple formats of data, video and audio and playing them back in any room projector or TV or even via any PC or MAC via an Internet browser. This will eliminate the equipment or cable clutter as everything will be stored on this server and accessible from anything connected to the Internet or our network. And, since the new generation of TVs, projectors and every computer on campus is, of course, connected, it’s accessible from any display.

OK, we know this is still a few years away for most educational applications, but we’re doing it in the home already. Like I said earlier, take a look at TiVo, your new cable DVR or iTunes from Apple. What we’re talking about here is not much different from those Digital Content Servers. Right?

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