Where (streaming) content is king

If you go to a library and find only a few or limited selection of books, you are unlikely to come back. The same applies to online content spaces, and at the Helix media library user group I’m learning about all the great things that the Helix media server can do with video and audio.

Helix is a streaming product built around Real media technologies and thanks to Streaming.co.uk is coupled with a web based user interface for uploading and delivering content, in many respects it is very similar to YouTube, but instead of being a hosted service, you host the media server for yourself.

Of course, Hearing about all the technical achievements that might be possible with a product like this is great. From a product expert, you quickly gain a good understanding of the potential for embedding in your organisation as a media delivery tool.

The challenge is in making the product work for the curriculum. Setup is easy, as is a bit of training in basic use. What about all those key features that will either make or break the product as an embedded part of your delivery? In the case of media streaming, I think these are significant among the key ingredients for greater success:

User Upload

For many organisations using media streaming, the process of capturing and uploading has been the responsibility of a few, usually in Departments where resource provision is central to their operation – departments like the Library, or Document Services (my own equivalent for the very outdated title of ’Reprographics’). For users to truly bond with the product, we must offer the opportunity to share content at will and without the requirement for others to facilitate this. Nobody expects to wait for a third party to publish something for us by proxy; when was the last time you asked someone to post a Facebook update for you? So why should this the the case for streaming media? When using the Helix system, a notification is sent to the uploader, giving details of how to embed their content (in a VLE perhaps). Done by proxy, this notification doesn’t reach the requester, and therefore the likelihoood of embedding in an accessible location is reduced. Let’s face it, students don’t want to go searching for content – save them from getting lost or distracted by delivering media inline with other learning content.

Clear Usage Terms

Whilst educational organisations all subscribe to licensing agreements (some of them more current and reflecting modern practices and media than others) in order to use content ‘freely’ in our organisations, we must adequately communicate the terms under which the content we publish may be used in support of educational activities. Some really good examples exist, but in my experience have yet to align themselves clearly with the end product, or the consumer. In other words, at the time of viewing, is the consumer aware of the conditions of use for the content in question, or are these terms of use hidden, placed in obscure location away from the content, or simply not published at all? It is now essential for all engaged in any form of education to understand the property rights associated with content, and that educators include copyright and intellectual property literacies in our agenda.

Incidentally, an idea that struck me today whilst listening to the user group presentation was that simply adding a tag to your stream could easily help raise awareness of content types and licensing. A tag may therefore be something like ’creativecommons’, ’era’, ’eraplus’ etc. A really simple technique that gets copyright consideration into the attention of the viewer.

Platform Agnostic

Nobody wants to be stuck with a single platform any more; you have to acknowledge consumer choices and their impact upon content we are delivering. Today this means that content must be geared toward viewing on multiple platforms, with mobile being the area of most significant growth. We can probably include in this the now long outdated assumption that everyone will view your site with Internet Explorer. There is a downside here: making all those product work across multiple platforms requires development time. If you are lukcy, the supplier will provide a full mobile interface for you – this happens to be the case with the product delivered by Streaming and the Helix product. On the other hand, you may simply be provided with a developer kit and the tools required to build your own interface. Worst case will be that you have to build your own bespoke mobile solution – that could be expensive, particularly if it doesn’t result in considerable use from mobile clients.

Create Your Own

It’s not all about free to air programming or retail resources. A streaming service today should include content that clearly displays its affiliation with your organisation. Content being studied should not only be the result of production beyond the perimeter of the organisation, but also from the professional, knowledgeable and experienced staff who enable so many learners to progress to a higher level. And yes, those learners should also be contributing.

Bridge Platform Boundaries

I briefly mentioned earlier about how delivering the embed code directly to the video contributor will enable them to publish in the most appropriate location. It is important not to accept this as the only method by which new content is communicated and shared. Whilst the Helix server emails a single user, consider how broader notification will allow for content feeds to be delivered to new locations. An RSS feed to your VLE perhaps (link to VLE post), or your digital signage system (link to xibo post).

Live Streams

Whilst not a core feature, the Helix server can provide live streams (through multicast) of media via the OneLan free to air recorder. Such a stream can be accessed directly through the Helix interface, or embedded in a web page. What else might be possible? Well for me, there is a possibility that such a stream could be re-published through the signage system we use – Xibo. The same could be said for other content delivery platforms and including live streams. Consider how useful one or more news, documentary or other channels would be if available on demand via live stream to teachers and students as and when required and relevant in class.

I’m not suggesting that many organisations providing streaming services are likely to find themselves having already reached a position where all the above have been achieved; that’s quite a challenge, and one we that any organistion producing and / or delivering media content should aspire to.

If I had to pick one as outstanding from this list? Creating your own content. The rest are all technical; in other words, you need ‘hard’ skills on order to deliver. For the most part, that’s relatively easy. However, in order to build a culture of creating and publishing content among a learning community, you need to focus on soft skills; in the words of Roger Enrico “the soft stuff is always harder than the hard stuff”.

Targeting Digital Signage Content with Drupal, Xibo and RSS

a Xibo signage screen

A Xibo signage screen

One of the most popular articles on my blog is about Xibo – an open source digital signage system. I first setup our Xibo installation a couple of years ago; it hasn’t been developed heavily, but serves a useful function for informing our students and staff. In response to a request from Ben in response to my ‘Getting the message out with Xibo‘ post, here’s an overview of how I paired Xibo with the RSS aggregation and publishing functions of Drupal.

RSS in Drupal

Drupal offers as standard two very useful RSS functions; one for aggregating content, the other for publishing. Let’s focus on the publishing first.

Working with the default content type (that of a story), Drupal by default offers you an RSS feed of published content; just go to the root page of your Drupal installation to see the list of current stories and look for the RSS feed button at the foot of the page. The RSS feed can be customised (number of articles, feed content) by opening the Drupal content management settings and adjusting parameters in the RSS Publishing section. There’s no more configuration necessary.

Filtering RSS feeds with Drupal Taxonomy

We have a number of display screens around campus, each with a slightly different audience. For example, visitors to reception will be interested in different content than our students in the coffee shop. I have configured taxonomy in Drupal, which enables me to deliver targeted RSS feeds to specific displays. A single taxonomy vocabulary is defined, and populated this with multiple terms, each of which describes the location of our displays. For example, these include ‘refectory’, ‘reception’ and ‘staff room’. Users may not enter their own taxonomy terms, and in applying taxonomy, it’s therefore easy to train our users in one simple concept: choose from a defined list of displays which they would like content displayed on. So, for a content item intended to display in the reception area, ‘Reception’ is the taxonomy term selected from the list of available terms in the vocaubulary.

Having configured this, it’s worth heading back to your stream of stories from Drupal; by this point you need to have entered a few stories, then attached some different Taxonomy terms to each. At the root of the Drupal site, you will see all stories – and an RSS feed for the same content. Follow the link to one of your taxonomy terms (click the term itself); your list of stories immediately changes. What you now see is only the articles matching the taxonomy term you just selected. Most usefully for us, this view will be accompanied by an RSS feed – the feed will match the content you are viewing, and we can take this URL for use in Xibo. Your feed URL will look something like this:

<site name>/?q=taxonomy/term/<term ID>/0/feed

Obviously <site name> will be your Drupal root path, and <term ID> is the identity number of the taxonomy term you have selected.

Targeted Content Publishing in Xibo

This part is pretty easy now; we’ve got our filtered RSS feed URL and can paste this into the content for a given display. Just open the content editor, select the area in which you want to publish, and add (or edit) the RSS feed component, pasting the filtered URL we generated in Drupal. Save everything and go check out your Xibo display; after a refresh (which depends upon the rate you have set at both the server and client).

I haven’t mentioned RSS Aggregation here; this is an additional feature of Xibo that should work equally well. Aggretation will simply draw content from external feeds into Drupal on a scheduled basis for re-publishing. I have ambition to do this with content from our virtual learning environment (Moodle). Once you have aggregated the feeds, content can be re-published using the same principle.

If you are using Xibo, I hope you find this useful; it would be great to hear your experiences of using the application alongside Drupal in the comments.

(PS. Don’t forget to check out Ben’s computer repair service!)

We need a revolution before we can go mobile

As this house full of kids has finally calmed down and everyone has made their way to bed, I had the opportunity to grab a break and spend some quality time with my Xbox and a recently acquired copy of Battlefield 2 Bad Company. Instead I dipped my toes into the Twitter stream and stumbled upon a conversation about mobile technology.

Having previously met @daviderogers at a TeachMeet at the end of last year, it was a conversation he was having that grabbed my attention. I have been following David for a while and appreciate how keen he and his team of Geographers are in building the use of technology in their organisation. This particular conversation had begun to consider the place of mobile technologies in educational organisations. It was this Tweet from Graham Brown-Martin that struck me as significant:

@davidErogers @chri5grant @IanYorston @jodieworld there’s been so many pilot’s for mobile you’d have thought we’d have got take off by now!
01/10/2011 19:47

It’s true. There have been many projects focused on mobile technology in recent years. Molenet being one that I’ve been quite aware of, though have not participated directly. I’ve seen some evidence of success in solutions that typically have focused in more prosperous times in the purchase of large stocks of hardware – everything from laptops down through the form-factors through netbooks, tablets, PSP’s, DS’s, PDA’s, portable media players and most recently smart phones. Fantastic for our asset registers, but what of the change that subsequently took place in these educational projects?

I recall being impressed by seeing vocational learners using PSP’s equipped with cameras recording their activities in their place of work and / or learning – engineering and hairdressing being instances where a real difference to the learner could be osberved. Now, it’s been a while since I saw each of these examples up close, but what of these same students, and the hardware that was acquired to support them? What impact did this really have, and are the assets still usable in the same context – has the original purpose been maintained, or allowed to evolve with time?

Having such assets is great. Buying all this new stuff has enabled us to try new ideas, expirement with new technologies, evaluate the benefits for learners. But: technology has been moving faster than we as educational organisations have been able to keep pace with. It will continue to do so.

It can be argued that we still haven’t achieved ‘take off’ with mobile technologies. In my experience at least, I have encountered no organisation where mobile technology has been truly embedded in the strategy, policies and curriculum, and been fully adopted by staff and learners (except perhaps for Albany Senior High School). Compare this position with the developmental progress over the past five or more years of online progress tracking and reporting systems for learners – Individual Learning Plans in our case. These have been conceptually desired by educators at many levels for some years, but have taken a considerable time to reach any kind of matured state where it might be said that overall, some consistency has emerged in the supportive value each presents to staff, leaners and parents or guardians. Each has evolved with a number of conflicting factors tugging in many directions; the desire for managerial reports, the need for staff to have access to key performance measurements, for students and parents to view feedback, results and timetables. When such tools were in their infancy, and with a lack of standardisation in this field, many were led to develop their own systems in the absence of anything more suitable. For a time this has worked, and now, some consistency in our different approaches has emerged.

Maybe the same is still the case with mobile technology. Maybe we have yet to establish the consistency that will eventually enable us to deliver mobile technology into an educational curriculum? All those unique organisational characteristics that make us so individual in our areas of specialism are forming very different mobile opportunities for us, with no clear outcome yet visible. Except, of course, that we do know mobile will become increasingly important to all of us (even if we don’t necessarily admit that yet).

The cultural change required for us to adopt mobile technology as a fundamental part of educational life and an embedded feature of our curricula is huge. Perhaps this is a bigger cultural change for many of our staff than they have ever encountered before. Why? Because this revolution in technology takes the power and control associated with technology beyond the teacher, and beyond the organisation. Previous technology revolutions have been focused around the development of the organisation – building our assets, our ability to manage or learners, or the processes required in order to support our learners. Change is often uncomfortable; I can remember receiving harsh criticism for disposing of overhead projectors in favor of SmartBoards and projectors in order to move us along a bit. Change has previously not left teachers or support staff without the control to which we are all accustomed; we have been in the driving seat. Mobile technologies however, are transcending the boundaries of our organisations – and there are as many driving factors emerging from outside the organisation as from within. The challenge lies in leading our staff through the revolution necessary to transform our culture into one that is accepting of these changing boundaries of control. It’s not another mobile pilot we need, it’s a cultural revolution.