Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series on the use of video in education. The series wraps up next month with an in-depth look at how students are using today’s technology tools to produce their own videos. Also in the June issue, eSchool News will announce the winners of our first-ever Student Video Discovery Awards.

By Cara Branigan

The digital age has changed how videos are watched in the classroom forever.

No longer is it necessary for teachers to order films three weeks in advance. Almost gone are the days when media resource teachers got into their car and drove filmstrips, VHS tapes, and DVDs from school to school.

And soon teachers everywhere will have a new tale to add to their arsenal of “back in the old days” stories when reminiscing about how videos were distributed.

An increasing number of schools nationwide are reaping the benefits of video delivered over computer networks. Whether it’s called video streaming, video over IP (Internet Protocol), or video on demand, the concept is relatively the same.

Video is digitized, housed on a server, and accessed via computer. Sometimes students play the video directly from the internet on their individual computer screens, but in most cases, teachers show the video to the entire class at once via a television monitor or a digital projector beaming the images onto a white screen. Or, teachers download video snippets to their computer and embed them into their Microsoft PowerPoint presentations.

Traditionally, video is used most commonly to supplement the curriculum and reinforce core concepts.

“Any video integrated into a lesson is seen as positive and attention-getting, regardless if it’s streaming or not,” said Rob Zdrojewski, technology education teacher at Amherst Middle School in New York.

But the advent of video streaming offers many advantages, teachers report.

Amherst Middle School is increasing its bandwidth this spring to allow for more opportunities for teachers to use streaming media in their classrooms. After spending a few seconds at the computer, teachers will be able to show short snippets of video to capture students’ attention at the beginning of a lesson or reinforce what they are teaching.

“It is much easier to pull up a web page and show it on the TV or projector than to go through the library and check out a video tape,” said Russell Sadberry, technology applications teacher at Katy High School in Texas. “It is much more convenient.”

Sadberry uses video clips to supplement the textbook or quickly illustrate a point, such as balancing equations in chemistry. “The student interest level is higher when it is on a computer,” he said, and “the videos are available at any time from any computer.”

His district subscribes to Discovery Education’s unitedstreaming service, a product that reportedly is used by some 43,000 schools.

Teachers who are part of the Regional 7 Education Service Center (ESC) in Kilgore, Texas, are using PowerMedia Plus.com, a media-on-demand product from Clearvue & SVE Inc. “With difficult concepts, some kids just don’t get it by reading it in a book. By seeing it in action, it really hammers it home for them,” said Kelli Minnis, instructional technology specialist for the ESC, which serves 103 school districts.

The predominance of high-speed networks and multimedia-enabled computers in schools underlies the move toward digitally distributed content. Beyond delivering supplemental instructional videos to classroom teachers, however, schools are sending video across their networks for other functions, too.

Eisenhower Middle School in Wyckoff, N.J., showcases the hard work of its students by posting videos of exemplary student work on its web site–in addition to its daily morning television show.

“It gives parents, students, and other teachers an opportunity to learn more about our school. It also gives students an opportunity to see outstanding work,” said Harold Olejarz, a teacher at Eisenhower Middle School. “Recently two of our students tied for third place in a statewide video contest, and their videos are posted on our home page.” Many schools and districts are creating their own professional development videos and giving teachers access to them online at their convenience.

The Teaching with Technology web site for the Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, Ky., for example, includes videos that exemplify successful classroom technology integration and practices.

“Web-delivered videos are provided for flexible anytime, anyplace use and public display, and for added impact,” said Jeffrey L. Jones, technology resource teacher for the district.

The impact video can have on communicating with parents and other stakeholders has inspired some schools and districts to invest in the equipment needed for video production and streaming through their web sites.

As a community outreach effort, the Carrollton Farmers Branch Independent School District in Texas has embedded a plethora of videos on its web site for parents and the community to access. The videos, which are added frequently, cover topics ranging from district news to kindergarten registration. There are also documentaries on the history of various school buildings, as well as advertisements for courses and programs offered throughout the district.

With the expansion of Amherst Middle School’s technology television program, the school is planning to offer streaming video on its web site for parents and the community to watch.

Zdrojewski said he is currently testing California-based AdFlix.com’s streaming media service. “Logistics still must be worked out, as far as permission to post student work,” he said. “We have the capability to password-protect pages and sections of our teacher web pages, so that may be an option.”

Other school districts are archiving content created from their in-house television studios and offering it to stakeholders via the web. Phoenixville Area School District in Pennsylvania, for instance, rebroadcasts student-created content from its cable education channel via streaming video, because not all of its school buildings have access to the cable channel.

“Only one out of our six buildings has cable TV, so we are able to deliver our cable TV channel, Phantom TV 4, to every classroom,” said George M. Frazier, director of technology at the Phoenixville Area School District. The picture quality is not as good as the cable broadcast, Frazier said, but it still allows teachers and students to view the cable TV channel they otherwise would not see.

Bandwidth woes

Despite the prevalence of high-speed networks in schools–most of which are operating on a T1 line or better these days–educators still report that bandwidth is the biggest challenge to using video over IP.

“You are at the mercy of the network. If your network is slow, then you may not be able to get the video. If the network goes down, you will not get the video,” Sadberry said.

Millard Public Schools in Omaha, Neb., is interested in offering video streaming to supplement its curriculum, but school leaders first must upgrade the district’s network to ensure there is sufficient bandwidth to allow multiple teachers and students to access streaming media at the same time.

Recently, a company did a video streaming demonstration there with 20 students in a classroom–and it reportedly crashed the entire school’s network for several hours.

“It froze the machines and brought the school’s system down,” said Mark Feldhausen, the district’s assistant superintendent of technology services. Increasing the district’s current T1 lines from 1.54 megabits per second (Mbps) to at least 54 Mbps between buildings will allow classrooms to access streaming video “without bringing us to our knees,” he said.

Another way schools are solving the bandwidth problem is by downloading digital video to a local hard drive and launching the video from there, so it doesn’t have to stream live over the internet or across the school’s wide-area network.

“Because of our less-than-ideal connections, we aren’t able to show [streaming video] in real time. We need to download everything in advance,” said Andy Losik, an elementary library and technology teacher at Hamilton Community Schools, a rural K-12 district of 2,500 students in Michigan.

Losik teaches library and technology skills to students an hour per week by integrating their core subjects into his lessons as much as possible. “I use the streaming video to mainly enhance learning that is going on in the regular classroom,” he said. “Most of the time, video is shown as a jumping-off point for a project, a quick way to deliver background knowledge.”

The nitty-gritty of video streaming

It’s true that video files can be quite large and clog a network. But choosing the appropriate file type and size, and even storing the video content locally, can lessen bandwidth problems.

There are five major file formats used to digitize and deliver videos via computer: MPEG 1, 2, and 4; Windows Media Player (WMP); and RealPlayer.

The format used to encode video depends on how the end-user wants to access it, said Bill Reckwerdt, director of product marketing for Optibase Inc., which makes products to encode and decode videos in the MPEG 1, 2, 4, and WMP file formats.

MPEG, which stands for Moving Picture Experts Group, is used most commonly for video over IP because it generates a small file size while retaining image quality.

MPEG-2 files, which are used to replace DVDs, are fairly large–streaming at 3 to 4 Mbps–and are good for broadcasting full-screen images onto a television monitor. WMP files, on the other hand, are smaller, streaming at 500 to 600 kilobits per second (Kbps), and are only displayed on one-quarter of the screen.

Many schools prefer the MPEG-4 format, because these files can be accessed on Macintosh, Windows, or Linux-based computers through virtually any video player, whether it’s QuickTime, RealPlayer, or WMP. MPEG-4 files are roughly the same size as WMP files and also appear on a quarter of the screen.

“In both situations you can send a bigger screen, but most people don’t, to keep the file size down,” Reckwerdt said.

MPEG-1, which is used as a VHS replacement, also works on Macintosh, Windows, and Linux-based computers through any video player. The file size is larger, however, streaming at 800 Kbps.

Norview High School in Norfolk, Va., has installed an MPEG-1 streaming video solution from Optibase. “Norview did it that way because no matter what system the school bought, the student could play it,” Reckwerdt said.

The solution consists of six Optibase MGW2000e chassis devices to encode and stream video and broadcast content from 16 centralized VCR/DVD combination units, 10 cable TV channels, one TV Studio broadcast channel, and three classroom broadcast channels.

Instead of booking a media cart, teachers now can access VHS or DVD videos played in the media center, as well as content from cable channels or the school’s television studio, right from their computers. In addition, two SAFARI Technologies video-on-demand servers, combined with Safari Device Commander software, enable teachers to play back and remotely control the Optibase video streams.

If educators want a higher-quality video image, they would choose an MPEG-2 system, or for something more universal without sacrificing image quality, they’d choose an MPEG-4 system. “It’s really just a matter of choice,” Reckwerdt said.

Schools tend to gravitate to one of two video-over-IP models. One is to subscribe to a streaming video service and have teachers and students access the content from a remote server via the public internet.

The other method is to host the video content on a server located within the school or district. Classrooms then would access this content locally. Many companies prefer this latter method, because it gives schools greater control of their content and networks, higher-quality video streams, and greater functionality.

“We don’t believe web video is the most effective way to deliver video in schools,” said Andrew Schlessinger, founder and CEO of Library Video Co., which sells 18,000 videos from 600 educational publishers to libraries and schools.

Instead, his company, which recently acquired SAFARI Video Networks Inc. from SAFARI Technologies, believes video delivered over an internal network is far superior.

“We want the video in that room to be a one megabyte file,” Schlessinger said. When teachers broadcast a 256 Kbps stream on a large screen via projector, it doesn’t look very good, he explained.

Internally, schools could deploy an MPEG-2 system for high-quality, large-screen video streams. To accommodate home access for students through the public internet, school could deploy an MPEG-4 solution.

“The bandwidth challenge is rarely local. The bandwidth challenge is over long distances or on the public internet,” said Rich Mavrogeanes, founder and chief technology officer of VBrick Systems Inc., which sells video streaming and conferencing equipment to schools.

Mavrogeanes said it’s important for educators to buy multi-vendor solutions. “You could choose a single-vendor proprietary product, but you could be locked into that vendor forever,” he said. WMP and RealPlayer, for example, are closed solutions, whereas MPEG is an open solution.

Additional challenges

Despite concerns about bandwidth, some people would argue that the variety of smaller file formats and the prevalence of reliable, high-speed networks in schools mitigate these bandwidth problems.

Instead, locating high-quality content that is compatible with existing video delivery systems is biggest challenge to using video over IP in schools, according to Wendy Collins, director of digital strategies for Films Media Group (FMG), a company that sells 12,000 video titles to schools and colleges.

The age-appropriateness and educational value of the content, combined with the quality of the encoding and the interface used to access the digital video, pose the biggest challenges, Collins said.

“There are interfaces out there that don’t allow teachers to access the full functionality of video,” she said. “Content providers are struggling with how to make digital content more useable beyond the pause and play buttons.”

Streaming video, she says, lacks common DVD features such as the ability to link to lesson plans, add your own bookmarks, and access interactive content like quizzes and essay prompts. FMG is now upgrading its interface to address some of these issues, she said.

Discovery Education already has begun adding more than just video clips to its unitedstreaming product. On the web page where students watch the video, they can now find links to related images, clip art, and activities. “Over time, you’re going to see an enhancement of these features,” said Steve Sidel, Discovery Education’s executive vice president.

Another challenge, common to any new technology in schools, is getting teachers to embrace video over IP.

Discovery Education’s unitedstreaming product recently became available to teachers in Hamilton Community Schools in Michigan, but teachers there have been slow to use it because of a lack of data projectors and training. “They see the hurdles before the benefits,” Losik said, adding that “no plans for training have come about yet.”

Reckwerdt echoed this sentiment. “A lot of schools are used to putting VCRs and TVs on a cart and wheeling them around,” he said. Technology administrators have to show teachers that this is a more effective way.

Schools that produce their own video content for multiple purposes–including professional development, class projects, distance education, or community outreach–experience many benefits, but there are also some issues to consider.

Producing the videos, for one thing, is a challenge. “Video production is time-consuming and requires confidence and good hardware,” Jones said. A complete solution includes file servers, streaming video servers, back-up strategies, content management applications, and video production equipment such as audio, lighting, and cameras.

The added benefits of moving a film collection to a digital format are many. For instance, computer-based video solutions make monitoring usage easy. Knowing which films are popular–or not–can help school leaders make more intelligent purchasing decisions.

Also, videos can no longer get broken, lost, or stolen. There are no more media carts to reserve or push down the hallway. Students and teachers can view a recording or a live video stream of a lecture or presentation any time and from anywhere, eliminating the barriers of time and distance. Video, by its nature, is a more engaging medium, and digital video files easily can be segmented, tagged, and made searchable by keyword.

And if schools take a holistic approach to their use of video, its impact can extend well beyond the classroom. In short, the possibilities for digital video in schools are limited only by the imagination of educators.

Related stories:

Video Goes to School — Part I

Video Goes to School — Part III

Technological, societal factors drive video trend

Digital video content and delivery systems

More video resources

Video editing and production software

eSN Video Resource Center

See these related links:

Videos on the Amherst Middle School web site
http://www.amherstschools.org/ webpages/rzdrojewski

Videos on the Carrollton Farmers Branch ISD web site

Katy High School

Eisenhower Middle School

Phoenixville Area School District

Fayette County Public Schools

A former associate editor of eSchool News, Cara Branigan is now a free-lance writer living in Ontario, Canada.