Why schools need a single standard for digital video content and delivery

In the past few years, digital visual learning systems have proven their educational value by having a positive impact on classroom outcomes. But there are still many issues that need to be resolved for digital video content to become a strong, vibrant instructional tool. One of the most important of these is standardization, which will provide a roadmap for how to integrate digital media into the complete educational environment.

To understand the importance of standardized approaches to digital media delivery, consider the full scope of digital delivery in education today. First, consider the many types of educational visual media, such as live television, stored content (whether in hard copy, such as VHS, or in digital format), and locally originated content, such as video conferencing or morning announcements. Then, consider the many facets of education that teachers look to visual media to support, such as textbooks, assessment, and No Child Left Behind compliance. Finally, consider the many existing educational information systems that any new technology should integrate with, such as student information systems, integrated library systems, and media booking systems.

Without a single standard, we will have many different systems in an environment where teachers and students themselves will have to tie these systems into the learning experience. This has been the model with visual learning for the last 25 years; the teacher and student were the engines that integrated different forms of hard-copy media with classroom instruction, curriculum standards, and technology. But digital media holds the promise to remove this burden of integration from the teacher and student, allowing them to focus on the content itself and its impact on instruction.

As this digital convergence takes hold, teachers will be able to seamlessly integrate digital media into their everyday instructional process. All forms of instruction–from presentations to student-led projects–will benefit from the quick and easy use of media without the administrative burden of preparing the right media for integration.

Teachers already have little available time. They should not be faced with having to learn about a different digital video delivery system for each of the content providers offering media they want to use. A single standard for digital delivery would give teachers a choice of which digital media content fits their classroom goals. Interoperability of content and delivery systems would mean educators easily could tailor their content libraries to their exact needs.

Bringing this dynamic of choice to digital media content and delivery is critical, and the need cannot be overemphasized. Teachers and students require a choice of what content suits their needs. Users need to know that whatever their choice for a standard interface to access digital content, they can access the content of their choice, too. Related media content producers, such as textbook providers, need to know that integration with a particular digital media standard is going to be applicable to a wide range of systems and users, so their time spent in integration is justified.

The importance of standardization also comes into play when we look at the local school level. In today’s schools, sources of video–such as school news, student video reports, cable TV, videoconferencing, and student and teacher video portfolios–are all becoming part of the video network and library. All of these components must fit into a common delivery platform that all vendors can support.

From large-scale questions of how to make district and state-wide systems interoperate, to local questions of how media integrates with classroom tools (such as PowerPoint), the requirements of a single standard for digital delivery are massive and more complex than any standard for digital content currently present in the education or consumer market. Given this daunting question, what are the actual technical components of standardizing digital delivery, and the steps to implementing them? Let’s examine just the very basics.

First, let’s look at digital video itself and where it is today. We must make sure that we are not only providing for one-on-one instruction, but also presentation. Standardization must support both of these instructional models and meet the goals for each. For example, digital media picture quality in today’s classrooms must be acceptable when used with television, plasma display panels, or digital video projection. When considering available standards for video and audio compression and display, we should consider technologies that not only support desktop and presentation display devices, but also minimize the support required from school IT staffs by limiting the number of players or plug-ins required to decode the video.

Despite this need for interoperable, high-quality video, content and technology providers are supplying and utilizing many different digital formats. Schools find themselves receiving visual content that ranges from very low quality to high-quality content. Not only can the quality of content vary, but the digital format can vary as well. There are many different digital formats, such as the MPEG family of standards, Windows Media, RealPlayer, Apple’s QuickTime, and many others. The education community’s lack of one digital standard makes viewing content impossible in some schools without the right player, codec, or network to support playback.

Schools are losing the opportunity to provide valuable content in the classroom, a problem amplified by the variety of content required to support all instructional areas. However, a technical specification for video and audio is just one of the many issues that the digital video market needs to address.

While content technical specifications are important, the area of metadata and how schools can use these data is just as important. Metadata compose the information that supports the video and audio data. For example, metadata would be the title, abstract, and supporting documents for a video clip, such as teacher guides or correlations to state and national standards. In fact, metadata encompass every datum that is not the actual picture on-screen or audio being played. From this standpoint, metadata, as a need, are considerably broader and more complex than even the complicated systems that turn video into binary data and back. Yet, existing standards for video metadata are even less prevalent than standards for video and audio format. Metadata standardization is required for visual learning to really step into the role it needs to play in educating students.

Another important part of digital video delivery is digital rights management (DRM). DRM provides the means that will protect any provider’s content from piracy in the market. How important is this? Content providers have invested millions of dollars to create their own content for educational use. While not all content providers produce strictly for education, there are many who produce content just for classroom use. These providers need to ensure that their content and, therefore, their investment will be protected when moving from a videotape format like VHS to a digital format.

There are many educational content providers who have not made the leap into digital delivery only because they are not comfortable with the DRM in the marketplace. These companies are waiting to offer their content until they can be assured there is a strong, standardized system of DRM that will address their concerns. Even content producers already offering digital content need to know their content is protected to justify producing new content for the digital market. In the consumer market, many music services now offer a huge library of content, because the music producers feel comfortable with the DRM systems in place. The educational market needs even more sophisticated, standardized systems of DRM to achieve the same availability of content.

But DRM has another role as well–protecting the end-users’ rights to use the content in all the ways they are granted under their license. Digital content is exponentially more malleable than analog content; it can be used in a myriad of other tools and programs, and in ways that go far beyond just linear playback. This same malleability also leads to the restrictive implementations of DRM we have seen in the marketplace to date. Content gets restricted to a single use (for instance, linear playback), because no system currently supports broader use yet still protects against unauthorized use. This is a frustration for users, because it is restricting the promise of digital media.

More sophisticated systems of DRM promise to broaden the content market by bringing in new producers and encouraging producers to continue to create new content, while also enabling new uses of content that teachers and students are excited about, even as they protect content from accidental and purposeful misuse. This dual expansion for digital media is critical, and it’s the reason we need to standardize and improve upon current DRM systems.

Yet another important area for standardization of digital video content concerns network and data management, including student protection. As visual content systems tax schools’ networks, network management becomes increasingly important. Digital content and delivery systems need to support emerging network switch technology and network management systems that let IT administrators report on and control content on their networks.

Similarly, data management and exchange technologies–such as Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) and the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF)–are important systems that manage digital data within a district and regulate how these are transmitted beyond the district. They help ensure teacher and student privacy while allowing districts to integrate all the systems that make up their infrastructure today. Digital video delivery should be no exception in working with these standards of data interchange and in protecting the privacy and rights of all users.

The last area of concern when looking at standards for digital video delivery is hardware support. Hardware manufacturers need to know that the systems they build will support many models of digital video delivery and many vendors’ content. Set-top boxes, network switches, wide-area network technologies, and even desktop computer design are all impacted by what standard of digital video content and delivery is used throughout the marketplace.

The challenges to creating a single standard for digital video content and delivery are enormous. But if the education community can take a leadership role in the development of such a standard, then digital delivery systems will be able to provide a fully integrated visual learning experience that can drastically increase the number of powerful resources available to educators. By giving students and teachers instant access to video on demand, real-time video, and supporting correlated material in the classroom, digital delivery systems can truly provide the next wave of visual learning.

Timothy Beekman is the president of SAFARI Video Networks LLC, a subsidiary of Library Video Co. Dan Pisarski is the director of digital technology for SAFARI Video Networks and Library Video Co.

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