Video Vanguard

Clark County School District CTO Philip Brody has a vision for how administrators in this 295,000-student district will one day share important and often complicated information and instructions.

Instead of spending an hour or two carefully composing a five-page memorandum to be distributed among their departments or the entire staff, they’ll simply record a two-minute explanation in a video file–then either send this file as an eMail attachment or save it to a shared folder on one of the district’s servers and link to it in an eMail message.

Imagine the time this will save in daily or weekly mass communications, Brody says.

“We typically send out long print messages explaining new policies and procedures,” he noted–and yet school leaders “can explain complicated issues in a briefer period of time by talking them out instead of writing them out.”

Brody’s vision for streamlining the exchange of district information is a prime example of his goal to transform video from something that is considered “special” to a tool that is routinely used for both communication and instruction. And this goal, in turn, is the reason Clark County is considered a leader in video use among large school systems.

“We’re just so used to video; we watch it all the time as entertainment, and we all know video is such a powerful medium for instruction,” Brody said. “But in education, we’re so used to thinking of what I like to call ‘big’ video–or large video productions–that we tend to overlook smaller uses of video. With new streaming video technologies, there is a way to use smaller-sized video segments for these other applications, too.”

Brody and the district are moving ahead with his vision for staff communication this fall, starting with some of the district’s regional superintendents. Participants in this pilot project will either go to a small video production studio in their building or record their messages right from their desktops. The messages will range from weekly communiqués to the principals in their regions to brief explanations of new policies and procedures.

“As we have learned with other technology projects over the years, once we open the gates, the user will never cease to surprise us with applications that we never considered,” Brody said. “Regardless of the initial purpose, we believe that–within a brief period of time–administrators will be using streaming video, when appropriate, to enhance communications with their staff.”

Separating content from distribution

Its video communications pilot is just the latest example of how Clark County is using video streaming to help meet its goals.

To support their instruction, for instance, teachers can search for either full-length videos or short clips that are organized by subject, grade level, or the curriculum standard they want to cover. Staff members also can receive professional development via IP video–and in an emergency situation, first responders are able to view images taken by security cameras mounted in the ceilings of the district’s middle and high schools on their laptop computers from outside the buildings.

Clark County’s extensive collection of digital video resources for instruction and professional development–which includes content from Discovery Education’s unitedstreaming service, as well as the Annenberg Foundation, Scholastic Inc., and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), among other providers–resides on the district’s own video servers. What makes this impressive collection possible is a unique relationship between the district and public television station KLVX.

Clark County is one of only a handful of school systems in the country that licenses its own public TV station. KLVX operates under the auspices of the district’s school board–and its director, Tom Axtell, takes a very visionary approach to supporting the district’s instructional needs.

“We view ourselves as not in the TV business, but in the service-delivery business,” said Axtell, who added that his goal is for the station to serve as a “technology hub” where content is either created or acquired and then is distributed to users through whatever platform is most convenient for them–be it VHS, DVD, cable television, or streaming video.

“People tend to talk about marrying content and distribution, and we think that is an archaic view,” Axtell explained. Instead, KLVX digitizes all of its licensed programming and original content and makes these available in a variety of ways. KLVX employs a full-time staff member whose job is to “ingest” the station’s content into its video servers and index this content according to the district’s curriculum standards.

Axtell offered an example of how this approach meets the diverse needs of school district stakeholders.

“We might produce a course in our studio that we send out over cable, but Jhone [Ebert, director of Clark County’s Virtual High School] might then make copies of that course on DVD for students who might have an asynchronous time frame,” he said. “It might also be ingested into our video server so that it can run over our computer network for people to take the course online.”

Eliminating coaxial cable

In another visionary move, Clark County this fall opened its first school without coaxial cable. All video service for the district’s new Arbor View High School will run over the school’s IP network, saving the district the added expense of installing and maintaining coaxial cable.

Arbor View will get the same analog TV signal from the outside, which will be digitized within the school for transmission over its local-area network (LAN). District officials hope the experiment–if it proves successful–will change how video is distributed to each school.

“We envision all [of our content] emanating from KLVX eventually and being multicast over our Gigabit Ethernet network to all of our schools, instead of over coax,” Brody said, explaining that if the Arbor View experiment works, it could lead to the elimination of coaxial cable district-wide.

When that happens, TV signals no longer will be distributed only to an 18-inch monitor in the corner of the room, but to any IP-based client machine, such as a teacher’s computer–from which they can be projected to a larger screen for the entire class to see–or individual staff or student desktops, laptops, or even handheld devices that support IP video.

Though Clark County is a leader in terms of thinking about how video can be used in education, Brody says what the district is doing isn’t necessarily unique.

“The things we’re providing now to our schools, anyone can do–you just need enough bandwidth to do it all,” he said.

And bandwidth is something Clark County certainly has plenty of, with its Gigabit Ethernet network supplying a million bits of voice, video, or data information per second to each school building.

“One of the reasons we built this WAN,” Brody said, gesturing toward a map of the district’s network infrastructure hanging on the wall behind him, “was this vision of video communication.” DP

Dennis Pierce

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