Practical educational video over the internet: when, not whether

Video files are large and slow to load over the internet; you can get around this by using “streaming” formats. These slice a video up; you can watch the first slice whilst the second is downloading, and so on. Last year, we experimented with incorporating streaming media into Paperless School. The results were disappointing; very few of our test participants actually got to see the video in the end. There were two problems:

  • Bandwidth. Streaming a video once over a broadband connection is OK, but the average school connection won’t cope with 30 simultaneous streams. We thought schools’ proxy servers would stop this being a problem, but none of the ones we came across in the test could handle streaming media. It runs contrary to the Paperless School philosophy to ask schools to install special hardware, so putting in dedicated streaming media proxies wasn’t an option.
  • Format. There are dozens of competing formats and several popular media players. We tried several alternatives, but in each case fewer than 10% of users could both see and hear the video.

The video-in-schools problem was addressed most elegantly by our friends at Espresso several years ago. They put their own dedicated proxy into the school and supply their own programmes to it via a dedicated satellite connection. Like all first-to-market solutions, Espresso is proprietary. Their box, their format, their (and their licensees’) content. Much as I admire them, that’s been enough to put me off trying to incorporate Espresso services into Paperless School.

Now Mike Ramsay, CEO of TiVo, have announced in an interview that TiVo intends to support video over the internet too. Thus far, Tivo recorders have been linked to an individual television. If they were to extend it to include a streaming web server for a local network, the TiVo package would become a very attractive one for schools. Their solution will be a generic one, but it might well attract people like us to offer dedicated educational video as part of our content mix.

My prediction: this market won’t mature until there’s an accepted open standard for streaming proxies to pre-load content. Once that happens, we’ll all pile in.

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