Advent of Digital Video Triggers Shifts in School Market

By Andrew Trotter — November 12, 2007 8 min read
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To Louise B. McGinnis, an elementary science teacher in Palm Beach County, Fla., video is not a frill or a classroom babysitter, but a core resource that can clarify concepts for today’s media-oriented children and draw them into their lessons.

“All students need visuals sometimes,” she said. “That’s what helps them learn.”

Her view, shared by growing numbers of teachers, is one that providers of educational videos hope to capitalize on, as changes in technology continue and the market for their products evolves.

Some providers, which include for-profit, nonprofit, and government entities, are shifting toward online distribution of video, like their counterparts in the entertainment industry. The medium lets them save on shipping and reach customers who like viewing video streamed over the Internet, and to add so-called Web 2.0 features, such as online discussion boards for teachers.

In some cases, the advent of digital video has yielded new opportunities to use old content. In September, for example, NBC News launched an educator-friendly archive, with two- to five-minute video vignettes drawn from 70 years of archival news coverage, organized by curriculum topic and augmented with extensive curriculum-planning resources.

Digitization also has made it easier for companies to subdivide long videos into scores of short clips that teachers can use selectively in instruction, in between other activities and resources.

Video companies are adding value to content by matching clips to state academic standards, which themselves are subdivided into competencies and concepts. Other features, such as search tools, lesson plans, and calendar functions, are being incorporated.

“Having those little snippets gives you a chance to integrate [video] in [a lesson]; it’s different than watching a 30-minute video,” said Mary Ann Wolf, the executive director of the State Education Technology Directors Association, or SETDA, and a former researcher.

New Challenges Posed

The Web has become awash in free video—educational and otherwise—and much of it is excellent.

Yet quality is also highly variable, heightening the need for schools to provide teachers with guidance on making good decisions about selection and use.

Video distributors face other challenges as well. With limited budgets, schools may balk at taking on new fees for video content and have trouble overcoming technological obstacles. Those include limited broadband capacity in many schools, where often only a handful of teachers can stream videos simultaneously without causing delays and other glitches, even as online courses and testing—both expanding in schools—compete with video for school networks’ bandwidth.

“We’ve come along way, but we’re not anywhere near having the broadband we need for every school,” said Ms. Wolf of the Arlington, Va.-based SETDA. “It’s a continuous need, something we are looking at more and more.”

Market Leaders

Video providers have taken different tacks in dealing with the bandwidth problem and serving the school market.

Discovery Communications LLC, with headquarters in Silver Spring, Md., leads the online market of video distribution to schools. The company has about 4,000 full-length digital titles available for subscribers, which pay $1,495 per K-8 school and $1,995 per high school or K-12 building annually, according to Coni C. Rechner, the vice president of marketing for the Discovery Education division.

Two thousand of those titles, once downloaded, can be edited by student or teachers, in activities such as digital storytelling, she said.

From Camera to Classroom

Companies selling educational videos to the school market increasingly are serving up thin slices of larger works. The processes they follow vary in detail, but the general approaches are similar.

• Curriculum specialists go through a full-length video and select snippets, from less than a minute to several minutes long, that address academic concepts.

• Clips are tagged with keywords and text blocks signaling the curriculum areas and targeted grade levels for which the segments could be used.

• Specialists, either in-house or from outside vendors, correlate clips with current state and national academic standards.

• Teachers’ guides, lesson plans, and writing prompts are added.

• Clips are indexed for easy searching, by subject levels and concepts, and go “live” on Web sites for downloading or streaming.

• The company may provide an online learning-management system that the teacher can use to design lessons and bookmark clips for use.

• Teachers are encouraged to share their lesson plans, activities, and teaching tips with other teachers in an online community.

SOURCE: Education Week

The Library Video Co., based in Wynnewood, Pa., claims to sell more DVDs to schools than any other company. But so far, it has not shifted to online distribution for most of its collection of 16,000 video titles from 600 producers and suppliers.

“You still have VCRs or DVD players in 98 percent of the nation’s classrooms, and the ubiquity of those machines makes it very simple for someone to utilize hard-copy video” on disc, said Andrew Schlessinger, Library Video’s chief executive officer.

Discovery Education produces and distributes digital resources in all core-curricular subject areas. The company says its streaming videos, in science, health, and other subjects, are made available to 1 million educators and 35 million students.

Recognizing that school districts subscribe to other video resources, the company recently developed an online content-management tool, called OnePlace, that lets teachers use one search tool across multiple databases, as well as content that is stored on designated school computers.

If a science teacher using OnePlace searches for the word “matter,” for instance, anything tagged with that word will come up in all the databases, as well as on the Google search engine, explained Lee Colbert, a technology-program specialist in Florida’s Palm Beach County district. The 175,000-student district was a partner in developing the tool. As an added feature, the system stores the logins and passwords for each database, so teachers do not have to remember and enter them.

Discovery has also established the Discovery Education Network, an organization of teachers nationwide that support the use of video in the classroom.

Even Mr. Schlessinger of the Library Video praised Discovery’s teacher network. “They’ve done a lot to excel in that area,” he said.

Yet Mr. Schlessinger said the quality available on disc remains superior, which pays off when teachers project videos onto large screens. What’s more, he said, “not everything is available online yet.” Some major films of interest to schools, such as the global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” are out only on DVD.

Library Video has, however, tried to skim off some of the benefits offered by online distribution.

The company has had curriculum experts sift through many titles in its huge collection, indexing videos, matching them to academic standards, and tagging them for easy searching, much as the online distributors have done. Using Library Video’s online learning-management system, called Safari Montage WAN Manager, now used in 3,000 schools, teachers can draw up lessons with electronic bookmarks that can activate short video clips on demand, Mr. Schlessinger said.

Finding a Niche

The NBC News archive has “somewhere close to 130,000 teachers registered” for a free trial that ends in January, said Nicola Soares, the vice president of education for the company. At that point, the service will cost $1,999 annually per high school, and $1,499 per elementary or middle school.

To create Archives on Demand, specialists have taken news broadcasts from the past 30 years and snipped them into focused vignettes, Ms. Soares said.

Currently, about 1,000 video resources from the network’s news archives have been prepared, plus 4,000 audio and text resources, focused on U.S. history, government and politics, language arts, and writing, and also usable in science and math curricula, she said.

The NBC resources are organized chronologically and thematically to form “a compete story arc, taking a topic such as civil rights from the 1950s and ’60s to today,” Ms. Soares said. The material will help “students and teachers make relevant connections from what happened in the past with today,” she added.

Last week, the service opened up a new collection of videos, titled “Presidential Decision 2008.”

Subscribers can stream the content using a proprietary NBC video player, which is carried on Hotchalk, an online learning-management platform. Hotchalk augments the service with features such as lesson-planning tools and an online calendar that can be used to schedule assignments.

NBC hopes to reap more than fees for its content, Ms. Soares said. “As we look at building the brand of NBC News, we’ve realized our students don’t watch the nightly news at 6:30 on the TV platform,” she said. “Where they prefer to get their news is on the Web.”

Hotchalk executives, in turn, sees the NBC content as a big draw to its service, which is supported by advertising that appears on the site outside school hours, according to Edward Fields, the chief executive officer of Hotchalk Inc., which is based in Los Gatos, Calif.

Free Options

Among the free offerings to schools are video resources from U.S. government agencies, such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and some public-television stations and nonprofit groups. The National Geographic Society gives away downloadable podcasts of nature and science news, photography, and video clips, along with a feature called “wild-animal adventures.”

Another free online source of nature films, photographs, and sound recordings of endangered and threatened plants and animals is offered by Wildscreen, a British charity based in Bristol.

ARKive, Wildscreen’s online library, promotes conservation by making the donated materials, many made by eminent filmmakers, freely accessible for scientific and educational use.

The site for the videos,, also offers a button that teachers can click to obtain advice on how to use the materials in classrooms, lesson plans, and educational games.

Although ARKive, of which the filmmaker Sir David Attenborough is a patron, was begun in 2003, the group has only recently begun promoting it in the United States. Wildscreen plans to open an office in Washington in January, according to spokeswoman Amy Nicholas.

‘Community for Teachers’

Then there’s TeacherTube, which was launched last March. It posts videos, often created and uploaded by teachers, that provide classroom content and teacher-training resources, said Jason Smith, the CEO and a co-founder of TeacherTube LLC, based in Dallas.

He said the free site is averaging uploads of 50 to 75 new videos each day.

“First and foremost, it’s a community for teachers,” said Mr. Smith. “We encourage teachers to put up some really good video lessons they’re sharing with their students in the classroom and share with other teachers.”

Mr. Smith said the site will soon announce a partnership with YouTube, the popular video-sharing Web site owned by Google Inc., and plans to recruit teachers to contribute lesson plans and guides on how to align their donated videos to state standards using a “wiki” process, which allows multiple users to edit the materials.

The prospects for video distributors’ plans, experts say, will likely depend on teachers’ willingness to use the medium, as well as the support they receive from their school districts.

Ms. Colbert, in Palm Beach County, said that younger teachers there feel comfortable in a video-sharing world. But others, too, are adapting, she said: “The older teachers are driven by the needs of their students—kids who are plugged into video while doing their homework.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Advent of Digital Video Triggers Shifts in School Market


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