This post has two main sections. The first sections is more of a story, and it explains the reasoning behind the project. The second section goes into the details of what you need to do to get a prototype working. If you just want to try it out, skip the first part as I am long winded.
I do not live in a normal place. I do not work in a normal environment. My solutions to problems are often not normal. I really like to experiment, and I hardly ever ask permission before I do anything.
I developed this solution in Dubai. I work for a school with 2400 students K-12. We have 84 nationalities, and no clear majority. The work environment is mixed as well, with people from all over the world and from a variety of backgrounds in education. Our school is accredited in North America, Europe, The UK, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, and just about anywhere else you can ponder. Our students graduate and go to a variety of universities all over the world.
We are a private school in terms of how people in the USA would define us. However, in Dubai most schools are private unless the family speaks the Arabic language. So in fact the entire school system is private, and parents have to check all the schools until they find one with a curriculum that matches their needs. My school, The Dubai American Academy, is part of a group of schools owned by GEMS Education.
In our high school most students are fairly well resourced. Although we have over 100 laptops for students to use in class, more than 80% have their own laptops and bring them to school daily. Of these 80%, 60% are Apple users.
Besides computers most students have one or more portable devices. Unlike the USA, when you shop for phones here there are no restrictions. You can by almost any smart phone or tablet on the market and use it on any carrier. There are contracts, but they are not needed as they just make payment a bit easier. Basically the market for communications and electronics is completely free and open. You can switch devices daily on one SIM Card and never worry.
So imagine a high school where the students are always better resourced than the equipment the school can provide. This is my environment. I am going to focus on the high school here, but this actually applies all the way to grade 5, so although I rolled-out this project in grades 9-12, next year it will be 5-12.
So I started pushing for services instead of hardware. I wanted to provide services to the students, and give them options to support their learning. The school already had/has online course management that is very typical. Teachers post assignments etc online. Nothing special.
However, I was aware that portable devices, and even many types of user configured operating systems had issues with many online course-ware features. Mostly because students would hack their machines for entertainment purposes, or decide they loved Google Chrome and they did not care if things did not work. Normal teenage behavior I suppose.
Another interesting thing was my school was built without a PA system. Now it had at one time been proposed to install one, but the school heads felt that students moving without bells and announcements was more peaceful and university like. So they decided not to install a PA.
I wanted to do two things. First I wanted to create a communication system within the school using the existing network. Every classroom had a workstation for the teacher with speakers, so all I needed was a broadcasting solution. Second, within the broadcasting solution I wanted to be able to embed content that teachers and students would want to use for learning and entertainment. Of course learning and entertainment do not always sell as well as people might think. So when I went looking for funding, I told everyone, “I am building a radio station for the school.”
After a few weeks I was able to get the parent association to kick in some money so I could turn a fairly new IMAC into a server. This was all not budgeted, and in-fact no one in the corporate office who manages our school would have even understood.
At this same time, Apple announced in Dubai they were going to host a 5 hour seminar for educators. It was at a super-posh hotel and came with a free buffet, so of course I had to go. I chose to stick to the network administrator and engineering track for the day. They were showing their podcasting engine on OS X Server running on a MacMini with about 4 gigs of RAM. I had an IMAC faster than the mini with 8gigs of RAM so I was completely equipped to prototype whatever they were showing.
I learned many new things from the seminar. Especially about iTunes. I was not aware that iTunes uses all known OS file associations (in Windows or OS X). So if you can send iTunes a PDF file, whatever you have that reads PDFs will open them.
Then everything just hit me. FORGET AUDIO AND VIDEO. Focus on mixed-media. Audio-Video-Text-Presentations all in one organized stream with a cool Thumbnail that travels along with it so people can visually see what it is. Forget the laptop. Create a stream of information that can go from a server to any device the user wants to use. For get the user. Just create a common format that everyone on the planet is currently compliant with, and let the OS literally direct them on connecting to the stream
iTunes was perfect, because it has one quality most people forget about. It can organize media in a structured folder system. So even if you do not like Apple Devices you can easily find all the materials chronologically organized in folders, that match the name of the stream you created.
How many times I had fought with students because of lost, misplaced, or wrong-versioned materials.
iTunes would help prevent that from happening. iTunes would also allow for rapid searching. Most people may not be aware, but Apple’s Spotlight Search is based on the iTunes search algorithm. iTunes was so efficient at search that Apple adapted it to be a key component of their OS.
Before I get ahead of myself, I want to clarify that I am Podcasting. When I say stream, I mean transferring data with the podcast protocols that iTunes recognizes. However, I do want to also clarify that this is not about sending students a daily radio show, it is about the distribution of everything we create in an efficient and organized way1.
I had setup a similar system when I worked in Japan, however it only server audio. I did not use podcasting, instead I simply setup shared playlists on an OS X server so all the classrooms could use their iTunes to share the content. In 2005 while working in Dubai as a teacher I experimented with a Linux server sending information using the daemon that Itunes uses for playlist broadcasting. I found many OS-es could take advantage of this, however as people would change and update their software (this was not limited to iTunes) a mountain of unpredicted compatibility issues would occur. I had Ubunut, SuSe, Windows XP, Windows 2000, and OS X clients running various packages but I could not get a consistent user experience. It was troubling because on the server end when you dropped any media into one of the folders being broadcast- the media was automatically processed and available. Literally users could simply connect to a share, and drop in their files.
However, if it is not easy for users, then at the end of the day it will either die or have to be forced on them. I did not want to see either of these things happen. I had spent 8 years before being in a K-12 environment working with multimedia and video. I knew if I pushed I could get my school to invest in a production studio, and we could have afforded to be very professional. So why did I basically focus on creating a system that uses free software and consumer grade equipment? The odds my next school will be this well resourced are pretty slim. I also find I meet more people in need than people who need nothing.
I wanted to work on something that literally everyone could afford, and benefit from. I knew I would never make any money off of the project, so being able to share a solution is pretty worthwhile. Maybe enjoying the feeling of helping people is vein and egotistical, but I do enjoy it. I did/do believe this solution can grow and change. I also believe if people can accept the concept and ignore the products I chose, they will be able to make my solution look juvenile. I am hoping to be blown out of the water by someone’s eureka moment- and still spend less that $2000.00 achieving my goals by following their model.
That is the story, there is more, but I will save it for another time. The design details are below with information on how to see a sample.
On-Campus- Hosts Daily News, Copy Written Materials, and School Movie Database.
- Server IMAC 21” with 8gigs of RAM and a 1 Tera-byte HD.
- Gigabyte Ethernet from the machine to the main network back-bone.
- The network is not great. Most of it is 100 base still and the engineering is sub-standard compared to the US. I know hard to believe.
- Standard backup system with a small UPC for the IMAC Server and networking switch.
- IMAC 21” base model for doing all the recording with an excellent Audio Technica USB Microphone.
- Server Software:
- Moodle with Podcasting and Ipodcasting Modules installed.
- OS X not OS X Server.
- The Login is setup so that verified network users get access as GUEST automatically. This means no Moodle login is required.
- The Movie Database has restrictions and requires an enrollment key.
- The Moodle Podcasting modules were slightly modified. I changed the protocols to ITPC so Itunes would react as if it were talking to the Apple Store.
- All other non-essential Moodle modules were turned-off.
- iTunes is the recommended client. VLC and iTunes are installed school wide on a fairly standard Windows Network. We centrally manage the versioning of the client software.
- Students and teachers have a standard Windows Login, and access the On-Campus media via the browser.
- Once a user subscribes to a stream, they no-longer have to use the browser. They get updates as they come from the Author/Teacher.
- The movie database also uses an actual database so people can search for subscriptions. For example, you can search , “Psychology”, and then you can subscribe to a 26 part series on psychology delivered to iTunes on demand. Students cannot directly subscribe due to copyright issues, however we are working on setting-up areas for them to watch media on “Thin Clients”. Teachers can access any of the movies and show them in class. This includes complete series in many cases. We are adding about 10-20 titles a weak from DVD and VHS. We have an encoding box for VHS. We record with QUICKTIME and compress with MPEG-Streamclip.
Off-Campus– Hosts Normal Class Content and Student Created Media
- We have a Hostmonster Account, nothing special about it except unlimited bandwidth.
- We are running the same Moodle setup, which will soon have an additional feature of delivering compressed web-pages to decrease the size of pages by 70%.
- We have had to setup a custom zip/compression for the Moodle, because the off-campus version cannot backup the media heavy courses using the built-in backup system.
- This Moodle also hosts some wikis, discussion forums etc.
- We do not run ONLINE courses, we just use the Moodle tools for collaboration.
- Students need a GMAIL account to use the Moodle. We do not maintain accounts.
- The choice to have or not have online courses, is not under my perview.
Some details about this setup:
- At first we thought that since most the students seem to have laptops we have them simply use the server on-campus. Teachers who were participating in the project told the students what to do, and had them subscribe. Most of the time students only needed to update their streams once a week for new materials. Being on-campus meant we could easily deliver gigs of materials easily.
- The problem we found was that students were more likely to update at home. I am not exactly sure why. This is probably cultural. So now the model has shifted. Copyright issues keep us from putting many items off-campus, but the normal day-to-day documents, presentations, teacher created media, and properly licensed media is being moved off-campus.
- In three weeks from the writing of this document we will be doing a session with 26 teachers showing them how to use the off-campus server.
- Student created media is common at our school, most students just use Youtube to host it now. I am trying to get them organized so we have weekly and monthly programming. However independently they are pretty successful publishing.
- There is another very cool thing I am trying to evangelize about the system. It can be used, INTERNALLY, to cache web content. To be honest I have no idea in Dubai if we would get in trouble for doing this on-campus. However, on-campus I am caching You-Tube content, TED TALKS, and ITUNES UNIVERSITY content. This is available to everyone. I made a separate stream called “YOUTUBE MATH”. I found videos on Youtube that fit grades 6-10 math curricula. Students are not allowed to use Youtube, in Dubai it is illegal to enable any type of exposure to inappropriate material. Even an inappropriate ad can cause a problem. So teachers and students can submit videos to me, and I encode them from the CACHE of the browser.
- Cache reduces our bandwidth usage and increases the download speed for the users. It is possible to cache with other technologies such as SQUID and receive similar results with more robust features and less human intervention.
I have some videos I can put online by Monday that show exactly how the system works on-campus.
If you want to try the ONLINE version, I will subscribe you to the Grade 9 Science course.
We just starting moving content from on-campus a few weeks ago, so the content will not explode until after our professional development session.
To see it in action send me an email and include: First and Last Name , Email Address.
I will send you a link and the enrollment key.
You need iTunes for the initial test.
If you are not sure how to use iTunes for podcasting here is a simple article: http://mp3.about.com/od/tutorials/ht/iTunes_Podcasts.htm
Youtube also has many tutorials.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org please include “ITUNES” in the subject.
I will try to get a diagram made and attached to this post within the next day.
The comments here are active, but I have to approve them. So feel free to just comment in the KYTECH Forum. I will approve comments even if they are bad.
Thanks for reading.
Facebook / Linked-In: Anthony DePrato current location Dubai not Somerset, KY
We also do the daily news now with the podcast system.