“MOOCs provide an affordable and flexible way to learn new skills, pursue lifelong interests and deliver quality educational experiences at scale.” (mooc.org)
I am passionate about education. Training and skill development are the primary focus for Broadcast Bruce and I am always on the look out for opportunities to leverage technology to not just improve the effectiveness and power of an education platform, but to increase its reach and accessibility. To enable the delivery of knowledge to places and people previously denied it. When a university approached me to supply them a technology solution to shoot and stream their new MOOCs, I found myself desperately wanting to be a part of the project and set about building a solution that would deliver on several key points I had identified from our introductory discussions.
The university wanted to be able to use multiple cameras simultaneously, whether in a studio environment, lecture theatre or in the field. The cameras would need to be able to operate in a small room, lit by standard office fluorescent tubes. Further, there was not initially going to be a means to cable the studio space to the operator room, nor would it be possible in a lot of the lecture halls or other rooms. Ideally the production equipment would remain in its room while the cameras moved about, but should it be necessary, they would like to be able to easily transport the kit without the aid of a broadcast engineer. The production would be delivered via the universities streaming services provider, so would need to encode and deliver to them for distribution. They needed to include a lot of slides and text overlays to support and re-enforce the message. Similarly, there would be pre-produced video content that would need to be incorporated. Also, student feedback and questions, sent via the website, would need to be displayed live. Finally, the tools would need to be of a standard and industry recognition that they would firstly, be attractive to internal and external parties that may require similar tools and services; and secondly, would be readily understood and operated by industry professionals should they eventually receive the resources to hire one.
Easy and Reliable
The equipment would be primarily operated by staff and students in a faculty that had nothing to do with film or television production. While training would of course be provided, and they were people blessed with a passion for learning and teaching, the skills necessary were not core aspects of their day to day curriculum or motivation. Not only would the technology and workflows need to be as uncomplicated as possible, it would need to be rock solid, able to deliver frequent, live productions free from interruptions, in a technically unsupported environment.
The MOOCs would be free. While there are potential commercial gains in exposure and attracting students to paying courses, initially it would be an experiment requiring financial investment and donation of staff time, with no immediate return. While the university was committed and prepared to invest, the budget was tight and would require creative thinking to deliver the results required.
Compact, but Flexible
Space would be at a premium. There was no money to build a dedicated studio space and the university would not be able to sacrifice classrooms or lecture facilities to the project. At least initially. The system would also need to be flexible enough to operate wherever it was needed across buildings and campuses, on restricted networks, in rooms large and small, or even outdoors.
Ultimately, I settled on a solution built around the Newtek Tricaster TC 410 with a control surface. While I would have preferred to step up to the TC 460 for a number of reasons, those reasons were mostly about future proofing. Unfortunately, we needed space in the budget and I really didn’t want them to cut the control surface out as it gave them a solution a professional would feel comfortable with. Not only did the Tricaster deliver on the necessary switcher channels, but also gave them built-in streaming, simple template driven graphics with LiveText, video file playback and, by utilising the powerful Network Inputs and Newtek iVGA, the means to switch to PowerPoint presentations and the occasional YouTube video. After the first training session, they also quickly became excited about the virtual set technology. So, with a little VSE2 design work and some green paint, we were able to put together something simple that created a much more professional looking environment in the small space they had available.
Initially, I had hoped to implement robotic cameras in the studios and supply separate camcorders for the field work, as they really didn’t have the staff to be running back and forth if the cameras needed correction or adjustment. Unfortunately, again, the budget would not stretch. Further, they had also already invested in a couple of Sony PMW-150’s and wanted to standardise. Otherwise I probably would have suggested the JVC GY-HM650 as an option: The network control is pretty handy and it also would have provided built-in streaming for wireless delivery to the Tricaster. Regardless, the compact Sony camcorders were comfortable for them to operate, fit in the studio space and performed admirably under the trying lighting conditions.
Each of the cameras was supplied with a Teradek Cube Encoder, paired to a Cube Decoder patched into the Tricaster. These units provided wireless delivery from anywhere on the university network, freeing the cameras to roam and overcoming the cabling restrictions between the studio and Tricaster. A fourth encoder/decoder pair took a feed from existing production systems and lecture hall feeds.
Some wireless Sony lapel mics for talent, as well as a couple of earpieces for crew, were connected directly into the Tricaster without an audio mixer. Not ideal for some, but this reduced complexity on the desk and the operator was able to use simple macros to mute or adjust levels directly from the control surface.
Some professional NEC displays did a better job of handling ambient light and viewing angle issues in the space than your standard computer monitors. They also calibrated more effectively and with an AJA Hi5, delivered quality results for program output without broadcast monitor spend.
The whole system was neatly installed into a mobile rack allowing them, with a little cable management, to move the system to remote locations and lecture theatres should the need arise.
Most importantly, the MOOCs proved a great success, giving hundreds of students from every corner of the world access to knowledge, tools and, more crucially, the opportunity to engage live with their lecturers. The setup proved so effective that other departments and faculty also became interested, creating opportunities to further utilise the equipment during their downtime, to build support and receive additional investment from the university. As an Instructional Technology, MOOCs have a lot of promise if implemented well. The key to offering MOOCs as a valuable alternative to classroom education, I believe, is interaction in both directions. It is difficult to create an environment for students and lecturers to interact live. Especially if you are also overcoming an unfamiliarity with the technology, as you often will be in these environments. The key is, as always, to plan, simplify and document.
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