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Academia’s Fork In The Road: Rethinking Digital Learning Through Creative Content and Delivery

By Gary San Angel, Distance Education Specialist at the University of Southern California 

The content economy as it exists today is the antithesis of the traditional university-level lecture. Students have become accustomed to watching video content from social media platforms that are eye catching, concise and to the point. Universities have struggled to evolve. Lectures lasting an hour plus simply become too painful to digest when we have adapted to consuming our information in videos that are 60 seconds or less. 

We must recognize this as a real-world challenge for academia when it comes to connecting with would-be learners. I see classrooms all the time where students are more effectively shopping for shoes than they are listening to the professor. Analytics on many traditional lecture capture recordings highlight the drastic reality that no one is really watching and tuning in. Bottom line: universities – and the content they provide – must evolve if they wish to continue to educate effectively! 

This is where creative content producers and versatile studio spaces come into play in the education environment. Over the past seven years, I’ve worked to develop the Soto Studio at the Health Sciences USC campus in the Department of Preventive Medicine. What started as a small green screen distance education studio has grown into a fully-equipped audio and video podcasting and live streaming production studio space. It has also served as an exciting evolution in meeting the changing demands of our student learners. We are on the verge of opening up a new world of game-changing possibilities that promise to transform higher education and distance learning. If it sounds expensive to you, you might be pleasantly surprised!

(Image credit: Soto Studio)

Rethinking content

One of the earliest changes we made to content was in long-format lectures. We quickly and effectively chunked these out into shorter videos. Each segment is focused on a clear learning objective, no longer than six minutes in length, and easily digestible by anyone watching it. To achieve this, we improve the professor’s workflow by adding a teleprompter to a lecture. This allows them to see their slides and have their eyeline properly set on camera. The result is that a professor appears to be speaking directly to the student viewer. These recordings are used online and prior to a classroom meeting. Then, in-class time can be used for groupwork and discussion – a format that flips the traditional approach and, in turn, increases in-class engagement. 

USC researcher Dr. Bradley Peterson

(Image credit: Bradley Peterson)

Over the past two years we’ve been looking at how we will compete with streaming services. This may sound ambitious, but at the end of the day we are still in a battle for viewers who have many options vying for their limited time. Last year we launched an episodic show on Facebook Live called “RESTORE – Art | Health | Stories.” The program explores the crossroads between physician scientists and art practitioners. In a recent episode, USC researcher Dr. Bradley Peterson provides a brief primer on the neuropsychiatric illness of Tourette Syndrome. Jordan Busa, an award-winning concert violinist, then shares his personal story with the illness along with his music. It’s a unique approach, with unique content that is engaging and interactive, and it is designed to capture an audience while still fulfilling our main mission: to educate learners. In a sense, we are using the Netflix formula: building our own library of shows, but with the goal of transforming static research and medical lectures into engaging, impactful, artistic, and meaningful content.

Rethinking workflows

Our success in this space is owed to our ability to utilize new technologies in everyday workflows. A very exciting key aspect to that is the free-to-use network protocol NDI (Network Device Interface). NDI was developed by NewTek and allows video-audio-metadata sources to be simply shared across standard IP networks with other NDI-enabled devices. There are hundreds of NDI-enabled devices on the market with more being added all the time. You might be reading this not knowing you already have NDI capability in your own facility! 

Imagine a lecture hall or classroom environment. It could even be as specific as a mock surgical procedure in a medical school. NDI-enabled pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) cameras are mounted to the walls and connected to the university’s network. Those signals are sent via the network to the main control room – in a different building, perhaps across town – and those PTZ cameras are controllable via NDI over the network. The content can be switched live if necessary as nearly all production switchers today are NDI-enabled. Lower third graphics can be added in via NDI as well, just like you'd expect on live TV. NDI will even record all of your camera streams plus your mixed output which can be edited. The widely used Adobe Creative Cloud suite of tools like Premier Pro and Photoshop are NDI-enabled. Not only can you edit content without having to transfer files but you can playback your timeline onto the network and it can be used as a live output! The time and cost savings doing it this way are enormous compared to what would be required pre-NDI. 

There is no cost associated with NDI – and because higher education tends to be one of the most effectively networked environments – there is a huge benefit to adopting an all-IP video workflow and sending all video signals over a network. 

Not only is NDI free to use, there are a number of NDI tools you can download and use for free as well that have transformed what we are doing at USC. The RESTORE show utilizes the free NDI Scan Converter to send slides over IP to the teleprompter screen. We use NDI Studio Monitor to live switch the video feeds so the host and guests can respond to the live comments and questions we receive in real time. And, of course, NDI has minimal latency so our NDI feeds match up with our SDI sources which is absolutely critical to the success of our Facebook Live shows. 

Because this is network based, it raises some intriguing possibilities for the future. As the Keck School of Medicine – where the studio is located – and the main USC campus are separated often by Los Angeles’ famous traffic, it would be technically possible to connect the two locations via the network. This would allow for remote studios to be set up across both campuses while control and live switching is done in another location. No more requiring a technician by onsite. No more asking professors to add hours of travel time to their days. I mention this as I expect it to be our next project, and it will again fundamentally change the way we work. 

Academia can be infamous for being slow to adopt new forms of technology. That said, this is a simple and effective upgrade that can be taken on today. But, it requires you first build the sandbox. Create a production studio or recording space, utilize free tools such as NDI to support you, and work with colleagues across programs and institutions to create templates for building innovative content. NDI is a game changing protocol that is already enriching our learning environment here at USC by giving us a flexible canvas for being able to produce live and on-demand content in a way that we could never do before. Just like streaming revolutionized the way we listened to music, I believe NDI is set to revolutionize the way we produce all our media content.