Once upon a time-say, a few years ago-a lot of people believed that Webcasting was the Next Big Thing. We were going to watch television-like, serial entertainment right on the Web. A lot of seasoned film and television people jumped their respective ships for start up companies that would provide original programming for the Web. Venture capital poured in. Those were the days.
Though the venture capital dried up and most of those companies have gone out of business, Webcasting is still alive and well. Broadband connectivity is proliferating at a rapid clip, and multimedia-enabled computers are cheaper than ever. And although entertainment hasn't exactly become the raison d'etre of Webcasting, it's thriving in other markets. One of these markets is corporate teleconferencing. The other is distance learning.
Slow-and-Steady Wins the Race
Avacast (www.avacast.com) serves both markets with its Webcasting product, Avacaster. Founded in Los Angeles in 2001, the company is quietly surviving in-and perhaps epitomizes-the new, post-dot-bomb economy. It's a small company, with about 10 employees and a few contractors. Everyone there wears a lot of different hats. Even the CEO has been known to answer emails sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That CEO, Rob Terrell, says Avacast is "cautious about growing too fast. All of us lived through the dot-com days and watched good companies sink under debt incurred by a too-rapid expansion. We decided to make money the old fashioned way: make an excellent product, sell it for a reasonable price, and keep our customers happy."
Terrell actually came from one of those aforementioned Webcasting companies, Digital Planet, where he was the Chief Technology Officer. And it was there that the seeds of Avacaster were planted. As he tells it, "At Digital Planet, we had specific needs for a Webcasting system: a system that was cross-platform, that worked in a Web browser, that didn't require a download, and that would integrate with a live TV production environment, but could also create on-demand events. And on top of that, we didn't want to be paying (or charging our customers) outrageous per-minute fees. So I developed a list of requirements, and we talked to everyone who sold these products back then-companies that Avacast now competes against. No one could provide everything we needed."
The solution, it turned out, came from a multiplayer gaming engine adapted to serve as Digital Planet's Webcasting system. That system subsequently became Avacaster. Educational clients include California State University at Dominguez Hills, which produces over 40 hours of live online classes a week, and they recently signed a deal with Kaplan, the test-prep giant (and parent of Concord University, the world's first online law school).
Another educational customer is the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, which has an extensive distance learning program to help preserve the Choctaw language. They serve about 150 students each semester via Avacaster.
21st Century Cyber School, a charter school in Pennsylvania, is beginning its third academic year, offering some 70 courses to about 300 students in grades 6 through 12. They began using Avacaster last spring, and also use their system for tutoring, advisement, orientation, and group meetings and discussions.
All a student really needs to attend an Avacaster'd class is a computer with an Internet connection. Broadband connectivity is preferable, of course, but not necessary. (21st Century Cyber School estimates that 40% of their students this year will still be dialing up.) Based on Macromedia's Shockwave technology (www.macromedia.com), the Avacaster Player runs right in the student's Web browser, and runs the same on Windows PCs or Macintosh computers. No additional software is required beyond the Shockwave plug-in, a ubiquitous, free download that many users already have installed. Students launch their web browser, log onto the web site where their class is to take place, and they're in class.
Avacaster supports all three major video streaming technologies: Microsoft Windows Media Player, Real Networks Real Media, and Apple QuickTime. Performance issues aside, this flexibility can translate into genuine cost savings, as well. 21st Century Cyber School, for example, uses QuickTime because they already had a QuickTime server in place, thus eliminating the need to purchase another video streaming server.
Alongside the video is another window for graphics. This is where the visual aids for the class appear, whether they are photos or illustrations, graphs and charts, whatever. Thanks to Shockwave, this area also supports user interaction, thus enabling multiple-choice quizzes and polling.
Quizzes and polls notwithstanding, chat is the primary vehicle for class participation. An open chat area enables students to ask questions, respond to questions, and talk to each other. This text appears in a scrolling window, and everyone can see it. Students can also address the teacher via a separate question button. In the event that private interaction is necessary, a "whisper" feature enables one-to-one chat without the rest of the class seeing it.
What's teacher doing during all this? Avacaster's elegance becomes apparent in the Administrator screen. Just like the Player that the students use, the Administrator also runs in a Shockwave-enabled browser window, from any Web-enabled computer. But what the Administrator shows is very different than the Player view.
Every feature of Avacaster is laid out on its own panel, which fills most of the window. A small movie display is included in the top-left corner for video monitoring. Below that are status displays showing a snapshot of data relative to the class in progress. You can page through different panels by clicking on a list of tabs along the right.
For example, questions posted by students via the button mentioned above get cued in a list on the Q&A panel. By clicking on the Q&A tab, the teacher can route them to the chat window with answers at their discretion. They can answer questions as they come in or save them until the end of a lesson or class interval. They can even edit the text of a question before sending it back out, if desired.
The Slides panel shows a list of all the visual aids that have been loaded into the system for the class. These can be browsed and previewed before pushing them out to the class. The panel also includes a whiteboard function which lets you draw in real-time, albeit a bit crudely, on top of the slide-like John Madden on the Telestrator, only jaggier (but with no less flair, I'm sure). For highlighting a particular area of the graphic, however, it's quite effective.
The Setup panel is where all the various event parameters are set and stored, including media types and addresses. It's also where you have extensive control over the user interface. You can upload custom screen elements and store different layout combinations, including fonts, colors and backgrounds. Avacaster also includes a handy PowerPoint-to-Flash converter that allows teachers to import slides directly from a PowerPoint presentation.
If this sounds like an awful lot to manage while also teaching a class, Avacaster also supports multiple administrators. Typically, a TA or student could be designated as an administrator to handle tasks like cueing slides or pushing out a quiz. Remember, since the Administrator runs in a browser like everything else, any extra admins can be anywhere-just like the teacher. A separate admin chat area is included on the Administrator screen to facilitate remote coordination.
But in most cases, teachers seem perfectly capable of administering their own classes. This is by design. Chris Boznos, Avacast's VP of Business Development, puts it this way: "No matter how impressive a distance learning product is, there's no value in it if the teachers don't want to use it or can't figure out how to use it even if they want to! We've given them something that's more than easy-it's actually fun to use."
Leanne Stapleton is the Technology and Curriculum Coordinator at 21st Century Cyber School, and knows a thing or two about teaching and computers. She taught secondary math for six years, adult computer classes for another three, and is working toward a Master's in Instructional Technology. Stapleton reports that Avacaster is easy enough for all of their teachers to go it alone. "I begin training each instructor by assisting them in their presentations and gradually, with each session, add responsibilities until they are going solo." At Choctaw Nation, one person, Lillie Roberts, teaches all of the online classes.
For those who do have assistance, and can delegate all admin tasks, Avacaster also includes a Host screen that basically operates like a Teleprompter. Admins can triage questions and feed them to the teacher's Host screen, where they appear one-at-a-time in a large window across the top of the screen. Below that are smaller areas for monitoring the chat area and slides or poll results.
Avacaster was designed to excel as a synchronous learning application, through which teachers and students all experience and participate in the class at the same time, in realtime. But many distance learning providers also like to offer asynchronous classes, in which the student can attend not only anywhere, but at anytime. Avacaster achieves this through an archive function.
Classes can be archived by clicking a Start and an End button along the right side of the Administrator screen. Everything in between those clicks is recorded and synchronized, including the video, slides, chat, and even whiteboard scribbles. An archived class can be streamed back to a student just like a live class, only without the ability to participate. The result is like a pre-recorded radio talk show-without the call-ins.
Wayne Coston, Media and Technology Specialist at the Choctaw Nation's Language Department, archives all of their classes so that students can replay them at any time. Avacaster enables remote control of video encoders within the Administrator interface, and Coston found it to be a convenient solution for all of his archiving needs. This includes not only Lillie Roberts' Avacaster'd classes, but also the non-Avacaster, two-way video classes they feed remotely to several regional public schools.
Making the Grade
Nancy Cooper, middle school instructor at 21st Century Cyber School, is pretty satisfied with the results. She "really enjoyed using Avacast to feel connected to my students. It felt like I was really teaching." Not surprisingly, she cites the limitations to students' feedback as the biggest disadvantages. "You cannot visually see the students, you cannot hear them speak to you," and because there is a few seconds' latency inherent in the video stream, "there is wait time between replies."
However, Cooper also found advantages to Avacaster compared to conventional, classroom teaching. Some of them were disciplinary. "Students cannot shout out an answer," and "you can use the whisper feature to talk to one student without the others knowing about it." Should a problem persist, the teacher can mute a student from the chat discussion, "versus sending a student to the principal or out of the room. They are just disconnected from the chat, but can still watch the event." Should a more severe punishment be warranted, a teacher can also ban a student, which causes them to be kicked off the server and prevented from logging back in again.
But the biggest advantages are social, especially for those students whose educational experience might otherwise be entirely solitary. "Students can work at home and still feel a part of a group setting," and "cannot see negative facial communication of others to their responses," says Cooper. "Peer pressure does not enter into academics," and "students have more freedom to convey their feelings and ask their questions." She adds, "It allowed my home schooled students to finally feel like they are part of a classroom of learners instead of alone."
Tuition, Room, and Board
Avacast offers Avacaster on an annual license, updates included. Hardware is included, in the form of a rack-mountable server that comes with all the necessary software pre-installed. You can use your own server, too, according to Terrell. "Often our customers want to use a particular brand, so if they ship their hardware to us we'll do the install on it instead."
They also offer a hosted option, without the hardware, where you log onto and stream your classes off of their servers in LA. This alleviates any potential hardware headaches-useful if you have a small organization and lack an IT department-"but most people are excited about having the system in-house," says Terrell.
The cost varies according to several factors, chief among them being the number of concurrent users. Terrell explains, "If you expect to have four classes online with 25 students each, you'd license a 100-user system. We generally recommend a 500 or 1000 concurrent user license. We also offer site licenses for entire organizations, which can be cheaper on a per-seat basis."
Still, even their smallest systems start under $15,000. To level the playing field relative to their corporate customers, Avacast offers a flat, 20-percent educational discount. They also lower the threshold of concurrent users, offering 5-, 10-, and 25-user systems that aren't available on their corporate pricing list. "It's just how I was raised," says Terrell, whose mother was a teacher.
Avacast is well aware of the budgetary strains on schools today. Boznos says, "Working with multiple entities within a school can be helpful to ease the strain on a particular departmental budget. Also, we demonstrate to administrators how Avacast fulfills not only particular educational missions and goals but is flexible enough to be used for Webcasting graduations, question and answer sessions with alumni and prospective students, and professional development for staff. The budget process can be a long and difficult one. We understand that and we take the time to work with the schools in this regard."
Even if the money is there, Terrell adds, "a bigger problem is getting buy-in. Sometimes online learning will have a champion high up in the administration, but the instructors and professors aren't sure what to make of it. In these cases it's important to show how Avacaster gives more power to instructors, rather than taking power away."
"The technology isn't all that difficult. The harder part is the human part-deciding questions like, how does this technology integrate with our existing classes? Do we want to charge, or charge extra, for access? What courses are best taught using this system, and what instructors are willing to try to use it? Even the most basic questions are often overlooked: what Web pages will link to the Webcast? We can get drawn into inter-departmental debates over these kinds of issues. If a customer of ours can answer these questions before they get an Avacaster, they're in great shape."
"Teacher buy-in is often a concern," Boznos echoes. "No school wants to spend thousands of dollars on software that isn't used so we're willing to give trial licenses to schools that qualify so teachers can explore and test the waters before jumping in." The trial is of their hosted service, not the hardware, and is for 30 days. Training is also free.
Once a deal is done, "preparation time is always needed to develop and promote (internally and externally) the online program-especially if the school doesn't already have a significant distance learning department," says Boznos, "Typically, the installation takes place one semester prior to Avacaster classes going online so teachers and staff can decide how to best take advantage of the new technology and add the course offerings into the school schedule."
Whenever installation does take place, it doesn't take long. Terrell is proud to note "typically our customers are up and running on the install day," and his customers back him up. Choctaw Nation's Coston says, "The Avacast system is almost plug-and-play. It took about an hour to set up the first and connect to another location." Meanwhile, 21st Century Cyber School's Stapleton reported, "It was just a few hours of setup-very easy."
More importantly, Avacaster requires little or nothing in the way of additional equipment. The CPU requirements are low, so the client runs on most existing hardware. No high-end workstations are necessary, nor are state-of-the-art classroom studios. "If you ask the schools that are using our system today," says Terrell, "I think you'll find that very little additional spending is required, although the temptation to buy more gear is always hard to resist. Several of our customers have impressive mini-studios, or bought packet-shaping routers, or things like that. None of this is absolutely required."
Stapleton confirms this, reporting "no additional costs." All they needed was "a static IP address and [their existing] QuickTime server for our streams." 21st Century's faculty teach from home with but a Webcam and a Macintosh G3 laptop running OS X. Stapleton likes Logitech's $99 QuickCam for Notebooks Pro for video input. "It has a built-in mic and works terrifically."
Boznos highlights Avacaster's scalability as a key advantage relative to a schools' needs and resources. "It all depends on the organization and what their goals are. We have set up Webcams and encoders on crash carts that are wheeled into computer labs for almost no cost. We've also seen entire Webcasting studios built out for fast growing distance education programs."
Choctaw Nation already had some experience in Webcasting prior to Avacast. Unfortunately, Coston explains, "Our previous system was orphaned when its company went bankrupt," leaving them with an understandably jaundiced eye toward Webcasting startups. And so when they sought a replacement, customer service was a key criterion. Choctaw's Wayne Coston is downright effusive about the difference with Avacast, and considers them to be more of a partner than a provider. He cites the "helpful response of their staff when we inquired about the product," and the ability to get support whenever they need it just by calling them up.
Once, when a problem did arise, Avacast handled it aggressively. "When our Avacast server developed a problem, Avacast moved our classes to their server in Los Angeles," Coston recounts. "I believe we lost one class. We mailed our server to them for repair and they brought it back to us and hooked it up. We used email to get the word out to the students." Coston, based in Durant, Oklahoma, hasn't found many technology companies willing to go this extra distance.
But should that extra distance be too far, Terrell firmly believes that he has the perfect solution in his own product, and practices what he preaches. "We like to train in person," he says, for example, "but we'll train you on the system using the system if travel costs are prohibitive. Yes, we eat our own dogfood."
Ken Gordonis a freelance writer, designer, consultant, and jack-of-all-new-media-trades. He lives in New York City, and is a contributing editor to Digital Video in the Classroom and Xtreme Video Magazine, and writes for DV.
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