Video Streaming To Connect With The School Board

from Educators' eZine

Our Board of Education has always been interested in connecting with the citizens of Fulton County. But this task can be especially daunting, considering that the Fulton County School System is not only more than 70 miles in length but also is geographically divided by the city of Atlanta, which is a separate school system.

In practical terms, this means that if a meeting is held in one end of the county, interested parties at the other end must drive through the city of Atlanta to attend. Realizing the difficulty related to traveling, and wanting to keep the citizens informed and involved, the Fulton County Board of Education decided that to video stream Board meetings would provide an excellent opportunity for citizens to “attend†the meeting without ever having to leave their computers.

Challenges

As the Coordinator of Broadcast and Video Technology for the Fulton County School System, I am responsible for meeting the technical needs for Board Meetings, as well as programming our educational cable channel. Besides offering the meeting as a video stream, we also decided to capture the meeting for cable playback, so that viewers could follow Board of Education meetings via our cable channel.

Another interesting twist was that our Board of Education meetings are not held in the same location. The meetings change location, so any solution that we implemented couldn't be permanently installed; it would need to be portable to allow movement to different meeting locations.

In deciding what type of stream to utilize, we settled on Windows Media. We reached this decision because we wanted to provide our stream to the largest number of users possible while trying to eliminate plug-ins.

To summarize: our solution had to:
provide a live Windows Media video stream,
simultaneously capture DVD quality video for cable TV playback,
and be portable enough to move to different locations.

The next issue to consider was a streaming host. Even though our network is robust, hundreds of requests for a live streaming feed would be difficult to handle, so right away we knew we would need an outside streaming provider. Using an outside streaming host would allow us to send our stream to a provider, who then provides streams for many simultaneous viewers. In addition, we looked for a host that would also provide video-on-demand. This would allow us to upload meetings (or other videos) that viewers could watch according to their schedule. If they missed the live stream, we wanted them to be able to view it on-demand.

Decisions

After putting out a requisition for bid, we settled on an integrated system that met all of our requirements. The solution that we chose was the Rushworks ToastMaster, a custom-modified solution built on the NewTek Video Toaster. The ToastMaster provides a live video stream and an MPEG-2 video capture simultaneously in a portable solution. The ToastMaster system also comes with 4 robotic cameras; effectively allowing one person to record and stream a presentation while controlling camera movements and adding titles as needed.

For our streaming host, we contracted with EarthChannel, a company that provides live and on-demand streaming at an affordable price, as well as supporting Windows Media. EarthChannel also provides statistics that show us the number of viewers for both live and on-demand videos.

Results

Once we chose our solutions, we implemented them quickly. The ToastMaster system functioned extremely well, apart from a few initial hiccups. EarthChannel functioned flawlessly as a streaming provider. The first few months our Board of Education meetings were viewed by perhaps 20 to 50 people live. Compare this to the video-on-demand version of the Board meetings, which were being watched by 200-300 viewers, and these numbers began growing.

We have now been streaming our Board of Education meetings for over a year, and the statistics have amazed me. We routinely have approximately 200 viewers in a month watching our actual meetings, and this number has gone as high as 500. Our video-on-demand has also increased exponentially; a typical month will see in excess of 600 viewers watching a video stream of a Board of Education meeting on-demand.

We also realized was that we could use our hosting provider to post other video content for our viewers. Accordingly, most of the videos that we now produce can be viewed either on cable or on-demand via video stream. This has given us the ability to produce training and information videos that can be viewed via the Internet by our staff, parents or community. One can envision the time and money saved using this technology. Our latest statistics show that this past month, we had over 2700 streams watched on-demand.

Community and staff response to this technology has been overwhelmingly positive. The demand for streaming programs is increasing as people see the advantages of watching video content on their computer screens without the need to drive through Atlanta traffic. For the most part, glitches have been overcome and the process has been a positive one. Now if we could just get a permanent board room and not have to move the equipment for every meeting, I would be sublimely happy.

Email:Dan Gillette, Fulton County Schools

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