The Beyond Walls 2009 conference was recently held by the University of Oxford at Saïd Business School, following on from Shock of the Old 2009, Beyond Walls focused on Institutional Podcasting.

Beyond Walls 2009 consisted of 9 presentation sessions and Q&A sessions, each themed differently and led by academic, support and technical staff.

  • First on the stage was Peter Scott from The Open University, The OU started giving public access to podcasts in 2008, by October 2008 they had passed 1 Million downloads, by January this number had jumped to 2.5 Million and in March 2009 it had grown to 3.4 Million. The Open University has traditionally been very focussed on production quality for their material, having worked in partnership with the BBC up until 2006 they have gained a huge amount of knowledge in the field. Instead of making lecture content available they focus on high quality documentary style content with academic narration/intention.

The OU content is kept in one place and aggregated out to a number of channels, podcasts are available via the web, iTunes U and YouTube. They now host all of this content on Amazon’s scalable S3 platform, this gives them the ability to meet the needs of their   which has grown at a phenomenal rate and hosting this content themselves was just not an option, the costs involved with this are under £1000 a month.

In under 1 year The OU had 3438500 downloads by 416000 visitors averaging out at 75000 downloads a week. 88% of the visitors were from outside the UK and tracking statistics show that 1 in 6 then went on to visit The OU website. They now have at least 1 new visitor every 2 minutes to the content.

By aggregating the content into iTunes U and their own website they have fine control over who accesses it, iTunes U supports granular access to the content and can even be combined with institutional single sign-on and IP address access control lists so it is a great tool to give students access to private content and also give public access to other items.

  • Peter Robinson from the University of Oxford talked about the challenges and opportunities in Podcasting at a Research University, he started by introducing some things to think about: Sharing good practise, aggregation of content, web portals, server encoding engines, work flow and legal processes.

Before I get into that let me give you a little information about Oxford’s setup. Oxford have 500 IT staff, 200 network subnets and 100+ Active Directory domains. In 2008 they had no podcast content and no money to begin offering one but they had the opportunity to become a part of iTunes U which had just been launched in the UK, they had to have very quick discussion from a legal point of view, scope out content and set up training and user discussion.

After these initial discussion they went to departments to look for previously recorded lectures and started to offer these as content. Oxford has lots of very high profile and respected academics who created content for the project, it was also very useful to be able to call on alumni who are well known to the public and students to create content.

Training was given on workflow, how to create the podcasts and the legal process, regular updates were given to the board and stakeholders. After the initial launch they concentrated on departments who were still keen to take part in the project and started to increase marketing of the project throughout the institution, they also noticed that by simply placing the a picture of the speaker in the podcast it increased the number of times it was downloaded as content could be more easily recognised.

From there the service grew quickly and expanded into not just providing educational podcasts, PodOxford was created for new students, using podcasts it explained the unique language and terminology of Oxford and introduced them to Oxford as a city, a virtual guide if you like.

  • Tim Fernando works on Project Erewhon at the University of Oxford, Erewhon is a group of location based services for computers and mobile devices. The idea of Erewhon is to be able to locate things easily, it could be a specific building, an object or a group of people.

A product of Project Erewhon is OxPoints, a system which provides accurate geolinking of all schools and buildings around Oxford for staff, students and visitors. Combined with a suitable device such as a smart phone with GPS the user can navigate to a building a car park without prior knowledge of it’s location or details about a building or object can be provided just by being stood next to it. For example if you were walking down a street and wanted to know more about the history of a college you were at you could refer to OxPoints which would know that you were stood next to the college and direct you to information or a podcast about it.

The system is also smart enough to know what kind of device you are using and the bandwidth limitations in place so if you are using a mobile device in a 2G signal area a lower bandwidth audio podcast would be streamed, if you were in a 3G signal area a video could be streamed to the device and make use of the extra bandwidth available. Another example would be for languages students, video is great for watching at home, but what about on the move? If you are in your car the system would recognise that you’re travelling at speed and automatically direct you to an audio only version of a podcast instead of the high bandwidth, power hungy video version.

Take up of smart phones is increasing rapidly, for example low income families in the USA are buying smart phones because they double as devices that can access the Internet and also be used as an ordinary mobile phone.

  • Ben Hawkridge from The Open University talked about the technical considerations in running The OU podcasting service. These include Media authoring and capture, content management, media transcoding, delivery method (RSS/ATOM), logging/statistics and web portals.

The OU developed a bespoke CMS in PHP using a MySQL backend, via a web browser the user uploads the media and types in all the meta data associated with with the podcast, the CMS takes the data and creates the RSS/ATOM feeds that will be using by services such as iTunes U, YouTube and their own web portal.

The CMS provides administration on two levels, podcast authoring by staff and iTunes U management. Users can upload files up to 2GB in size and the CMS does all the media transcoding, The OU uses MP3 for audio and MPEG4 for video. From the beginning it was decided that the system needed a high level of automation and also to be highly scalable in terms of usage and storage requirements.

Thought also needs to be put into the servers that host the media, many HTTP servers have a low default limit on connection numbers, Apache for example by default only accepts 250 concurrent connections, fine for serving web pages that consist of lots of small files that are downloaded quickly but not for podcasts that can be many gigabytes in size and consume a connection slot for potentially hours.

Eventually The OU moved to Amazon’s S3 storage system as demand for the podcasts had gone beyond what they could cope with, in July 2008 bandwidth peaked at 300Mb/s saturating their Internet links to JANET.

Ben talked about the need for good logging and statistics, not only do they provide statistical support for your objectives but it also helped plan for bandwidth management and make sure that The OU podcasting service didn’t impact other web services The OU host.

Beyond Walls 2009
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