Harvard to raise the bar for online learning tech

Looking to improve the video quality of its online lectures, the Harvard Division of Continuing Education customized an open source platform and took it to the cloud.

harvard-lecture-captureAs higher education pivots toward nontraditional learners, schools are facing demands to improve the production quality of the lectures they make available online. While commercial lecture-capture solutions have long served the needs of students on campus, some universities are questioning whether these systems offer the flexibility and production values necessary to serve online learners.

For the Harvard Division of Continuing Education (HDCE), the answer was no. Instead, the school opted to build a customized, cloud-based version of Opencast, an open source video-capture and distribution product previously known as Matterhorn. “Other Harvard units use lecture capture as a review tool for students who don’t come to class, are sick, or need a study tool, but our distance-education group actually sells access to these lectures,” said Gabriel Russell, a video, software, and systems engineer at Harvard. “Lecture capture is a primary learning tool for our students, so we need to make sure the product meets their needs.”

Tests of the lecture-capture solution used at Harvard found that the general video quality and bit rates were lower than what HDCE wanted for its program, so the school looked more seriously at Opencast, which had been used in a side project at HDCE for almost four years. “There was an existing framework of universities that already supported it and a rich community of other developers, so we knew we wouldn’t be going down this road alone,” said Russell.

HDCE formally switched to Opencast for its students last September, two years after deciding to make the open source platform the cornerstone of its video system. During that time, HDCE committed long hours and significant resources to customizing the platform to meet its needs.

(Next page: Designing lecture capture for the future)