Key considerations for expanding the campus community with live streaming

Technology advances and competition have made live streaming easier than ever to deploy, but schools must be careful to pick a solution that meets their needs—and their budgets.

live-streaming-campusWith commencement season in full swing, parents and alumni are flooding campuses nationwide to partake in the festivities. For those unable to make the trek in person, many schools are now broadcasting the ceremonies via live streams, giving audiences a front-row view of the proceedings.

Live streaming is nothing new, of course, but industry changes in recent years have made the technology far more accessible to institutions of higher education. As a result, schools are expanding their live-stream operations to encompass everything from graduation ceremonies to musical events, sports, and religious services.

“Live streaming captures the excitement and power of now,” said Chris Knowlton, vice president and streaming industry evangelist at Wowza Media Systems, a Colorado-based company that specializes in the technology. “It’s more compelling than on-demand, particularly for events such as sports where you would likely hear details about a game before you watched it.”

This sense of excitement is important on a university campus, according to Ian Fritzsche, director of media services at Southeastern University, a Christian liberal arts school in Florida. “These live events really connect the community together,” he said. “People feel as if they can participate in the event.”

Southeastern streams its commencement ceremonies live each year, but its streaming efforts are focused most heavily on the school’s four chapel services each week. “The live stream is intended primarily for those students who can’t attend the service in person,” explained Fritzsche. “But it’s also a way to advertise the university and say, ‘Hey, if you’re thinking about coming to school here, take a look: This is what we’re about.'”

(Next page: Technology considerations and finding the right fit)

The ability to extend a sense of community beyond the campus walls has enormous potential not only for student recruitment but for other key audiences as well. Alumni relations and development offices, for example, like live streaming as a way to maintain and build relationships with alumni, donors, and parents.

“The community is not just on campus anymore,” said Fritzsche. “Live streaming helps tie that community together with common events and by having people participate at the same time regardless of their location.”

For small schools that could never hope to land a TV distribution deal, live streaming offers a way to broadcast fall football games, for example. Even at big schools, it can help showcase minor sports to students, fans, parents, and alumni. “There’s been a big pickup in the number of schools live-streaming minor sports,” said Knowlton.

This increased visibility into the life of a college is particularly popular among parents, who tend to be far more involved in students’ lives than they were a few decades ago. “We have a lot of buy-in from parents who say, ‘I want to know what’s going on on campus. I want to see my kid playing in the band,'” said Fritzsche.

Technology considerations

Live streaming can help schools meet demands like these because the barriers to entry have dropped significantly in recent years. For schools that want to offer live streaming, cost considerations must cover two areas: the filming equipment and the streaming technology itself.

On the filming side, schools need to decide what level of quality and sophistication will meet their goals. Southeastern offers a four-year broadcasting degree, so it has a fully operational TV studio with high-definition cameras—and the students to operate them.

Fritzsche cautions schools about diving into the deep end before they’re ready to swim. “There’s a lot of high-quality video equipment that can be had for much cheaper than it could have been five or 10 years ago, but you really need to do your homework,” he said. “You need to bring in people who can point you in the right direction; if you get into it too quickly, it can be a pitfall.”

However, if high-production values are not essential to a school’s live streaming goals—or if it wants to test the waters—far cheaper and easier options exist. “At certain sports facilities, such as tennis courts, some schools will use a fixed camera that doesn’t require an operator,” said Knowlton. A similar approach can be used to capture concerts or lectures.

The greatest advances have probably occurred in the streaming technology itself. Industry standardization, cheap hardware encoders, and turn-key solutions now give schools the ability to automatically encode and disseminate live streams for viewing on any device or any platform.

Southeastern, for example, currently uses a combination of Livestream and the Wowza Streaming Engine, which Fritzsche describes as “the Swiss army knife of streaming because it offers all the tools—such as cloud transcoding, resizing, and multiple bit rates. It really allows you to take one stream and repurpose it for every user in whatever size they need and for whatever connection they have.”

Before cloud transcoding—or server-side transcoding, as it is also known—became a reality, the onus of creating these different versions fell on the person at the university doing the encoding. A computer—often multiple computers—was required to run intensive processing on the video, and a large data pipe was then needed to send the different renditions to the school’s service provider for distribution.

“Now,” noted Fritzsche, “you send them one really high-quality stream over a high-quality internet connection, and they do the work.” The benefits of this approach have multiplied exponentially with the advent of HD video, since the amount of processing power needed to stream and transcode multiple lines of HD video is enormous.

Finding the right fit

In order to save money, Fritzsche advised schools to pursue a solution that closely matches their streaming goals, noting that the proliferation of streaming options today gives schools plenty of flexibility. “Know who your audience is, know what you need, and then match that up with a solution,” he said.

For schools that are heavy users of video streaming, for example, a contract with a high-end content delivery network might be the best approach. For schools that plan to stream just a couple of events a year, on the other hand, such an approach makes no sense.

“What I like about the market right now is that you can get the amount of streaming you need without paying for more than you need—that wasn’t always the case,” said Fritzsche. “With its cloud service, for instance, Wowza has made it very easy to utilize a pay-as-you-go streaming model with an easy-to-set-up GUI that requires very little knowledge of the back end.”

Regardless of what solution a school ultimately chooses, it is imperative that IT be closely involved from the beginning. “The impact to the main internet connection to your institution is going to be huge, especially if you choose to set up that server on your campus,” said Fritzsche. “Those conversations with IT need to happen.”

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor for eCampus News.

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