Goodbye TV.HWDSB, Hello HWDSB.TV (or, third time is a charm)

I’m not sure how many people — outside of the 21CL team — are privy to the ongoing video platform saga here at HWDSB. Back in 2013 we recognized the need for a centralized video platform within the board. I think we are one of the few K12 school boards in Ontario with such a platform. As a medium, we found that video was a more effective way to assist teachers than the practice of authoring long screen-shot laden documents. We also recognized deficiencies in the way that Desire2Learn handled video, offloading the processing of video to the browser, and browser add-ons, rather than providing server-side transcoding. What this meant in practice was that videos that would play on a laptop wouldn’t play on an iPad because of missing browser plugins. (Nerdy aside: WordPress solves this by including Mediaelement.js as part of their codebase.)

At the time there was really only one video platform integrated into D2L, a service called Kaltura. On the surface this looked like a perfect fit. They offered both a Software as a Service (SAAS) package, along with what looked to be a vibrant open source community that might allow us to host the service on our own servers in the future. There was a plugin that worked to add video comments on a blog that looked like it might give us voicethread-like abilities on our blogs (this didn’t ever work in a Multisite environment in the way we envisioned, and we were never able to turn it on: I still think video comments would be a cool idea). Within the year we were on the hunt for a new platform. The strikes against them:

  • They were incredibly expensive
  • They weren’t interested in fixing their WordPress Plugin
  • The connection to our Active Directory broke in May, and wasn’t fixed until well into June, leaving students without access to video review materials necessary for exams
  • Their admin platform was incredibly cumbersome, and required their help desk every time we attempted to make changes

So over the Summer of 2014, we migrated over to Mediacore, a small Canadian (yea!) company that seemed to cover most of our needs. For the next year, we worked along with this company as they grew and adapted to the needs of education. They were incredibly responsive to our requirements, and their development roadmap echoed many of our needs. Then in October of 2015 we received word that they had been acquired by a company called Workday, and would be shutting down their education sector services.

That was a huge punch to the gut.

We started looking at other video providers, but having been stung twice, the prospect of adopting another third party video platform, that may also fold, or change, or otherwise lead to triggering what seemed to be suddenly becoming a cycle of migration, was not something we took lightly. Couple that with the fact that the video platform market is saturated with small companies we had never heard of, all vying for edu-dollars, all possibly on the brink of acquisition, made the hunt for a new home a pretty depressing activity. The falling state of the Canadian dollar also meant that the expensive edu-video platform market (geared more towards post secondary pockets) was starting to look like it might be beyond our budgetary reach.

The power of the video platform is in its ability to feature published content from around the board, fostering collaboration, creating windows into classroom practice, and sharing in a safe, advertisment-free/data-mining-free environment. We weren’t ready to abandon that vision.

We started thinking seriously about just hosting everything in Google Drive, but that would mean losing the centralized video repository. It would mean going back to the siloed collections, embedded in various other spaces, or merely distributed via email, requiring manual intervention every time someone was searching for something. The power of the video platform is in its ability to feature published content from around the board, fostering collaboration, creating windows into classroom practice, and sharing in a safe, advertisement-free/data-mining-free environment. We weren’t ready to abandon that vision.

We also had a difficult time finding platforms that met the needs of a student-centred K-12 program. Most platforms seemed to allow for a select group of administrators to upload content, while students merely view and consume. Others were focused on lecture capture, a style of teaching we wouldn’t want to promote within our inquiry-based classrooms. We needed a space where students could author their own content, and where related videos were other HWDSB creations. We needed a place that empowered students to be publishers, while allowing us to administrate and flag things that are perhaps inappropriate, in a safe space to learn about how and what to share online. We needed a space that integrated with our existing platforms: the Commons and the HUB.

So we decided to build out own platform (such a small sentence: such a huge undertaking). And for the rest of the year, started working with our developer-extraordinaire Ray Hoh on what it might look like.

11 months, 4 Github Repositories, 11260 lines of code, 64 Github Issues created (hundreds of posts within these issues), and 164 code commits later, we migrated 13 000+ videos from Mediacore over to our own video platform. Eventually we hope to open source most of this code so others can take advantage of this epic undertaking.

Building our own platform meets all of our requirements, and guarantees that we won’t have to move again due to poor customer service, corporate takeover, changing RFPs or any other number of issues that we risk when using commercial tools that we don’t own. This has been the basis behind the HWDSB Commons, and we have used those lessons to complete this project. Once we open source the project, I’ll get into more of the detail about how it all works, but basically we are leveraging Vimeo as the video streaming service in the backend (we don’t expect them to go anywhere anytime soon, so you can trust we won’t have to migrate again), and WordPress blog on the front-end to house the video contributions. We have developed this so that your videos will never appear on vimeo.com, and our branding and sharing settings will always be the only mechanism available to distribute your video. With Vimeo taking care of the transcoding and performance of our videos though, we can focus on building out new custom features that meet the needs of HWDSB (hosting video on your own server is hard).

We are incredibly excited about this new platform, and hope that you will help us make it a vibrant community of sharing and collaboration. You can find it at HWDSB.TV. We hope you like it. We are incredibly pleased with the results.

Re-imagining the TV.HWDSB Video Space

Those of you who have been following along, or have been affected by, the issues we’ve been having with tv.hwdsb.on.ca know that we are updating the system to rectify the issues we’ve run into. After a year of toiling away at trying to get the system up and running, only to have it go down a few months later, without the sense of urgency we had hoped to see from the vendor in repairing the damage, this update gives us an opportunity to re-imagine the space.

When we initially created the space, we created categories based on curriculum subjects, and separated those compartments by Elementary and Secondary. We created a Professional category that we jammed full of instructional videos on all of the different tools available in the board.

Looking back, I’m not sure if that was the best way to go about this.

I imagine that a number of the videos our students create cross curriculum lines. I imagine that users probably avoided posting tv.hwdsbvideos in the Professional category because it looked as if the 21CL team has marked that territory as their own.

I’m not usually one to go out on my blog to reach out for this kind of help. I’m not sure why, but I tend to use this more as an “essay” space, rather than a space to request help. I was a few characters into a tweet on the subject, thinking I could reach out on that forum for advice, but quickly realized that not only would I have difficulty fitting my question into 140 characters, but it would be difficult for people to respond.

So I ask here: If you were setting up a video platform — a “YouTube” for a K12 user group — what channel categories would you offer up? As a teacher, if you were sharing video with others, what categories would you like to see (you can always tag things, but categories provide a means for more formal, concrete collections of elements)? Those of you who use video platforms that offer up categories or channels or collections, have you seen any spaces that you think are doing it right?