Media Retrieval or Medieval Retrieval?
by Barry McKinnon
of Mc2Systems Design Group
It would seem that schools and educational institutes everywhere are joining the 20th Century and installing high tech media retrieval systems to deliver video images to their classrooms without having to drag VCR's or laserdiscs players around the hallways. The same school systems that can take 5-7 years to approve new text books have finally discovered video. Unfortunately, there's less than 6 years to the end of the 20th century, and the conventional video format that we've become accustomed over the last four decades of viewing commercial and public TV, probably won't be the future format of choice for teaching or learning in the 21st Century.
New secondary school facilities are including huge capital investments ($350,000-$600,000CDN per high school in my neighborhood) for video signal distribution and display systems to support media retrieval. The competition for system superiority has grown over the past few years, so there are now fibre-optic based systems, class 5 data cable based systems, and coax cable video or modulated TV signal based systems. Because the school boards are being told that all of these systems are equivalent by those mysterious, far-sighted individuals known only as "they," (as in "they said...") some of these systems even co-exist in the same school districts. In the limited scope of a video media distribution system, all systems are capable of squirting an NTSC video signal around a school.
The real problem arises in the future of media for retrieval. The schools and institutions that are only just catching up to the 20th century at the dawn of the 21st, are likely going to find themselves a decade or two short of the technological mark in much less than half a decade. Conventional NTSC video, as a format of choice for distribution, is going to be shouldered aside by new formats of transmission. The cable TV/phone company battles for video-on-demand signal delivery are going to produce all sorts of technical offshoots (like any war), as is the development of better video compression algorithms for computer based video image processing and delivery. Whether it's by conscious direction or by happenstance, we do seem to be moving toward the technology of PC-TV that has been espoused by the likes of Nicholas Negroponte in his book, "Being Digital."
The problems I see (as both a consultant and a school taxpayer) are with the direction and scope of these Media Retrieval systems. The two major components of the systems subject to the most technological change are the source/headend of the distribution, and the receiving end, or display system. The component of the systems that is subject to outright obsolescence is the control system for the headend and receiving end. Now, before every manufacturer of these system components runs off to package their missive for the fax machine, let's talk about the use of media in a classroom for teaching and learning (those I've separated for a reason).
Media Retrieval, in the narrow scope it is being used currently, describes a system of delivering a video image to a particular classroom at a particular time, while allowing the teacher control over the transport of the video source device remotely. It is an elaborate remote control system that eliminates the need for moving a video source device and a TV cart to a classroom. In addition, the system allows direct (no time shifting) viewing of cable TV, or satellite TV signals, available at the school's headend. Unless there is an enormous expenditure for video source equipment, a human being is needed at the headend to load the appropriate video material into a particular player at a particular time for scheduled access by the teacher. In this form, the Media Retrieval system is a teaching aid, intended to help the teacher present some particular point, or to support classroom discussion. If video material can be found that is usable under those specific operating conditions, there can be a labor saving value to Media Retrieval from the teacher's frame of reference, not necessarily from the school district's however. The school district must still provide the labor to load the headend machine, maintain it, maybe even provide the van and driver to deliver and pickup the material from some central school district media library. For the teacher to perceive the Media Retrieval system's value, the effort of selecting and scheduling the video material must be less than the effort required to pickup the video material and a TV cart, wheel it to the classroom and plug it in.
There is still some reticence on the part of teachers to embrace the concept of Media Retrieval, and it is in part because of relevance to a given course. Not every course has visual materials that are suited to video based programming. Where Social Studies or Literature courses would find benefit from a variety of video materials on tape or disc, the Math department would get more benefit from the display of a computer screen running Mathcad(tm) or similar software. Aside from whatever additional administration burden is introduced by operating the Media Retrieval system, the school board still needs to own the media, or at least they need to be able to hold it in their hand, so that they can load it into a source machine. This can add thousands of dollars to the investment required to stock the media library for a media retrieval system.
Now, as a learning aid, a Media Retrieval system misses the mark in a very significant fashion. Except for the study of the message of media, which may require the students to channel surf broadcast TV and compare or analyze what they see, Media Retrieval does not provide the same scope of interactivity as say, a library full of books. Because all of the media library is not available without scheduling, or some prior arrangement, the students do not have the ability to investigate relationships between one item and another the way they could in a library or even in a single text book. Even media such as an interactive laserdisc only has the interactivity available that the author of the disc decided upon when the disc was produced. It is not enough to say that the teacher has the responsibility to deal with these inter-relationships of subjects as part of a lesson plan, the students may have questions that are generated by the material they have seen that takes them outside of any connection the teacher conceived of, and these may be valid and worthy points to investigate.
If you think back to the classes and the teachers that you enjoyed the most in school, it was the ones that made it interesting to be part of the class. When students feel involved in the process of learning, rather than passive recipients of a lesson, they learn better. Marshall McLuhan said;"Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either," and that statement has a lot to say about Media Retrieval systems. The ability for a teaching, or learning aid, to provide support for interactivity, helps make it interesting (maybe even entertaining) and most important, Adaptive! The ideal Media Retrieval system would allow the teacher or student to investigate links to other related subjects, fields, or points of view, when the questions arise.
You may be thinking that this is turning into a discussion about education philosophy, instead of Media Retrieval systems. Designing or selling Media Retrieval systems is just like the familiar process of designing or selling a church sound system, where you must ensure you know enough about the religious philosophy of the congregation to choose the right design approach for their technical systems. Just because someone else has packaged a technical system, and put a Media Retrieval label on it, it does not mean that you assume that it would work for every application, any more than you would use the same sound system for every church.
Alright (I hear you say), Mr. Know-it-all, if the Media Retrieval systems that exist now aren't going to support 21st century teaching and learning methods, what is the answer? Well, being a consultant, I'll preface my answer with a weasel clause, I'm not going to profess to know what the exact shape of media for Media Retrieval will be, but I am pretty sure it will look more and more like digital data on something like a computer network.
In many ways Media Retrieval systems have far too small a scope already. If the systems replaced the vans and drivers that shuttle video tape and other media between a central school board media library and the individual schools with their individual headends, that would have been a step in the right direction. The growth of fibre-optic distribution in larger centres would make that more feasible all the time. That central media distribution centre headend could have contained all the media and source machines, and even conversion devices that would allow a 16mm film or a slide set to be run on a telecine and sent out as a video signal. The vast headend cost would still have been smaller than dozens of individual headend systems, with the requisite number of maintenance and loading personnel. Unfortunately, that's not the approach that has been taken, and by the time the school districts that have installed dozens of video based systems realize there would have been a better way, that system too will be outdated and replaced by digital systems.
Negroponte describes this as a conceptual distribution problem of atoms versus bits. What the teachers want is the information (bits) contained in the video, and what they currently need to manipulate the bits is a system that handles the atoms (video tapes, laserdiscs etc.). The Media Retrieval system of the not-too-distant future should deal with bits not the atoms.
As any of the Web-heads out there already know, the growth of Internet gateway providers and subscribers is skyrocketing. Something like 1 million people a month are getting "on-line", and even the phone companies have started to realize that they should have moved into the Internet gateway business before now. Right now the World Wide Web is like a cross between the Yellow Pages, a library index, and a chat line. I don't mean that to sound derogatory, but the Internet is still sorting itself out, and the honest-to-goodness content is still coming on a bit (or a byte) at a time. The runaway interest in the Internet is because it is become a cultural phenomenon, not a technological one, and it's the friendly net browsers like Netscape(tm) that have made it less important to be a gearhead when you want to surf the net. What the net provides now is interactivity, and that provides both entertainment and education, often without people being aware they are learning.
At this particular time, the availability of "neat stuff" on the Net has pulled lots of people into the system. The ability to deliver on expectations is keeping pace with the majority of people who are surfing. Many users have bigger expectations, and want to be able to access the hard data, not just the directory of available data. What the Internet has now is a tremendous breadth of links and connections, and what it lacks is depth of information. That depth is filling in slowly, limited by the amount of older information in a digital form, and by the need for a functional method of operating a commercial information venture on the net. Many of the national libraries are developing Internet programs that will gradually see the information available on-line, not just the indexes of information. Even Encyclopedia Britannica will be offering a subscription service by the end of 1995. If the availability of real content seems meagre, remember that we're less than six years from the end of the 20th century, and six years ago no one cared a whit about the Internet except computer dudes and dudesses.
What the Internet does provide is a widespread new way of thinking about retrieving media, and a method of making the retrieval very interactive and inter-related. It is also driving the market for data compression, data delivery, interactive publishing software (HTML based) and personal computers. Even more importantly, it is also producing people, including teachers and students, who have more experience (and interest) in searching for, finding, and using information in many forms. The teachers who are going to be able to make the best use of media as a teaching, and learning aid, are going to be the people who see the information technology as friendly and entertaining, and not some technical obstacle that has to be overcome.
With the emerging of the Internet culture, we will find that, very quickly, the concept of a video image being made available in a particular classroom at a particular time will be "totally Flintstone, dude!" The users expectations will (finally) become a major factor in school Media Retrieval systems. Unfortunately the high capital cost outlay of the video based headend, display systems and related control systems, will make these systems difficult to upgrade as quickly as the information technology evolves, even though the building cable infrastructure may be able to support higher information density. At the rate that the Cable TV and Phone companies are chasing the set-top-box and video-on-demand markets, this technology, in some form, will probably happen by the end of this century. But Media Retrieval won't just be about video signals, it will be the ability to display computer graphics, whether those graphics come from a computer in the room, or from a Web server in Finland or a digital video delivery system. Digital video or computer graphics, the display system has to have the brightness, resolution, and the size to serve the classroom. Hi-resolution large screen video monitors are becoming readily available, but in the larger screen sizes really needed(35"+), they cost almost as much as video projectors. The new generation of Digital Light Processor Technology(tm) recently introduced by Texas Instruments for video projectors may drive the cost of graphics-capable big screen projection down significantly, finally providing an image size at least equal to an overhead or slide projector for an educational setting.
The obvious next step in a wide area Media Retrieval system is for the School Districts to become their own Internet gateway, limiting access to inappropriate Internet sites such as "alt.binaries.sex.deviants", and providing their own central server for all the digitized A/V materials. The user interface will be a computer, the need for separate control systems won't exist. The sources will be digitized data, VCR's and laserdiscs won't be needed. The display system will be an appropriately sized computer screen. If the local computer that is used for the interface is equipped with a graphics tablet, then the same system can perform the overhead projector function as well as delivering a lesson with presentation software. If the computer is equipped with a video codec as well, the same system can be used to source or receive Distance Learning material and lectures. Once the video camera exists for that function, it becomes a video copystand too.
As widespread fibre-optic networks grow, the merger of Media Retrieval and Distant Learning systems is an obvious extension of this information delivery philosophy. A single state (province) wide media server can provide the same media materials to a school in a town with 500 students as a city with 100,000 students. The same system can provide shared lectures and classes as well as the media material.
With today's technology, and especially today's prices for technology, none of this is about to happen tomorrow. But it is happening, we are slowly moving this way, and we are really just waiting for some mega-breakthrough in computer hardware pricing (like the set-top-box), before ubiquitous computers are the centre of a Media Retrieval system. If you're making money selling Media Retrieval system now, you can't afford to ignore the rapidly growing Web-head computer culture. If you're a consultant talking to schools about Media Retrieval now, you have to be aware of more than the technology, you have to be aware of the epistemology (how we learn what we learn) and how a Media Retrieval system can be more effective as a teaching and learning aid. Think about the fact that there are less than six years to the 21st Century, and think about the state of technology in your home or office six years ago, there is no doubt that Media Retrieval will mean something very different before the end of this century.
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