EDCAR: ‘mother ship’ for school media

Five years after the collapse of the CPB-backed OnCourse project, public TV is training for another run at the target.

Which is: a comprehensive online digital library that gives teachers just the right video snippet, image, audio clip or interactive simulation that they can plug into a lesson — easy as telling an anecdote or pointing to a map.

That kind of a digital library, in some form, appears to be the 21st-century successor to the filmstrip, the 16mm film and, most pertinently, the instructional TV programs that many pubTV stations formerly broadcast into the schools. And most schools that can afford it now get that core library from private-sector companies. Discovery Education, a corporate sister of the Discovery Channel, claims half of the nation’s schools as subscribers and 25 pubTV stations as middlemen that sell the service to schools.

Leading the challenge: PBS and three of the handful of pubTV licensees that have been operating their own versions of an online media library for teachers. They call the project EDCAR (Education Digital Content Asset Repository).

Rob LippincottThe first phase isn’t “proof of concept.” Robert M. Lippincott — PBS senior v.p., education, and leader of the project — calls it “proof of collaboration.” By the end of February, they plan to test whether they can make the licensees’ three separate teacher portals work together: Maryland Public Television’s Thinkport, WGBH’s Teachers’ Domain and the online service of Utah Education Network (KUEN), a sister of KUED at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City. The tryout’s scope is limited to middle-school materials.

Since OnCourse failed in 2003, “the question has always been, when are we going to work together for our communities to create this?” said Peggy O’Brien, Lippincott’s counterpart at CPB. Stations that went ahead with these educational portals were “incredibly entrepreneurial,” she said.

MPT estimates that a third of Maryland’s teachers use Thinkport, said Chief Education Officer Gail Porter Long. WGBH’s Teachers’ Domain, which has a national scope and partnerships with other pubTV stations, finds that half of the nation’s schools use the service, and educators worldwide logged in 800,000 times in January.

O’Brien cited last month’s CPB study, which found that 76 percent of pubTV stations are working with K-12 schools to provide educational services, but she acknowledged that many stations are not as active as MPT, WGBH or the Utah net.

“What that points to is EDCAR,” she said, “something more comprehensive so that all stations ultimately could be able to offer this to their communities, and they ideally would not be writing a big check to Discovery.”

Lippincott doesn’t like to portray EDCAR as competition for Discovery Education, the dominant player in the online school video market.

“It’s not my intention to design a competitive service,” he said. “The opportunity is not to . . . emulate a certain product” but to develop higher quality materials made expressly for teachers’ needs.

“Unitedstreaming is a wonderful product,” Lippincott told Current, “but it’s not a perfect product and not as profitable as Discovery would like it to be.” School media companies still see the streaming services as an experiment, he said.

For teachers, the services achieved something like magic when they quickly dispensed a usable video clip on a teacher’s request. But they remain “at the level of the first round of magic,” Lippincott said, and he can imagine a higher level of magic.

It’s a market he knows, because Lippincott came to PBS from Discovery Education, where he was senior v.p. of product development and oversaw the design of Version 3 of Discovery’s Unitedstreaming service.

But in its summary of EDCAR, PBS is not shy about stating a goal Discovery also would like to achieve: “A unified approach will allow the public media system to create the most comprehensive set of educational assets in the world.”
If all goes well in this month’s test, the EDCAR team will show off a systemwide version at the PBS Showcase conference in May and invite more stations to try it out, Lippincott said.

The plan is sensitive to pubTV stations’ traditional role as the local gatekeepers. EDCAR would play the PBS role, aggregating content nationwide and broadening the options for the stations, which not only choose what they’ll offer locally but also produce or acquire content for their own regions—and sometimes add it to the pool available to other stations.

“We are keen to support the station as the point of service,” Lippincott said. “They’re the ones that have the relationships with the teachers.”

As with the online video player that PBS will offer for station websites, what teachers see of EDCAR’s front end will have at least “the ‘your-logo-goes-here’ style of customizability,” he said, though stations will be free to keep their present portals or invent quite different ones that still tap EDCAR.

To let stations share these digital files, EDCAR needs agreement on technical specs, usage policies and metadata tagging.

Working groups are examining options in major areas: content and curriculum, chaired by Long from MPR; technical, Cory Stokes from Utah; and rights, Michele Korf from WGBH, Boston.

“What we’re trying to do is build a learning-media mothership,” said Stokes. The system would use agreed-upon metadata as the “Rosetta Stone” that translates between the stations’ online systems. The central digital asset management system for the tryout will be provided by North Plains Systems in Toronto, he said.

Decisions about EDCAR’s economics will come later. The service must find revenues, Lippincott said, “but that doesn’t mean we’ll be asking teachers to whip out their MasterCards.” Some stations now sell services to school districts, some are paid through state contracts and others, like WGBH, offer services to schools on pubTV’s usual no-charge basis — backed by a mix of funders.

In fact, WGBH’s agreements with production unions, rightsholders and some foundations won’t let it charge such fees for the programming, said educational program exec Denise Blumenthal. Under a Hewlett Foundation grant, WGBH and three other stations are experimenting with production of “open content” protected by Creative Commons licenses instead of copyrights.

EDCAR, like the commercial online media libraries for teachers, will pack away thousands of “learning objects” or “content assets,” mostly two to five minutes long.

The system would let teachers keep records of “favorites” that they’ve used in class — or might use next month. And the system would have social-network features for consulting about teaching ideas with their peers around the country.

Though EDCAR would contain topical segments “chunked” from PBS broadcasts and other longer programs, its material increasingly would be “purpose-built” for teaching, Lippincott said.

Indeed, WGBH produces about half of Teachers’ Domain materials explicitly for school use, though the producers usually can recycle footage shot for other purposes, Blumenthal said.

Much of the digital inventory would be stored centrally for efficiency, Lippincott said, but MPT’s Long likes the plan that a “federated search” capability would let teachers search for and retrieve files stored on other servers.

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