Better Than YouTube

A veteran CIO discusses a video management system built for education. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Jeff McMahon 

CREDIT MSD DecaturAs the Chief Information Officer at the Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township Schools in Indianapolis, Indiana, I have the pleasure and challenge of orchestrating technology in a public school district with over 6,000 students in grades K-12, including a Kindergarten, four elementary schools, two intermediate schools, one middle school and a high school, as well as a charter and alternative school.

I’ve been with the district for over 16 months now, and I have more than 29 years of experience in largely technology-centered roles. As Decatur’s CIO, I oversee all of our technology, including student data, student management systems and more. I’ve always jumped in on the beginning to some of this cutting-edge stuff over the years by writing a lot of grants. For example, I was part of a $9 million Department of Education Challenge Grant back in the early 2000’s that established Indiana’s very first problem-based learning 1-to-1 laptop program, among the first in the nation.

As technology continued to advance, one of my main concerns had to do with an abundance of student work creating overly hefty file sizes.

As technology continued to advance, one of my main concerns had to do with an abundance of student work creating overly hefty file sizes. Students were creating really big movies and graphics and putting them together to present for their problem-based learning projects — and we often lost everything. There was no way to transfer content back and forth; it was just really clunky. We’d have really good presentations, but no way to easily share and archive them. 

From my earlier days, I knew Michael Kessler, a trusted contact with deep experience and success in student and school productivity and communication tools. When Michael released a video management solution built specifically for education, I recognized it as a perfect solution. I can give every student an account; when they save their movie they can upload to MyVRSpot where they have a repository of all their movies. Then, we go to the presentation and there’s all that web access — and links. We can simply click and see the presentation.

That there existed a smooth, easy way to share school-related videos in a safe, secure and controlled environment was extremely gratifying. Other benefits took me by surprise. Grandma and Grandpa could see them, Mom and Dad, other students; you had a way of sharing — and it just grew and grew.

An early leader in video management, the solution has only become more robust. It was one of the first video tools. Now, every time you turn on your computer, videos are everywhere — but back when this came out, it was really the cutting edge of video production and sharing, in a really easy way. It was just seamless.

Today, the platform has had the advantage of time and upgrades, so it’s still seamless, secure and easy to use, but now more than ever — and with more specific attention to school needs than another familiar video platform. It gives us a safe and secure environment where we can store all of our media files.

Sure, some students will still go straight to YouTube, but you don’t want all your stuff on YouTube. For one, you don’t own it anymore. The kids like YouTube, so when they see this similar-looking solution, it works out nicely. And I still think they post things in YouTube, but we have made this available to them so they can safely upload their work.

Initially, I just wanted a place for videos, wherever that might be, where I could easily store and retrieve them. However, in my experience, that kind of ease of use is simply not workable in a classroom or school situation. Overburdening existing machines with files, dealing with weakened memory, overloading laptops — all catches up to any user very quickly. I desperately needed an easy storage and management system, and got much more than I expected. Students and teachers could store a lot more stuff with it, and even gather people to share it and see it. But I didn’t even consider you could just send someone a link and be on it, or other kids could be in your group and see and rate videos, and things like that — like YouTube, but safer and more controlled.

Is it really worth it? The answer to that question depends on how much a school district values safety, security and privacy, and could have legal ramifications as well. Part of my job is to ensure our student data is kept safe, and one thing I don’t like is for our students to post materials into a third-party system that I have no control of. I wouldn’t know if they were doing something inappropriate or even what they were doing. And if it represented our school district poorly, I wouldn’t have any control over it.

The administration piece in it allows me access to every student’s account, so if something wasn’t right I could handle it. I have total control. With YouTube, I don’t feel that I have the control that I need to have. YouTube’s cool, but I don’t feel comfortable with them having control over our students work.

When it comes to safeguarding a community of learners, control is a very good thing all around. With a solution like this, I like the way that the teacher has control of what her class is doing. And the district has control of what’s happening with the whole video management piece.

We are also able to use various features, such as a Video Showcase, with ease. Another feature is streaming video; we recently live-streamed a holiday performance. With only a couple days warning, we used our Facebook page to announce our intention. While physical attendance was excellent, even on short notice, over 50 more devices connected to the performance online as it happened. A teacher set up the computer right in front of the stage and let it go. Absentee relatives? They could watch it as though they were sitting in the audience. It’s almost too easy. It used to take engineers to come and help us do it. Now, I can send the teacher in and she can do it for us.

Today, in 2015, where everything is YouTube, video oriented, Vimeo — even kids that don’t have hardly anything know what that means, so it’s important that we know that we have our own video system, that we have control of it, and that it’s going to work for the district and it’s not just out there where I can’t have any control of it.

In the broader view of education, we need to be careful with what we are trying to do with students. And not focus so much on the technology, but what we are trying to do. In other words, improving student achievement, or making core content better, and not having technology for technology’s sake. I still get beat up with, ‘Oh, you need to teach students Microsoft Office because that’s what the world uses’. But kids need to know how to do Math and Reading and Writing, and then they can do anything they want. We’re using all these technology tools to make us a better student, not just a better technology user.

Jeff McMahon is the Chief Information Officer for Metropolitan School District of Decatur Township Schools in Indianapolis, IN. Contact him through this link.

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