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Open-Source Lecture Capture

Open-Source Lecture Capture
September 13, 2010

For years, the main battleground in higher education between commercial technology and free, open-source alternatives has been the learning-management system market, where the open-source platforms Moodle and Sakai have been modestly chipping away at Blackboard, the commercial juggernaut.

Now, a new project from the online educational technology collective OpenCast, called Matterhorn 1.0, could open up a new front in the battle between open-source and proprietary — on a landscape that still has plenty of unclaimed territory: the lecture capture market.

Lecture capture — the practice of recording lectures, storing them in a library, and allowing students to play them back whenever they want, along with accompanying slides or other media — has become one of the more popular trappings of e-learning. Some research suggests that having lectures available for playback could help students retain lecture content. Another study indicated that it would not prompt students to cut class, as some professors have feared. The number of companies selling lecture capture hardware, software, and services has grown to more than a dozen, with the top providers serving hundreds of colleges. All in all, the lecture capture market did more than $50 million in business last year, according to a recent report from the consulting firm Frost & Sullivan. The firm predicts that figure will triple by 2016.

Matterhorn, by contrast, is free — nominally, at least. Developed over 16 months by an international alliance of institutions with foundation grants, and released several weeks ago, Matterhorn was designed as an alternative to proprietary, out-of-the-box lecture capture products, whose yearly licensing fees can be in the tens of thousands of dollars. Like Moodle and Sakai, its source code is publicly available; developers can build and share different features, and campuses can shape the platform to meet their particular needs. A dozen universities are currently piloting Matterhorn, most of them large, public institutions. They include Northwestern University, Indiana University, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and a number of non-U.S. institutions, including the University of Toronto and the University of Cambridge. Many others have downloaded it with the intention of experimenting, says Adam Hochman, an instructional technologist at Berkeley and Matterhorn project manager.

As with any open-source project, adopting Matterhorn is not actually free; the labor and expertise required to put the platform in place costs money, as do the video cameras, microphones, and other hardware that does not come with the package. And it takes vigilance and expertise to monitor the system for hiccups.

“Lecture capture can’t work 50 percent of the time; it has to work 100 percent of the time,” says Eric Burns, chief operating officer at Panopto, a top commercial provider. And most college I.T. staffs do not have the know-how and manpower to fix problems quickly enough to satisfy the students and professors who count on the system to work every time, says Tony Abate, the chief financial officer at Echo360, another provider.

“If you look at research on the total cost of ownership for servers running applications, about 80 percent of total cost of ownership is from ongoing management and maintenance,” says Michael Berger, director of marketing at Tegrity, which offers a hosted lecture capture service that starts at $10,000 for 250 hours. “You can make it do just about anything you want,” says Burns, of Panopto. “But you have to put a lot of quarters in the slot.” This is especially true, the providers say, if you want to deploy it in a lot of classrooms.

Such is the refrain of the commercial establishment. But Hochman, the Matterhorn project manager, says that while it does cost money to build and maintain the open-source system, the price is not unmanageable, even at scale. He also says that although the commercial companies do add a lot of value by being able to troubleshoot errors quickly, the members of the OpenCast community are hardly slouches, and can advise on a problem in a pinch. And it is only a matter of time, he says, before some entrepreneurs make a business out of providing stable support to Matterhorn users, like Moodlerooms has for Moodle users.

Bruce Sandhorst, an instructional technology coordinator at Nebraska, says his institution chose to be one of the first dozen or so to pilot Matterhorn precisely because officials there believe it will be cheaper to deploy at scale than any commercial system. “We’re pretty confident at this point that we can scale this out in a reasonable way without major expense,” says Sandhorst. “…Of course there is some expense to this, but compared to some of the price quotes we were getting — some of the commercial entities for us were cost-prohibitive.”

Aimee Roberts, an industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan who co-authored the recent report on lecture capture, says she thinks the Matterhorn will generate a lot of interest, though perhaps not many leaps of faith. “I am certain that this technology will pique the interest of cost-conscious institutions, as well as those who are now dabbling in lecture capture as a curiosity, to dip their toes in and test the waters while minimizing technology investment risk,” Roberts wrote in an e-mail. “However, a larger institution who desires a campus wide deployment, is often willing to pay for a technology that they know will work — something that is tried and tested.” Matterhorn will probably not take significant market share from the commercial providers, Roberts wrote, especially since lecture capture has not nearly saturated the market.

Hochman says he thinks some institutions will at least start by using Matterhorn alongside the out-of-the-box alternatives. “We try to play well with other systems,” he says. “In our minds we’re not competing with other systems; we can integrate with them. There’s a lot of flexibility there.”

Burns, the COO of Panopto, says the arrival of Matterhorn should benefit consumers by keeping his company and its commercial kin on their game. “Whatever the commercial vendors will deliver will have to be significantly better than the open-source alternative in order to justify the cost,” Burns says. “It has to retain that advantage.”

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