Manfred Kuechler (Hunter College)

First posted: Feb 12, 2001
Last update: Feb 12, 2001

Video for Online (Enhanced) Courses

[This is a sequel to Audio for Online (Enhanced) Courses and I recommend to read the piece on audio first if you are interested in the practical details.]

Challenge #1: Bandwidth (Internet connection speed) limitations

In comparison to (voice) audio, creating and distributing video material poses greater technical challenges. This is particularly true for the distribution of video material via the web. Here, the "bandwidth" limitations of telephone modem connections can be a major obstacle in putting such material to pedagogically meaningful use. Careful consideration should be given to what kind of video material is suitable for at least 56K modem connections (which renders about 40K actual bandwidth under average Internet traffic conditions). Computers bought during the last two years are likely to have 56K (V.90) modems, but older computers may have slower (28.8K) modems, many of which can be upgraded by installing new software (driver) for the modem. Before making video materials an essential component of an online (enhanced) course, it is necessary to ascertain whether all students have access to appropriate hardware -- or to specify such hardware requirements before students enroll. As there is no difference in CD distribution of audio and video material, I will discuss only web distribution of video here and I will concentrate on distribution to students with 56K modem connections. It is also important to understand that the speed of an Internet connection depends on several factors, some of which can be influenced by the user (student); see this non-technical explanation.
A few years down the road, fast Internet connections (via DSL or cable) may be common among students, but this is certainly not the situation at CUNY right now. On the other hand, quite a bit can be done under the current bandwidth restrictions -- and claiming otherwise simply reflects ignorance.

Challenge #2: Copyright and Fair Use

Given the far greater complexities in producing video (rather than just voice audio) material, using video material produced by others -- and most likely subject to copyright protection -- rather than producing such material yourself may be the more common scenario. I will not discuss copyright issues in any detail, but these issues need to be taken seriously. What constitutes "fair use" in the era of the Internet and course web sites has not been determined with any authority, and I don't expect that clear cut rules will emerge any time soon. A moderate position is to consider the following scenario as fair use: An instructor can use copyrighted material without obtaining prior permission as long as the material is only available to the students enrolled in a particular course and only for the duration of this course. This implies that such material must be stored in a password protected area of a web server and that the password(s) are only available to the students during their enrollment in the class. However, the nature of the material thus used may also make a difference in determining whether this is "fair use" or not. Using a commercially produced educational tape without expressed consent and without paying a per student fee may easily be a copyright infringement while using a self-taped news show may not be. Length of a video clip is another important factor: a short sample of 5 or 10 minutes from a one hour tape may be "fair use" while putting the complete tape on the course web site may be an infringement. Use your own judgment and err on the side of caution.

Sources and types of video material

I don't intend to present a comprehensive typology. Rather, I will discuss a limited number of possibilities available to the average instructor requiring only modest additional investments.

Conventional video (VHS) tapes

To turn regular VHS tapes into video material for a course web site, you need one piece of additional hardware: a video capture card. Such cards range in price from just $100 to $5,000 -- offering, of course, a wide variety of functions and features. Doing your own research in this area can be rather confusing; at the least, it is time consuming. But, if you are up for it, this commercial site is a good point to start.

When I started my experiments in this area in late 1998, I went for a shortcut making use of one of those promotional "creation kits" which RealNetworks always offers though details change over time. My kit included both a video capture card (Osprey 100) and the RealProducer Plus plus a simple computer camera. It is worthwhile to look into such kits not just for money savings but also for insurance that hardware (capture card) and software (RealProducer) will work well together.

Installation of a capture card is easy, at least not more difficult than installing any other card (a new sound card, an Ethernet card, or an SCSI controller card for a scanner) into a free "expansion slot" of your computer. The somewhat trickier part is to connect your standard VCR to your computer: You need to connect the video channel from your VCR to the video capture card in your computer and the audio channel from the VCR to the sound card. This may require different cables/connectors than those that typically come with a home VCR. So finding the right cables may be a challenge; I got great help from Greg Crosbie at Hunter's AVS (Audio-Visual Services).

The video capture card comes with some software which allows to view whatever you connect to the card (camera, VCR). This is useful to test the initial installation of the video capture card and maybe determine base level settings for tint, brightness, contrast. The RealProducer has two viewing windows, one for input, one for output. Once connected, you play your VCR via your computer monitor; as long as you don't record, the output window will remain empty.

Producing streaming video files with RealProducer is not more difficult than producing streaming audio. As I assume that you are familiar with the companion document on audio, I will restrict my discussion to additional considerations. All what is said about audio applies here as well -- with the possible exception that a video file should be produced directly from the analog input (VHS tape) without creating a digital file (e.g., in .avi format) first.

In general, you will want to produce video material which also includes sound (audio) not just a silent movie. As a consequence, the bandwidth requirement for the video part comes on top of the requirements for the audio part. A conservative strategy like the one recommended for voice audio of using just 16kbps will likely lead to rather disappointing results. For video material, use of a special server, like the RealServer, becomes much more important. The main reason is that then material can be produced as "multi rate SureStream". This means that the bandwidth needs of a specific file are dynamically adjusted to the actual Internet connection:

So, I recommend to use "multi rate SureStream" for video files and to select several "target groups" like 28K, 56K, and maybe 256K (example: documenting anthropological fieldwork, scroll to bottom of target page). The resulting file will be quite large because the different versions are all packed into one file, but no single user would get the whole file, so this affects only the onetime upload to the server and the storage space on the server.

Digital (computer) cameras

On one level, not much difference to using a VHS tape except that a different device is connected to the video capture card. But getting the lighting right is not easy and may require special lighting equipment for decent quality. In addition, audio is recorded live at the same time and this may be a bit much for an instructor to handle it all by him/herself. As I said before, I don't see much pedagogical value in "talking heads". For genuine online courses, with no face-to-face meetings between instructor and students whatsoever, it may be worthwhile to produce some greeting or welcoming clip in advance. For these situation, however, I recommend to tape an "address" or welcoming speech on videotape first -- using proper lighting and sound recording. As an example, here is a welcoming note by former Hunter President David Caputo, which was professionally taped by Greg Crosbie and his crew. I then produced the streaming version from a VHS tape.

Slide shows

This type of video material does not require any additional hardware, no video capture card. The still images are assumed to be already digitized, and this preliminary step may require a scanner, but this step (scanning photos) is outside the scope of this document.

The most popular "slide show" software is possibly MS Powerpoint (part of the MS Office suite). In contrast to Powerpoint 97, Powerpoint 2000 comes with much improved web support, i.e., Powerpoint presentations can be easily converted to html though some care is needed in putting such an html converted PP presentation on a web server especially into a Blackboard (Bb) course site (step-by-step instructions). Conversion to html is highly recommended as PP powerpoint presentations easily result in large files (5 MB for 25-30 slides is not unusual, but of course there is quite a bit of variation) and thus extremely long download times from a course web site (especially over a 56K modem connection). While the html conversion does not necessarily reduce the overall file size (one .ppt file gets divided in a large number of smaller files), the individual files get downloaded as needed and the first slide can be viewed as fast (or slow) as any other web page.

Most instructors use PP as a visual aid accompanying a live oral presentation. However, a narrative (audio track) can be added to a Powerpoint presentation, thus making it more self-contained. This is an attractive feature for genuine DL as well as hybrid and web-enhanced courses. In addition, the narration can be turned off. So, an instructor may produce a PP presentation with some basic narration, turn the narration off during initial presentation in class, but have it available for students when they revisit the presentation on the course web site. However, narration and other sound files are treated as "embedded objects" by Powerpoint (and other MS Office products such MS Word2000) and tend to increase file size considerably.

RealPresenter provides a solution to this problem: it allows to record a PP presentation (including a narrative) in streaming format so that the whole presentation can be viewed with the RealPlayer. As most Real products, RealPresenter comes in a free basic version and a Plus version (as of February 2001, the Plus version sells for $99.95). However, while the earlier version of RealPresenter (version 5.0) was basically a plug-in for PP allowing to add a narrative in streaming format, RealPresenter G2 (now branded as "8") is much more and can be used independently from PP. It offers the opportunity to add a "talking head" (in a small frame) to the slide show (in a larger frame) and was designed for virtual business presentations. Of course, from a technical point of view, there is no difference between a business presentation and an academic lecture.

A less costly alternative is RealSlideshow (as of February 2001, the Plus version sells for $69.95) -- especially for instructors who don't have access MS Powerpoint (which rarely comes pre-installed on new computers as it is part of the "Professional" version of the MS Office suite only). RealSlideshow lets you built your slide show from scratch, using existing images, adding text, and adding a narrative. However, slides in PP are often just text rather than genuine images (photos, charts, graphics) and RealSlideshow is better suited for genuine images with relative short text captions.

Screen movies

Again, no additional hardware needed here, no video capture card, no nothing. But you do need special software to produce such screen movies. Camtasia appears to be best product on the market at this time. A single user copy sells for $150. SnagIt which is TechSmith's screen shot program includes some limited screen movie capability (feature comparison provided by the vendor), but it is possibly best to go for the package deal and order the Camtasia / SnagIt / DubIt bundle for $169.95. This is a savings of $19.95 over the individual prices. (DubIt is an .avi video movie editing tool.) I have only limited personal experience with this software based on a free trial evaluation -- as I had bought software with similar functionality (Lotus Screencam, ScreenShot) earlier. So, I have not much to offer in terms of concrete practical advice.

The drawback of Lotus Screencam is that students need to download another viewer; it's free, but it is another piece of software to worry about. ScreenShot, though less fancy then SnagIt, has served me well and so I am sticking with it because I am used to it.


Multimedia for course web pages can mean a variety of things. Some such material can be produced very easily and without much experience; other material requires some additional hardware (video capture card) and a bit more experience. But individual instructors can produce a lot of pedagogically valuable material suitable for web distribution to students with just a 56K modem connection. There is no reason to wait. Of course, it would help if colleges set up "laboratories for instructional and learning technologies (LILT)", units directed by someone with extensive experience in both academic teaching and technology, offering non-standard hardware and software for instructors to try out as well as ongoing advice and consultation. Given proper direction, computer-savvy students (hired as college assistants) could make up most of the staff and could provide effective service to faculty. As so often, a lot could be achieved with very limited funds.