Boxmind: Taming Courseware Authoring
An idea that has been around for a long time is capturing lectures by the best minds in colleges and universities and making the lectures available to those unable to sit in on the "real thing."
One leader in the field is The Teaching Company (Chantilly, Virginia). This firm offers dozens of lectures on CD audio and videotape. The tapes offer customers a way to "learn from the finest college teachers in America." The company's Web site at www.teach12.com provides a catalog of the firm's offerings. The Web site, however, does not offer pay-per-view access to the courses.
A representative course is "History of Christianity." The listener receives 36 30-minute lectures. The program has a list price of about $270 US, but is available on a special offer for about $70 US. The firm's video courses can range into the $600 range, not cheap by any measure.
A spokesperson for the company said, "we have none of our courses available via the Web at this time." For this company, the economic realities of producing and marketing courses appear to be as significant a hurdle as technology issues.
With such companies as BMW and Yahoo! using streaming video for advertising and informational purposes, the role of rich media for educational and instructional purposes is a "no brainer."
Many U.S. universities have embraced distance learning via cable programs. Web-based programs are in evidence at institutions of all sizes, following in the pioneering footsteps of the University of Florida at Gainesville and Dr. Anthony Rue.
At this time, a number of companies offer courseware authoring tools. Representative companies include Centra Software's MindLever Composition Suite, Hypercosm's Hypercosm Studio, Macromedia's Web Learning Studio, and NYUonline's iAuthor beta. Of these four products, Macromedia's is among the best known. A non-programmer in a rush to assemble an electronic course faces a steep learning curve.
Boxmind, a Cambridge-based company believes it has an easier and better approach to courseware, including streaming video lectures. The firm is the brainchild of Oxford graduates who were able to obtain venture funding in April 2000 from Eurovestech plc. The company has developed a suite of software that allows a user, typically a university and its professors, to create rich media lectures. These lectures are converted by Boxmind software into Web-centric files.
Unlike the programming-graphics approach of Macromedia, Boxmind allows its users to rely on Microsoft Office as the primary authoring environment.
According to Richard Halkett, one of Boxmind's founders, "We set out to make the process of creating courses suitable for Web delivery a great deal easier for everyone involved. Preparing a lecture is quite time-consuming, and we have found that the university's technical services unit should be involved in order to obtain the best quality video for the lecture."
"Anyone with a working knowledge of PowerPoint can prepare a Boxmind multimedia lecture. Lecturers must have their content well in hand. Boxmind makes building a multimedia lecture a relatively painless task," said Mr. Halkett.
The Boxmind solution includes a turn-key server and software. Based on Windows 2000, the Boxmind solution uses PowerPoint files and the built-in Web services included with Microsoft Office in order to reduce the learning curve associated with creating Web-deliverable content.
Boxmind has developed over the last 18 months a suite of technology. "We looked at different commercial software and services. We decided to develop our own system for digitizing lectures. We can convert data from a digital camera into data suitable for delivery over low, medium, and high bandwidth at a fraction of the cost of most commercial software."
A lecture created with Boxmind includes software to create the digitized video files and links among the objects that comprise the lecture.
Boxmind has developed a four-panel display format. The graphical presentation is somewhat similar to that use for Yahoo!'s FinanceVision service. Boxmind points out that the visual similarity is a coincidence.
"We concluded that we needed to provide a student or viewer with a largish display for the video. Smaller panels contain the Web links and supplementary text. A fourth panel works a bit like the display in Microsoft's PowerPoint. Graphs, images, and pertinent data can be displayed when they are relevant to the comments the lecturer is making," said Mr. Halkett.
The Web site suggests that Boxmind has prepared a suite of illustrative lectures delivered by some of the sharpest minds in the United Kingdom. In addition to the television star Richard Dawkins, the company offers without charge lectures by such luminaries as Niall Ferguson (history), Sir Martin Rees (astronomy) and Ian Stewart (mathematics)among a dozen or so others. In June 2001, a Richard Dawkins' lecture was available without charge.
Boxmind is wrestling with pricing, but the company, says Mr. Halkett, is "keen to speak with interested parties at universities in the U.K. and elsewhere. We want to work out equitable relationships."
A sample of the type of program that the Boxmind system can produce is available at www.boxmind.com.
The speed with which Boxmind or any company entering this exciting market may be gated by four issues. These are the cost of bandwidth, the time required to prepare solid programs or "course packs", the delivery skill or "star" quality of the lecturer, and copyright ownership to the content.
With the right lecturer and the proper authoring tools, Web-based learning programs can bring a breath of fresh air and possibly considerable excitement into often-stuffy classrooms. In the wrong hands, the lectures will flop.
Web addresses for companies mentioned in this column:
Boxmind, http://www.boxmind.com and http://boxmind.freeserve.com/region.asp for the company's Web directory of academic resources. The interface is unusual and the coverage of academic disciplines is sometimes thin.
The Teaching Company, www.teach12.com
Centra Software, www.mindlever.com
Stephen E. Arnold
Arnold Information Technology,
Postal Box 320
Harrod's Creek, Kentucky 40027
Voice: 502 228 1966
email@example.com Mr. Arnold is an independent consultant working from Harrod's Creek, Kentucky, USA with two boxer dogs and 13 servers. His most recent book is "New Trajectories of the Internet," published by Infonortics, Ltd. in Tetbury, Glou.
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