Open Content, Mass Storage

Written on 2008-09-16 17:53:42
I think it's generally agreed upon that free video lectures are cool. I'm not saying that everyone wants to watch them but the fact that it's possible to download M.I.T. and Berkeley lectures, course readings and assignments most people seem to view as positive perhaps because many of us will never attend those schools.

There is tons of content out there and it's often difficult to find it all. There are a few sources I've found that help in sorting through everything but my sources tend to lead towards what suits my studies (computer science) best. That would be Peteris Krumins blog and Lecturefox. There are plenty of Google Techtalks and Authors@Google videos that are good as well. Beyond that, I occasionally find one off blog posts that may link to content I wasn't aware of. If anyone knows of any ACM conferences similar to the Reflections conference at UIUC where videos are released please post in the comments.

Unfortunately, most to all of these sources have a curious notion of "sharing" or online distribution. There are one or two problems that all the content they've posted online [under the egalitarian notion of global learning] suffers from. The first problem being that it's streaming content which is difficult to download (generally .flv or .rm format). The second problem being that if there is a download option for the content it's through a non-cross platform or DRM-encumbered client (such as iTunes).

Thankfully, Mplayer exists. Mplayer is my video player/encoder of choice (though VLC is quite good, too). And wouldn't you know it? It provides support for watching, ripping and converting those frustrating rm streams in addition to everything else. Flash videos are easy enough to rip through existing Firefox Extensions.

To make things even more exciting, there's no reason anyone can't mirror all the educational content out there. Except for legality of course, I can't speak to those details and I expect most of this content is under separate licenses. I do wonder if the Creative Commons No Derivative Works clause includes transcoding though. I suspect it doesn't based on the definition of derivative work. But to return to my original point about mirroring, storage is cheap now. Even NAS setups though they still run a good deal more than regular storage. But c'mon, it's a fileserver in a box. You knew that though, right? When you can get a 320GB PS3 or Notebook drive for $100, a 500GB external for $100 and a 1TB internal drive for $140 you know life is good. Not that I'm not excited about the day when the same will be possible with SSDs but don't worry, that day is coming.

Also, to the folks who filmed the Lively Kernel Talk from last night as well as those filming technical talks generally: If most of what the presenter/speaker is discussing concerns what's happening on the computer screen, you should be filming the computer screen. It's a handy rule.

Now, if you're not a Computer nerd or Software Freedom Advocate you may wonder why any of this would bother anyone. After all, you can still stream the videos with RealPlayer or watch them via Youtube in any event, right? Not quite, though I'll admit my problem is mostly with the egalitarian notions of education that I perceived (or imagined) to underpin this whole OpenCourseware initiative. If your stated goal is to make a set of educational resources available to as much of the world as possible via the internet then you're effectively after every demographic. There's not a section of the market you can afford to alienate.

In many parts of the world, I expect it's a real pain to find the time to sit in front of a computer and stream a file. Particularly in places where internet connections are scarce and are not broadband where they are available. Particularly if the file is a one or two hour lecture that you might want to rewind or pause at various points. If a guy can't watch the file in (connected) India, how is it free learning throughout the connected world? Additionally, if someone wants to watch video lectures when it suits their schedule (say at the gym or on the train) why would you prevent them from doing so unless they had a specific brand of portable video player?

If you're trying to promote free educational content then the first step you can take to responsibly pursue your goal is to choose the most widely viewable formats and lend your content to the widest possible types of use (including offline use but perhaps excluding commercial profit). Poor choices have been made in both respects. Flash Player historically wasn't available for x86_64 based Linux platforms though that has been recently remedied and iTunes U isn't available on Linux at all. More seriously, RM and FLV videos are difficult to download and use portably. Conversion to another format tends to be necessary as well.

Somewhat relatedly, I'd like to suggest that the masses of Open Content out there could use a good marketing push. Open Courseware is as underused as music, images and video in the Creative Commons. Someone really needs to create a service which finds Open Content and recommends or reviews it based upon the more familiar proprietary content in Music, Film and TV that consumers are fans of. Just giving it away isn't enough.
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Unless otherwise credited all material Creative Commons License by Brit Butler