Electronic Eye August 2016
Subscription Video Streaming Services
Safari Montage and Discovery Education Streaming Plus
A few weeks ago, Amazon announced that it had brokered a deal for Amazon Prime to become the exclusive provider of the most of the PBS series made for children. No longer would that content be available through competing subscription services such as Hulu or Netflix. This decision did not rock my world as a high school librarian but it did highlight just how much change happens in the big business world of subscription streaming services. They are all competing to become the preferred destination for individuals and families. They are doing so by brokering exclusive deals, creating exciting original programming, and ensuring that the end-user experience is better than the rest.
This is definitely not the case when it comes to the streamed services that are available in the school and library market. Understandably, there is much less money to be made in partnering with these institutions. As a result, librarians like myself don’t have a lot of good options if we want to provide our students with streamed media. I spent the greater part of this past school year attempting to help my school district replace our aging streamed media database. This column focuses on what I’ve learned in the process and reviews two of the databases that are available to schools and libraries.
You should know up front that the school librarians in my district did not come to a consensus. The products that are available to our market do not excite users in the same way that Amazon Prime and Netflix do and that makes decision-making very hard. But there are some good points to make about each service I looked at and good reasons why each one could be a solution worth purchasing. What is important to keep in mind is that many streamed media products for education are also trying to increase value by doing something in addition to providing the streamed media. I’ll describe these features more closely in the reviews.
The two products that I am reviewing are Safari Montage and Discovery Education Streaming. I am aware of but did not review the following products: Hoopla Digital–which is a public library solution, Infobase’s Classroom Video on Demand, and Learn360, Kanopy –which provides colleges and universities with a way to tailor a collection by purchasing specific titles, and Overdrive–which does have streamed media titles available in additional to ebooks and audiobooks.
I also want to make it very clear that I have great love for YouTube. I have a channel for my library, I host my own content on it, I know how to make and share playlists. My teachers and I often manage to find great content on it but does not seem to fill all of my media requests. I’m also aware that many teachers and some librarians have chosen to use their personal accounts for Netflix or Amazon Prime in order to provide better programming. In my opinion, this goes against the licensing agreement although I haven’t heard of any teacher or library being sued by one these giant corporations yet.
One thing that the people at Safari Montage would have you know about their product is that it is much more than just a streamed media database. Their platform allows uses to create and share their own “Learning Object Repository” (LOR). This is like a digital library with lots of different types of learning objects, such as videos or images or even documents. The LOR is fully searchable. Users can upload and tag objects into the repository and share them with all users or with a small subset of people. All of these objects can be organized into playlists that can also be shared with users. Links to media outside of the database can also be included so YouTube videos can be seamlessly added to playlists. Having a LOR solution available can help manage curriculum resources so that they are available to all teachers.
But they do indeed have a database of videos and institutions can choose a package that meets their educational needs. One of the larger packages is called the 9-12 Super Core which features over 6,000 videos along with over 17,000 images and web links to outside content. Some of the content creators include Schlessinger Media, PBS, National Geographic, BBC and the History Channel. There are some good, recent highlights like Ken Burns’ “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” but equally, there are some very dusty titles that make you question whether they are padding the package with outdated material. One series that I think needs to go immediately is the 1993 “Earth at Risk” series by Schlessinger Media. One of the titles is on “Global Warming.” This title is twenty-three years old and it is on global warming! There are sixteen other titles on the topic of global warming, including a 2012 Frontline investigation called “Climate of Doubt” I think that any librarian would pull the 1993 video from their collection and probably the four videos from 2005 and 2006 as well. Of course, you don’t have the ability to do that in Safari. I am nitpicking here and over half the video collection was created more recently than 2010.
The interface has been fully rebuilt from the ground up with HTML5 so it should work well on any device and browser. The ability to make playlists from smaller segments of larger videos has always been great functionality. I will say that the interface is sterile looking and doesn’t encourage users to want to browse and explore the content. It feels more like a teacher tool rather than one that can also be used for student exploration.
Safari’s model of purchase includes a server so that the content will be hosted behind a school’s firewall, which means that the image quality of the newer titles is quite superior to anything else out there. Users can also use the collection away from the institution, with some degradation in image quality so it is still a cloud-based solution as well.
Discovery Education Streaming Plus
In the early days of video streaming, this resource was called United Streaming and it was the leading product in the market. Then it was purchased by the Discovery Channel and rebranded as Discovery Education. Today, Discovery Education’s Streaming Plus is still a leading product in this market but they have also integrated some very innovative features into it to increase student engagement.
Firstly, the interface was designed to be highly browsable, easy to use, and does encourage users to click around and discover new things. The visually appealing landing page allows users to choose a grade level band so that their content can be appropriately targeted. For each grade level band, there is a new video featured prominently at the bottom right of the screen. In the middle of the page, there are visual representations of broad subjects categories, like English Language Arts or Mathematics, that will allow users to drill down under a particular category. A blue navigation bar is always at the top and the search box is located there.
The search results page features thumbnails of the relevant videos and some explanatory information about each video. Details include whether the video is a segment of a larger video or the full video itself.
Both students and teachers can make their own accounts on Discovery and then use a code to link to a school or library’s subscription. These accounts allow for a high degree of personalization to the experience and users can access several tools as a part of this individual account. My favorite tool is the Board Builder. This tool allows a user to create a presentation with embedded videos. Users can tweak backgrounds and add interpretative text and images. This is the way that Discovery has gotten around the fact that one can generally not embedded their proprietary videos into PowerPoint presentations or outside Web pages.
Teachers can also create assignments and even assessments for their students to complete as a part of their experience.
I did manage to get a spreadsheet from Discovery with a title list that included copyright dates and production company. This allowed me to confirm what I already had suspected from previewing the site. There are quite a lot of videos available. The spreadsheet listed over 14,000. Some of them are shorter and in the public domain. There are over 2,000 that have a copyright date newer than 2010, which is a significant collection itself. Most of these more recent 2,000 are from Discovery Communications programming like the shows that air on the Science channel. Sometimes these productions are in partnership with the BBC.
In my opinion, the entire collection skews heavily towards science and technology, although there are noteworthy historical documentaries available and programs that support learning in English Language Arts. What you won’t see are some of the more famous documentaries like the ones created by Ken Burns so if that is what valued by the users of your collection, then this wouldn’t suit needs.
I also ran across the same surprisingly dated material problem that I encountered with Safari Montage. I was screening videos in preparation to support a unit on African literature this past year and found a video that shared aspects of South African culture. This included a using a slightly older, more derogatory name for the “Cape Town Carnival.” It used to be known as the “Coon Carnival” or the “Minstrel Carnival” When you compare the Discovery Streaming video to what I just managed to view on YouTube of the most recent Cape Town Carnival, Discovery’s short snippet comes off as insensitive. This is a somewhat unfair comparison between YouTube and Discovery since the YouTube members who uploaded content in as recent as 2015 also used the derogatory term as well.
To me, this just highlights how challenging it is for a company to maintain a video database of current, culturally sensitive, quality materials and how challenging our role as librarians is in selecting databases to include.
In the end, I’m not sure how my district will choose to solve our streamed media conundrum or even if we will. At least one of my colleagues was speaking persuasively about cobbling together a more Open Educational Resources (OER) solution rather than paying a company to attempt to do it for us. It’s a bit labor intensive but, in my opinion, just as legitimate of a solution.
Kathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.