Crazy ideas

What could technology do for us? Streaming media boxes: flipped learning on a budget

Dastardly and Mutley in their Flying Machines

File under: “It’s a crazy idea, but it might just work..!”

It has been a while since I wrote anything on this blog.  As many of you may know, the Ensemble project ended, and acquired the transitory name ensemble@ljmu, before being formerly renamed REd-Tech.  But the team, and its enthusiasm, survive; and so does its love of dreaming up innovative ways of using technology to drive learning.  To that end, it has been suggested I write up some of the more outrageous ideas I’ve personally had (I believe the jargon is “blue skies thinking”) into a series of blog posts.

You can file these under “crazy, but it might just work!”

The style of each post will be simple: take a technology not currently on the education radar, and explore how it might be exploited in the classroom, lecture theatre, or anywhere education takes place.  Some of the technology may be bleeding edge (like… oh… the Oculus Rift, to give an example), while some may be more commonplace devices that herald trends that are yet to find their way into education.  This opening missive is an example of the latter.

Once YouTube proved the appeal (not to mention the practicality) of streamed video on the internet, it was only a matter of time before movie and television programming began to appear online, and only a matter of common sense that hardware makers would begin to offer products specifically aimed at this market.  In education, the Khan Academy has (in some commentator’s eyes) opened up a new and exciting pedagogy built around on-demand video: flipped learning.  This blog post unites the two, by considering if the hardware designed for the former can be commandeered to offer a robust, simple and budget-friendly platform for the latter.

The technology: streaming pixels and smart televisions

As a kid, television used to be simple.  From personal recollection: Grandstand, followed by the endless football results, followed by Doctor Who, then perhaps a sitcom (something with Michael Crawford), and eventually a game show were members of the public made fools of themselves to win a cuddly toy and a fondue set (whatever that was!)  Rumour had it there was also programming on the other side, but that required getting up off the sofa to change the channel, or finding the remote.

Thanks to Sir Tim Berners-Lee, today’s youth have things a lot more complicated.

Internet TV devices come in many forms.  All major subscription-funded television providers, such as (in the UK) Sky, BT and Virgin offer an on-demand internet TV service as a compliment to their regular channel based services.  Typically the service is built into the large set-top-box (STB) hardware that also grants access to their channel content and allows viewers to record programmes to hard disk for time shifting.  But increasingly younger consumers in the USA (with the world likely to follow) are foregoing these scheduled based offerings in favour of buying content ad-hoc through services like Netflix.  They are cancelling the monthly cable TV contracts (“cord cutting” as it is known), returning the large STB’s, and signing up to on-demand services as their only source of video content.  Instead of consuming entertainment as part of a schedule, they purchase the entire box set of a show and watch episodes at their leisure.  Initially the content on these on-demand streaming services was little more than movies, plus comedies or drama that had previously been aired on scheduled television; but the services are now becoming big enough to commission their own exclusive content.

This is television for Generation YouTube, but not everyone wants to watch their favourite shows hunched over a laptop or tablet.  These devices offer what is referred to as a lean forward experience, but what video requires is the lean back experience of the television plus sofa or bed.  Popular services like Netflix and iPlayer are available on big-box games consoles like the XBox and Playstation, but to reach the plethora of screens in the modern home — not to mention the demographic who don’t play Grand Theft Auto — there needed to be a cheaper, smaller, alternative.  One alternative is to build the technology into the television sets themselves: so called Smart TV.  An alternative is to compliment a standard television set with a little gadget that gives it internet streaming capabilities.

Roku Streaming Stick

Just what you always wanted: ANOTHER remote control to lose down the back of the sofa!

Streaming media devices, such as the Apple TV (£99), Roku (£40 to £50 for cheapest model), Chromecast ($35 USD) and Western Digital’s TV Live (£90), offer a simple hardware fix for playing internet media on a regular television set, without the need for a cable STB, games console, or piping it through a laptop or media centre PC first.  These devices are dedicated video streamers, accessing the internet sans HTML or JavaScript.  As well as YouTube, Netflix, etc., they generally also offer immediate access to catch-up services like BBC iPlayer, 4OD and Demand 5, all streamed over Wi-Fi into a discrete unit that plugs into the HDMI socket of a TV set and is operated by a conventional looking remote control.

Perhaps it was the rise in popularity of internet TV that prompted the BBC to announce in March 2014 that it was taking its youth channel, BBC Three, off the airwaves as a cost cutting measure, and relaunching it as an iPlayer exclusive ..?  The decision was defended on the grounds that the younger demographic of BBC Three would find it easier to adapt to the shift to streaming, while the older demographic of BBCs One, Two and Four would be less adaptable.  Director-General Tony Hall explained the rational of BBC Three’s shift to streaming as, “Younger audiences are moving increasingly on-line, on-demand, looking at content on screens wherever they happen to be.”  Now, it would be a barefaced lie to suggest that the majority of internet streamed television is consumed via dedicated streaming devices; Director of BBC Television, Danny Cohen, noted in an 2014 interview that only 25% of iPlayer activity is on lean back (television screen) hardware, so the majority is still presumably on lean forward (tablet/laptop/phone screen) hardware.  But it seems reasonable to assume that as services like Netflix and iPlayer become more mainstream, consumers will increasingly favour the lean back experience of  lazing on the sofa or sprawling out on the bed.  Particularly if the standalone hardware continues the trend towards the sub-£50 price range.

The pedagogy: flipping school and MOOCs

When I was a lad, “flippin’ school” was the kind of phrase only muttered by the pupils of Grange Hill, as a way to give the dialogue a bit of urban street-cred without upsetting self appointed TV watchdog, Mary Whitehouse.  But now, it seems, “flipping” is increasingly being used by teachers and pupils alike to describe an inverted form of learning, were students learn at home and do homework in the classroom.

(As with many education innovations, not everyone is in favour [1][2][3] — but this posting is not about the merits or otherwise of the flipped approach, but how an institution that is considering flipping might achieve it on a budget.)

The learning phase is typically achieved through watching short videos, such as those on the popular Khan Academy site.  With the learning done at home, the classroom time is taken up by assigned work to test the student; the teacher’s role is to offer individualised help and tutoring.  Teachers may receive detailed logs and statistics for each student, revealing how often they watched each video, and how many segments they rewound to watch again.  This data is intended to warn the teacher about material the class or (more often) an individual learner is struggling with.

Aside from assuming an internet connection at home, this style of teaching requires each child take home a device suitable for playing online video.  Typical candidates are laptops and tablets, of course, which must be carted to-and-fro between school and home: thrown into school bags, dropped, sat on accidentally in the car, and infrequently (no doubt) left behind on the kitchen table like a forgotten P.E. kit.  What would be ideal would be to have two devices per child: one that permanently stays at home to act as the video player, and one that predominantly stays at school to do the assessments.

Outside of school and formal education there’s also a sizeable demographic who are potential candidates for MOOCs.  Massive Open Online Courses are touted by some as a flexible way of undertaking ongoing professional development, although undoubtedly many are probably undertaken out of sheer curiosity for the subject matter.  Regardless of the motive, this type of learning takes place entirely away from the classroom, and (like flipped learning) is centred heavily around video.  Pitched at the further and higher education market, MOOC videos tend to be longer, and closer to a lecture in style compared to the short cartoon doodle videos of something like Khan Academy.  If the learner owns a laptop or tablet, they a likely to want to use it as a “second screen“, to take notes or research as the video content unfolds.

You can probably guess where this is going…

The solution: streaming media to the rescue(?)

In both the flipped and MOOC scenarios the standalone streaming box or Smart TV offers a streamlined and simple experience for the viewer.  Plug the box into the TV (if standalone), let it connect to Wi-Fi. then use a standard remote control to navigate content and control playback.  There’s little opportunity to get lost or go wrong, even if the learner is not particularly tech savy.  And for the tech savy, there’s no complications or distractions, like email or Facebook notifications popping up at random intervals.

Given the features of some of the higher end standalone hardware, such as the AppleTV, WD TV Live or Roku 3, it would be feasible to hook up a USB keyboard to create complete, super cheap, all-in-one home education platform for video-heavy pedagogies such as flipped learning or MOOCs.  But the cheaper boxes, such as Roku’s £40 offering, could also be useful as a stay-at-home device to support the ‘learning’ component of a flipped classroom, with the expensive laptop/tablet hardware therefore rarely needing to be taken off school grounds.

So much for the dream, what about the reality?  Of the most notable streaming boxes on the UK market (or coming soon), can any of them really offer a solution suitable for flipped learning and MOOCs?

First of all we must, regrettably, rule out the Smart TV services built by individual television manufacturers into their TV sets.  The range of content providers they support is usually locked down, determined by deals between manufacturers and providers — one cannot just add a new source of content, like one can add an app to a phone or tablet.  Google’s Chromecast must also be ruled out too.  Although very cheap, Chromecast is really tightly designed around tablets and laptops: the device is intended for ‘air playing’ video from laptops/tablets/phones onto a TV screen, and redirecting YouTube videos onto a second screen to free up a tablet or phone for other things.  Perhaps Chromecast will evolve in future, but for now that leaves just Apple TV, Western Digital TV Live, and Roku…

Three bears (Goldilocks)

Baby bear found his media streaming solution was “just right” (and the porridge wasn’t bad either!)

Apple TV adopts a familiar app based model, with different sources of content being accessible through separate apps.  Each app (iPlayer, Hulu, YouTube, Netflix, etc.) provides a user interface gateway into the respective video/audio catalogues of its service.  Unfortunately Apple closely controls who gets to add apps to the Apple TV platform — it is invitation only, there isn’t even any means of submitting an app for consideration to an app store.

The same can be said of the Western Digital device.  Although the WD TV Live supports a wide range of sources and formats for streamed video (including from local network drives), there appears to be no public developer programme.  This means the WD boxes are as locked down as the Apple TV.

Like the Apple box, the Roku employs an app model — but, unlike Apple, anyone can develop and publish an app to the platform; hundreds exist already.  Roku apps (known as “channels“) are developed a simple programming language (BASIC) using tools included in the operating system of each Roku device itself.  The Roku platform seamlessly handles all the installation and management of app software, and automatically updates devices when new versions are released.

From a cursory glance, only the Roku looks promising.  But this is a rapidly moving market; things may change.  Before we declare a winner, let’s dig a little deeper into the Roku, because education apps need more than just an open platform…

The first requirement is restricted visibility of the app.  Roku offers two categories of app: public and private.  Public apps are listed in the official store of the Roku device itself for anyone to install, but must pass a quality assurance check first by a Roku staff member — obviously this is far too visible for an app aimed only at education.  Private apps are not vetted, and therefore not publicly listed, but may be added from a user’s account management page on the Roku web site if they know the app’s exact ID code.  Private apps allow groups and organisations to have a Roku ‘channel’ without publicising it to the outside world: seems ideal for education establishments.

The second requirement is locking the devices down: we don’t want little Johnny accessing the WWE wrestling content on a box he was given by his school.  On Roku, both the public and private routes to installing apps can be secured: the device’s app store can be locked behind a PIN, and the account management web page is protected behind a username/password.  Also, the management pages reveal which apps are installed on the account’s devices; they can be remotely deleted or added as required.  (Note: the account login is only needed to manage a Roku, not to actually use the box.)

The final problem is uniquely identifying the viewer to create individualised playlists for each learner, and to capture and upload the playback data flipped pedagogies often feed back to the teacher.  Fortunately market forces play in our favour here, as streaming media boxes by necessity must be secure enough to assuage the paranoia of content providers like the Hollywood studios, who seem to be in a perpetual state of fear that someone might see or hear a second of a copyrighted work without paying in full.  As such, all the platforms that carry commercial content include means of identifying the hardware and/or user watching the content, and (if necessary) scrambling the incoming video to prevent unauthorised viewing (so called DRM: Digital Rights Management.)

For now it looks like we have only one viable contender, largely because of the open model adopted by Roku.  That model means the Roku platform now supports hundreds of ‘channels’; most of them built around video, but a small proportion of other uses too (weather apps, games…)  This has given Roku a healthy lead in popularity in the US, roughly a 50% bigger market share than Apple TV.  But Apple has yet to make a serious commitment to this market, indeed it has sometimes described the Apple TV as a hobby.  This is expected by many tech commentators to change very soon — if not by the time you read this blog posting.  Although its hardware is at the top end of the price range, many teachers and head teachers feel comfortable with the Apple brand and its eco-system; if Apple opens its device up fully to developers then we might see some real competition.


These streaming boxes, even the more expensive Apple TV and the pricer versions of the Roku, are not general purpose internet devices, like a tablet or a laptop. What they offer is affordability, flexibility and control.

  • Affordability, because at around the £40 to £50 mark for the cheaper hardware, they may be a viable option for education establishments willing to experiment with new techniques like flipped learning, but without an extensive budget to spend on technology.  Breakages don’t cost the Earth to replace, and expensive items like laptops and tablets don’t have to travel outside of school quite so often.
  • Flexibility, because when a laptop or tablet is also available, the media box can offer a second screen experience — the ability to watch the video on the main screen, while still leaving the laptop or tablet free for taking notes and other work.
  • Control, because they are, at heart, single purpose devices — sure, they can be used to write simple apps and games, but the hardware generally isn’t powerful enough to run a full web browser.  The ‘chips’ inside the boxes are geared around media streaming, rather than general purpose computing.  Complicated issues such as cyber-bullying don’t emerge, because the technology isn’t capable of displaying Facebook.

The power of the top-of-the-range boxes (£100’ish) means they could be coupled with keyboards to create an all-in-one solution for delivering MOOCs cheaply and simply to learners who do not have, or are not comfortable with, more sophisticated hardware such as tablets and laptops.  This, perhaps, opens up MOOCs to an audience that might not previously have felt comfortable taking such a technology-centric route to education.  (An aside: a colleague came up with a genius idea — he noted that if one created an intranet featuring an old PC turned into a cheap web server, one could put a Roku or similar box into the prison cells of offenders and give them on-demand access to education videos to support any learning they might be engaged in.  They’d have all the convenience/benefits of Khan Academy style education, but without any fear they could post to Facebook or access Twitter.)

So, what’s stopping flipped learning on streaming media boxes?

Well, part of the problem is that education is still fixated around tablets, and hasn’t really cottoned on to the fact that other hardware exists that might be of potential use.  (The purposes of these blog posts is to throw a spotlight on neglected or overlooked technology that might find a home in education.)  This focus elsewhere is probably the cause of the main problem: the old chicken and egg … there isn’t an app available to support flipped learning on a streaming box because schools aren’t using them, and schools aren’t using them because there isn’t an app available.  The cost of developing a Roku app would be well within the capabilities of a modest research grant — all it would take is for a few schools to volunteer as guinea pigs.  At the moment, though, the education establishment is probably too hung over with touch screen devices…

Maybe someday someone will test the idea, until then it must be filed under “crazy, but it might just work!”

[Edit: In April 2014, Amazon jumped into the fray with its $99 (USD) Fire TV box.  The box is based on a customised version of the Android operating system, and seems to offer fairly powerful hardware for the price.  As well as the standard remote, an optional XBox-style game controller is available for $40.  Most importantly, the Fire TV seems to be open to third party apps, although inclusion in the app store requires apps be vetted by Amazon staffers.  But, is it possible to have private or side loaded apps?]



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