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Embrace the challenge: blended, online and distance learning

Sponsored: Production Mill's Glen Harding on how the OU tackled problems faced creating media-rich course content and the thorny issue of copyright

Posted by Julian Owen | December 18, 2017 | Technology

As the education world embraces blended, online and distance learning, universities are being asked to become proficient in techniques more commonly found in the world of broadcasting. 

To create compelling and professional content, universities are now finding themselves working with external production companies while also managing complex copyright licenses from third-party commercial image, video and music suppliers.

Universities are also having to ensure that the content their own staff create adheres to copyright law and is legally safe to appear in all the new distribution channels now available to universities – both for their own students and for a worldwide audience through online courses and MOOCs. All whilst ensuring the new media-rich content they are creating is produced on time and within budget.

The Open University, global pioneers in distance and online learning, were facing these same challenges years before most other universities. 

In 2012 the Open University contacted my software development company after they had been looking, without success, for off-the-shelf products that could help them manage content production and track copyright. 

The unique system we created for them went live in 2013 and has been a massive success. It is now used by over 700 production staff at the University and is used to manage the production of over 10,000 pieces of digital media that are commissioned and created for their students each year. The system also manages the production of the University’s books, promotional material, TV and radio programmes, and their FutureLearn hosted MOOCs.

"Production Mill will let all universities benefit from the work we have pioneered over the past four years at the Open University and it will allow universities to fully embrace digital media to enrich their students’ learning and university experience." 

The system has a multitude of functions but its three main features are:

 - Tracking third-party copyrighted materials that have been used in educational content, and recording the rights the University has licensed for those copyrighted assets

 - A rich multi-media digital asset library, where content producers and academics can search, view, download and reuse existing content, and upload new content they have created

 - A production workflow and approval system for commissioners, producers and academics to keep track of production paperwork, budgets, schedules and copyright clearances

In 2015 the system won The Digital Innovation of the Year Award at The Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards, where judges recognised the system’s “great potential for transferability, across both higher and further education”.

In 2017 we launched a commercial version of our software, the cloud-based, Software-as-a-Service system that we call Production Mill.

Our belief is that Production Mill will let all universities benefit from the work we have pioneered over the past four years at the Open University and it will allow universities to fully embrace digital media to enrich their students’ learning and university experience. 

Alma Hales, Head of Intellectual Property at the Open University until 2016, commissioned the project: “The Production System has made the lives of our commissioners, producers and copyright licensing staff so much easier, and their work more efficient. I was often told that they would not wish to return to the ‘old ways’ where email exchanges, telephone conversations and pieces of paper were archived in a variety of places to keep track of rights clearances on projects. At a glance, commissioners can see how the intellectual property rights for each of their commissions are progressing and keep a close eye on costs. Accurate negotiation trails are stored in one place for easy access alongside transcripts, production paperwork and third-party documentation.

“They can refer to these details at any time. They are able to swiftly update information themselves and share it with numerous stakeholders: external suppliers, internal studio resource and the Rights department. So it saves a lot of people a lot of time and saves the University money.”

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