PBS came to us for help producing their Digital Classroom pilot, the Westward Expansion. In partnership with seven local stations, PBS wanted to generate a complete teaching resource, including lesson plans and all teaching resources and research materials, all in electronic format. PBS contributed the two mini-series, The West and Lewis & Clark, while stations contributed their own additional content. All content would be indexed and searchable via a single search interface that could display results for multiple media types, such as text, image, video, and audio. Content also needed to be browsable by categories such as events, people, and places. Additional requirements included:
- The software needed to be flexible enough to adapt as stations contributed or changed content.
- Support was required for different classroom environments: those with stand-alone computers, LAN-connected classrooms with servers, and Internet-connected classrooms.
- PBS's budget was extremely limited -- a big problem given the volume of content and the nature of the project.
- Classroom staff were expected to have limited computer skills so the product needed to be simple to install and maintain. Also, students should be able to be productive with the materials immediately.
- Customized versions of the product would be used in each of the seven contributing station's local markets showcasing that station's content.
- Since most of the content in the seven versions was the same, we devised an architecture whereby the differences would be isolated and parameterized.
- We selected pre-existing open-source tools for use where possible to save development costs.
- A full-featured full-text indexing engine was used to generate searchable indexes from content meta-data that would give the most meaningful results for the widest variety of searches.
- Multiple search and browse paradigms were designed around the search indexes.
- We carefully designed a solution that would run in all three classroom environments with minimal changes.
- After successfully developing an architecture that factored common content and maintained variations in configuration files, we created a tool to automatically generate the version of the product we needed.
- Our tool also took into account the differences in classroom environments and could generate versions of the product for CD, LAN, or Internet deployment.
- In keeping with the need for simple installation and maintenance, we engineered the stand-alone computer version to run directly off the CD - no installation was required at all.
- The read only environment of the CD was particularly challenging, but we were able to engineer a version of the search tool that would run without needing temporary files even though the data set being searched was very large.
- Video search results were matched with time codes that our software used to allow a user to playback a video starting at a found reference.
- The CD version was distributed on several disks as the videos were very large. We engineered the software to run from all the CD's in a set, and even to continue to run after CD's were swapped for access to different video segments.
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