Chris Steins, Urban Insight and former Chair of the APA Technology Division
We know that planning professionals are increasingly being asked to get up to speed on new technologies and take on more responsibilities. The goal of Planetizen Courses (courses.planetizen.com) is to provide affordable, focused video courses that can be viewed on a computer, tablet or smartphone so that a subscriber can quickly gain the specific skills needed to accomplish a task. Each course offers a free 3-5 minute introduction so visitors can get a feel for the instructor and course topic. This brief case study of how Planetizen Courses was developed reports some of the lessons useful for any planner seeking to use the web and video to communicate with broad audiences.
Since 2005, Planetizen has been delivering online courses on a range of topics – from AICP Exam Preparation to Historic Preservation. These self-study courses were a mix of primarily text and images with some video. While popular, the courses required students to be highly motivated to read through the course content. In survey after survey of learners who took Planetizen Courses, we heard the same resounding advice: “MORE VIDEO, LESS TEXT!”
Planetizen embarked on a major upgrade to its courses system in mid-2011 with a goal of delivering courses in a video format. Our four primary goals were: (1) to create video-based courses, (2) offer courses as affordably as possible, (3) deliver courses on web browsers, tablets, and smartphones, and (4) focus course content on hands-on, practical skills. Planetizen courses are taught exclusively by planning professionals who have hands-on experience with the topics. As part of this effort, we wanted to create a system to enable a broad range of planning professionals — who are expert in a specific topic — to be able to affordably create courses for others on that topic. And so we added a fifth goal: (5) Enable planning professionals to create high-quality courses from the instructor’s home or office.
With these goals in mind, we set off to create Planetizen Courses 2.0. Because the primary Planetizen website (www.planetizen.com) runs on Drupal, the Planetizen development team has a lot of development experience with this popular open source web content management system. However, we wanted to be sure this was the right fit for video delivery, so we looked at several other content management systems in addition to Drupal — including several that are built around video, such as Videola, Vimeo Pro, WordPress+VideoPress, 23Video, and several others. Each of these platforms offered some hugely compelling features. However, in our final evaluation, we selected Drupal 7 as our platform.
Although Drupal required more initial development effort, we felt assured that we would be able to control additional features we wanted to add that were not yet part of other hosted video content management systems. Additionally, we were concerned about the ability to enable single sign-on with the Planetizen website and the Planetizen store. Use of Drupal has turned out well, and has allowed us to easily modify features as our understanding of our users has evolved.
A key goal for us is the ability to deliver videos across multiple devices so subscribers can view courses on a tablet or smartphone, as well as on a notebook or desktop computer. We evaluated Kaltura, Brightcove, Ooyala, Vimeo Pro and Blip.tv for video delivery. In our final evaluation, Brightcove offered the right mix of highly-usable features and tiered pricing for us. The tiered pricing model enabled us to get started at a lower price point, and scale up features and pricing as we grow.
Using Brightcove, we are able to upload a single chapter of a video course in a high-quality format, and Brightcove will create multiple versions that can be played back in a web browser using Flash, or on a mobile device using HTML5, a new standard for video playback. The Brightcove media player automatically detects the type of device being used to view the video, and delivers the rendition of the video best-suited for that device. This way, a visitor on a smartphone doesn’t have to download the same size video as someone using a web browser. We also enjoy using the web-based Brightcove Studio interface, which makes uploading and managing videos effortless.
Developing Planetizen Courses was not without it’s share of challenges. Initially, we had trouble ensuring consistently high-quality video to the visitor. It turned out that we needed to review our entire process of video creation to ensure that the video we captured, edited, encoded, and delivered remained as high-quality as possible. For example, we were able to determine that recording video from instructors on certain types of computer platforms resulted in lower-quality video. We learned to embrace the default settings for streaming video recommended by Brightcove, and work backwards from these specifications to change how we were capturing video.
We want visitors to Planetizen to have a single account that can be used to interact on Planetizen, purchase goods and services, and view online courses. We ultimately standardized on using Drupal for this single sign-on, and we’re still working toward full integration.
Our first effort to create Planetizen courses, while functional, was not easy to use. Browsing courses was complicated, and moving from video to video was not intuitive. Usability expert Abhijeet Chavan, Planetizen’s co-editor and Urban Insight’s CTO, lead the effort to redesign the user interface to make the process of browsing and watching videos what it is today.
Our biggest lessons came in effectively engaging and working with the planning professionals who are our course instructors. We went through an initial course development process with ten different instructors. Through this process we tried to understand what types of instructors, courses, technologies and techniques would be most effective for future courses. For example, we found that courses recorded on an instructor’s Windows PC would often require significant effort in post-production to make them usable. However, courses recorded on a modern Mac computer were a joy to edit. In this process, we created a highly replicable process for instructors to be able to easily create courses that the Planetizen team can edit and produce with a minimum of additional work.
We launched Planetizen Courses for beta testing in December, 2011, and to the public in January, 2012. We’ve been hugely gratified by the rate of subscriptions and recommendations from students for additional courses. Our courses range from those with very broad appeal, such as Introduction to SketchUp for Planners, Photoshop for Planners, Google Maps for Planners or Twitter for Planning, to more specialized courses, such as Planning Ethics, Pedestrian Planning and Using CommunityViz.
We’ve met each of our initial five goals for Planetizen Courses, with individual courses priced at $25, and an optional annual subscription to gain access to all courses. Our iPad and iPhone apps have turned out to be very popular, with one-third of subscribers viewing courses through our iPad or iPhone apps. Our next major efforts will be to identify experienced professionals and instructors to expand our inventory of courses, and to develop an Android version of our popular iPad app. Although I wrote this brief article, the heavy lifting in developing Planetizen Courses was completed by a diverse team from Planetizen and Urban Insight: Minnur Yunusov, Tim Halbur, Abhijeet Chavan, Oleksandr Grygorash, Mindy Oliver, and Cate Miller.
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