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Digital Treasures

Monetizing digital assets translates to revenue potential, but an institution’s leaders must weigh the challenges and risks of charging for access to captured audio, video, and images.
University Business, March 2012
treasure box

Alternative revenue streams are increasingly attractive to higher education leaders struggling to live in the new budgetary normal triggered by the recession. Monetizing assets such as audio, video, and images an institution already has or is continually generating through digital asset management (DAM) can be tantalizing to those managing a school’s coffers. But in the academic environment, can officials look beyond the perception that for-profit endeavors cheapen a school’s reputation? 

While some schools have over the past decade charged for access to videos or webcasts of classes, and other digital assets, others consider the time and resources required to manage such an endeavor not worth their while. Still others have resisted monetizing their digital assets due to the public benefit of providing free videos on YouTube or Vimeo.

Universities are great at monetizing collective property, explains Sean Brown, VP of education for Sonic Foundry, maker of the digital asset management system Mediasite, currently used by about 750 to 800 colleges and universities in the United States.

Like books and other inventions, he points out, digital assets are intellectual property, too. A few companies, including Extensis and Sonic Foundry, have designed digital environments able to capture raw lectures and provide them to users who have registered and paid for access. Some of these users are matriculated students, while others can be professionals seeking certification and skill enhancement.

Brown says he sees a trend in schools evolving in their management of digital assets. In the beginning of the 2000s, institutions were enthusiastically posting videos on YouTube. Eventually, some schools began to foresee the possibility for selling access to content. But using a product like iTunes created an extra workflow. Providing access to videos (whether live or stored) via a product like Mediasite or Extensis’ Portfolio system means not needing to re-tool the videos at all. The raw or edited videos can be viewed with a username and password provided upon registration.

"It’s coming from the web to you; it’s not residing on your computer or your phone," Brown explains. "If [schools] are going to use systems like ours, then they don’t need digital rights management."

A decade ago, The Florida State University began offering professional development courses to those seeking financial planning certification and webmaster certification. FSU’s Center for Professional Development Studies eventually extended its course offerings to attorneys, health professionals, construction professionals, and state employees. With its location in Florida’s state capital, it now has a steady income stream just from providing required training to hundreds of state workers each year.

That alternate revenue source has in part allowed the university to build a 47,000-square-foot state-of-the-art conference center, including 10 smaller rooms, from which 10 different streams can be simultaneously webcast via Mediasite to paying non-matriculated students. Within the first 10 years of operation, the Center for Professional Studies generated $2 million, which enticed the state of Florida to fund the $14 million project.

At the Florida State Conference Center, which has 47,000 square feet of meeting space and all of its rooms equipped for webcasting, events are recorded and videos can be viewed online for a fee. After recording e-events, videos are stored for fee-based viewing by category, including the environment, diversity and harassment. Links to these pages are added to the center’s social media accounts, thereby building an income stream, says Bill Lindner, FSU’s
professional development director.

So, instead of paying to physically arrive at an event, people pay for a virtual one. Plus, they get access to videos of the sessions after viewing them live. "What we’re doing is we’re supersizing their meal," he says.

Lindner notes that the center has avoided using tools that appear to be “travel avoidant strategies” and merely allow students to remotely learn. “They don’t drive revenue streams.”
"We’re moving our e-event business into our e-learning business and they’re feeding each other," Lindner says. "What we’re doing is building a different business model, which links events to learning."

But FSU appears to be in the minority on that front. Most schools take the stance that educational efforts should benefit the public and students, and help recruit new students. In addition, DAM may just be viewed as too time-consuming.

Revenue Is Secondary

Alan McCord, provost of Lawrence Technological University (Mich.), says using digital asset management systems actually ends up being too much work for busy academics. "Most faculty members don’t manage digital assets in particularly complex ways. They may decide something is useful or not useful, but they’re not going through the whole tagging of metadata. From that perspective, digital asset management systems are overkill for how faculty typically use media."

McCord says 15 percent of student credit hours at LTU are delivered online, but online lectures are really thought of as another way to engage students.

‘We come down more on the open side than on the closed side. We’d rather have faculty in the cloud than have people buy something from us.' —Alan McCord, Lawrence Technological University

"At this point, there has not been an interest expressed by faculty or students to use the Lawrence brand to create a revenue stream,” he says. "If we’re going to make an investment on campus, we want that investment to benefit our students."

McCord says the revenue generated from online courses support the existing business model. One of the reasons for capturing lectures is to re-purpose the content into different products to be viewed on the school’s DAM system, with the intent of improving programs. "The revenue generation supports our existing business model, which is to serve students. The second order is revenue; that takes a lot of work to get going. On digital content, we come down more on the open side than on the closed side. We’d rather have faculty in the cloud than have people buy something from us," McCord adds.

Reputation for Open Access

Many administrators believe providing open access to content enhances reputations and helps grow enrollment.

John Merlin Williams, executive producer of Digital Media Commons and director of the James and Anne Duderstadt Center at the University of Michigan, says faculty in the university’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance have noted that a significant number of students say YouTube videos posted by the school influenced their decision to apply.

He says besides an online bachelor of oral hygiene program, the university—serving 45,000 students—doesn’t focus on online courses.

"The resources to produce those are very high and we have not made that a priority," he notes. "Our priority is our residential, campus-based students."
Williams says the university will provide open access to course content if a faculty member believes it will help teach current students or as a form of recruitment.

For the past few years, UMichigan has experimented with pilot programs on a homegrown digital asset management system it created almost a decade ago. It is used for delivery of videos in classrooms, PR and marketing purposes, and public safety videos that get posted on the university’s website.
Legal compliance is as important a driver for having a secure digital asset management system as generating revenue, Williams adds.

Students can also learn new medical procedures through videos featuring patients, students, and faculty. It is vital to ensure all parties have signed off on appearing in these educational videos and that other parties—depending on their status at the university—have the correct amount of access. “What we’ve seen is, in each of these areas, there has been a large increase in the requirements in how videos can be shown, stored, and secured, and that they are made accessible only to an appropriate audience,” Williams explains.

"Sometimes, it’s the legal issues arising that are as compelling as creating revenue," he says.

McCord believes large-scale systems are not necessary for colleges and universities.

"I would argue most campuses don’t capture lectures and re-purpose them. One department may use it more than another department. To have a centralized solution of it at this point doesn’t really align with the way departments do their work."

FSU’s Lindner says the center generates between $500,000 and $750,000 per year, adding that the cost of running the center is minimal now that it’s built and the offerings have been designed. He says the center is percolating new ways to draw more income, including e-learning opportunities that help make state agencies more efficient by educating professionals who use those agencies.

That certainly matters in a tough economic climate. As a public institution, FSU has experienced dwindling state funding. But Lindner remains optimistic, noting, "There’s money to be made in the webcasting space, there’s money to made in the e-learning space and there’s money to be made by putting them together."

Julie Varughese is a freelance journalist and former University Business editor.