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Case study: Open University uses Microsoft Azure to create course content clearance hub

The Open University recently scooped the award for Best Cloud Project at the CW European User Awards, and here's why

Organisations in the further education sector are always under pressure to deliver courses that are compelling, relevant and help students really engage with the subjects they are learning about.

For many universities and colleges, this may involve laying on interactive lectures, tutorials and seminars on campus each day, with students expected to complete follow-up assignments in their own time.

The challenge is no different for the academic staff at the Open University (OU), except, as a pioneer in the field of distance learning, its students rarely visit its campus in Milton Keynes, and must instead rely on receiving course materials through the post – in the form of books, CDs and DVDs – or via the web.

As a result, the university relies more than most institutions on audio-visual (AV) content to help its 200,000 students get to grips with the subjects they have chosen to study, which sees the OU commission more than 10,000 video files each year.

While the organisation creates some of this content in-house, most is produced on its behalf by external production companies, and keeping track of it all used to be a major headache for the OU.

This was particularly so because, as commissioner of these materials, the onus is on the OU to ensure that any third-party music or images included in any of the videos or audio clips featured in its courses are cleared for use from a licensing perspective.

In the past, this meant OU staff sitting through copious amounts of video and audio clips to see if any third-party assets were being used within them, which was time-consuming and inefficient, says Alma Hales, head of intellectual property at the university.

“I needed a system where I could record everything we were using, use it to host the content and then be able to press a button that told me exactly what third-party assets there are in any given learning object,” she says.

That is the brief the university’s licensing and acquisitions team set out to address in late 2013 with the launch of its Production Portal project, with a view to going live with the finished product in time for the 2014-15 academic year.

Microsoft Azure chosen

To give the university the best chance of meeting its deadline without going over budget, it was decided to use the Microsoft Azure platform for the project's infrastructure.

Glen Harding, technical architect at the OU, says Azure was chosen – after evaluating other cloud platforms – because the university was already heavily reliant on Microsoft technologies, so this reduced the risk of any integration issues further down the line.

“The OU has quite a lot of legacy systems built on Windows Server 2003 and .Net 2, and has a big project in place to upgrade all its servers,” says Harding. “We knew when we started that we would have to target SQL Server 2012 and .Net 4.”

But this set-up was not in place when work on the Production Portal was due to begin, so, rather than delay the project until it was deployed, the team got straight down to work with Azure.

“We started development on it, moved on to testing and it was going so well and the costs were so low that we decided we should just make this our first-ever project on Azure,” adds Harding.

The Microsoft cloud platform is used to host the Production Portal website application, which is based on ASP.Net software architecture. It also features a JSON web API interface so it can be integrated with other systems used by the university.

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Running it also relies on several other Azure services, including Blob storage (which is where the OU retains its audio-visual content), and Traffic Manager. This is used to direct users of the portal to either a European or US version of the website, depending on how busy its datacentres are in either location.

Post-production benefits

After five months of agile testing and development, a pilot ASP.Net/SQL server application was deployed on Azure in April 2014, paving the way for big changes in the way the university processes its AV content.

Sarah Gamman, project manager and lead business user of the Production Portal, says it allows information about any third-party assets being used in the OU's course materials to be logged from the start, making it easier to track how they are used throughout the production process.

This is important because the university likes to reuse course materials elsewhere, but the licensing restrictions imposed on some third-party assets featured in its video and audio clips prohibit this.

“There is a lot of metadata we collect during the production process that allows us to reuse that content later on,” says Gamman.

“For example, if someone wants to reuse a royalty-free image that someone else has used before that the OU has bought in, we’ve got data in our system that allows you to put in some keywords and search for the metadata to find out the details about the rights over it.”

This has made it easier for the OU to reuse such materials without fear of infringing licensing rules, which means it can commission fewer pieces of AV content from external providers, saving money.

Hales says removing the need for staff to re-watch AV content has allowed her team to become more productive, even if it is time-consuming to log all the data associated with it in the first instance.

“It saves us having to look at it, which is where we had huge amounts of duplicated effort,” she says. “That is not the case now – Production Portal has eradicated that completely.”

Spreading the word

Since the final version of Production Portal went live in May 2014, the OU estimates it has been used to process more than 24,000 sound and video files, resulting in 49,000 third-party assets being cleared for use.

“The project is not standing still,” says Harding. “We are rolling it out to more departments within the OU, and getting feedback along the way, which results in us doing more development on it.”

Meanwhile, Hales has bigger plans for the platform, and would like to see it adopted by the wider further education community as a content clearance hub. She also thinks it would be a good fit for broadcasters, such as the BBC, and education-focused book publisher Pearson.

“It is versatile software and as a first-case scenario, I’d like to see it adopted by the entire education sector,” she says. “That would be my first success gauge.

“For people like the BBC and Pearson, we have a big vision for this software and feel it could comfortably facilitate their business.”

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