Bridge the Digital Divide Using Video CD's

The education deficit in this country and others occurs because the quantity of student learning needs boosting. Students need access to more learning opportunities. While the quality of teaching in schools is often good, the quantity of learning -- how much students learn, is insufficient. Schools serve to guide student learning, but actual learning takes place both inside and outside of school. There are few ways of increasing the quantity of learning taking place inside schools, but ample ways to increase the quantity of learning taking place outside of schools.

One strategy to increase the quantity of learning is to create new learning places like ctc's (community technology centers). (See for information about the community technology centers' movement.) Another strategy is to make learning more portable so students can learn whatever they want, wherever they want, whenever their schedule allows.

In the time-stressed world many people live in, portable learning offers great promise. Even if there were a ctc on every block, some people would not be able to find time to visit one. How can we reach that time-stressed person with instruction that is lively, engaging and accessible at a time that fits into their schedule? Video is one way. Video used to be expensive to produce, time consuming to copy and expensive to distribute. Now videos can be produced cheaply, copied fast and distributed at substantially reduced costs.

One video format now very attractive is the video cd format -- also called mpeg-1. Popular in Asia, this format fits up to 70 minutes of video on a blank cd disk. The video can be played back on Windows computers (using Windows Media Player), on Macintosh computers (using QuickTime Player) and in most consumer DVD players. The minimum processor requirements for video cd playback are 166 MHz (with MMX) for Windows computers and G3 or better processors for Macintosh computers. (Roughly speaking, all Windows and Macintosh computers produced since 1999 - and some from 1998.)

What makes the video cd format so attractive? The price of the media is very low. Blank cd disks cost as little as 10 cents each. Video cd's can also be copied fast and easily. Using a 32-speed CD burner, I can copy an hour's worth of video in less than 2 minutes. In one hour I can copy almost 30 hours of video. I can do this copying with just a few mouse clicks using much less effort than copying a VHS video tape, which requires that I rewind both the source and destination video tapes every time I copy a new video.

Using my cd burner I can easily copy several hundred hours of video on one computer, while getting work done on another. The only part that is time-intensive is writing the name of the contents, using a magic marker, on the face of the video cd. Considering the benefit a video cd could bring to others, I do not find this a difficult chore. Video cd's also have the advantage of being lightweight. I can mail a single video cd for 60 cents. I can mail 50 video cd's, with plastic sleeves, anywhere in the country for $2.23 via media mail. (The same rate as "book rate.") [This rate will be rising 4% July 1, 2002.]

Last, video cd's take up much less space than VHS tapes. If I had a collection of 50 VHS videotapes in my apartment, they would take up several shelves. 50 video cd's easily fit in a cabinet drawer.

How clear does a video cd look and sound? It sounds very clear, as long as the audio from the source video is clear. And it looks fairly clear - not as clear as a commercially produced DVD's, but perfectly adequate for viewing. A neat thing about the video cd format is that you can place various "chapters" of video on a single cd. Using the appropriate button on the remote of a consumer DVD Player, you can jump to any chapter on a video cd. You can also jump to any particular second of a cd.

This means that if someone wanted to learn about a particular topic that was delivered on video cd, that person could look up that topic on a hard-copy timeline, and then jump right to the topic of interest. This could be an invaluable on a series of "how-to" video cd's. People could concentrate on learning the topics they wanted to learn.

An interesting angle to the video cd story is that in the next year or two most of the laptops entering the donation stream will have built-in CD-ROM drives. Law firms, corporations and government offices that upgrade their laptops will pass along to charities and the nonprofit sector a very usable, portable multimedia access device.

The time is ripe to start creating interesting and vibrant educational content that will be of use to the organizations and individuals who receive these donated laptops. What kind of instructional content could be placed on a video cd? Instruction on GED subjects -- English as a second language (ESL) instruction -- question-and-answer sessions on computer topics, helping people learn from each other's questions. Videos explaining about free educational software. An entire algebra or geometry curriculum, taught by the best teachers in this country and others. Portable. Take it with you while visiting your cousin's house. Have it with you waiting at the doctor's office.

If video cd's are physically portable, can they also be distributed over the Internet? Yes, they can. A video cd produced in Milwaukee can be viewed in 25 other cities the following day. The video cd could be downloaded and burned onto cd disks by volunteers with broadband Internet connections.

While the video cd format is currently one of the most useful formats for distributing video, future video formats will offer even greater portability, greater resolution and greater density of video on removable media. The future of removable media, coming in the next 3 to 5 years, is called "holographic storage." This is an optical media, like a CD-ROM or DVD, that uses 3-dimensions rather than 2-dimensions to store data. The third dimension of holographic storage is very small to human perception, though. The quantity of data that can be stored on holographic media is in the terabyte range. Video cd's made today will be able to be copied onto that media and a single holographic media (about the size of a credit card) could hold as much as 100 to 500 hours of video. Therefore an entire academic course could reside on a single piece of media.

It's interesting that the talent of the best teachers in this country and others is kept locked up in the buildings in which they teach. If someone is the best teacher in a country at a particular grade or on a particular subject, their instruction and explanations deserve to be videotaped. They deserve to be compensated for their excellence. And the resulting video ought to be made available to the public for free - distributed via the Internet and volunteer cd copiers.

Perhaps there is a role for libraries too to distribute such content. One thing is sure. The U.S. Department of Education ought to involve itself more in the creation of outstanding educational content. The tools for distributing that content are right before us. And the private sector is assuredly not interested in the free distribution of high-quality educational content. This is a time for the government to take action and shine -- and for the rest of us to do the work to carry out the vision.

Phil Shapiro

The author is a writer, educator and digital divide activist in Arlington, Virginia. He was recently recognized by CTCNet with an award for his support over the past 10 years. At the CTCNet annual conference in June, 2002, he distributed 600 video cd's to attendees. These video cd's were copied by himself and two friends.

This article, along with accompanying files and updates, can be found on the web at

Related article - "Community Content in Public Libraries"

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