20 Years Ago: The First Online Video Lectures

By Richard Menta - 7/24/2016

I guess I could have made a few patent trolls in Texas drool if back in 1996 if I only thought to file a few forms. It never occurred to me in those days that tiny digital innovations drawn from analog precedents were genuinely patentable (or even should be in the first place). Think Amazon's patent for 1-click and you get the idea.

The Guest Lecture Series was the first university level video courses commercially distributed online. It was a key project of mine during my tenure at Simon and Schuster. It was also groundbreaking, though when everything is new, as it was during the earliest days of an Internet that didn't go commercial until 1993, a lot is…

Experimentation and Innovation

I was a member of the fledgling New Media group at Simon and Schuster's education division Prentice Hall (now owned by Pearson). The group was formed in 1994; a year after the Internet opened itself up to commercial use. Its objective was to take the potentials offered by the CD ROM - recently made standard on all PCs - and the Internet to create products in support of teaching. Experimentation and innovation were the mantra of this pioneering group.

Well, to a point. I built the first online catalog for the company. Unfortunately, the division's leadership was not too keen on my desire in 1996 to expand that catalog into a full-blown e-commerce site, following in the initial success of a then young Amazon. There was universal concern that the college bookstores, who stocked almost everything we sold to students, would see us now as a competitor instead of a supplier. Their fear was that these stores might rebel and the company's dominant market share, one out of every four text books sold, would take a sizeable hit.

It wasn't that they didn't see the potential. They just were averse to rocking the very boat that floated the number one college textbook supplier (this was the same aversion I saw in the record industry the year before Napster appeared). Protecting entrenched business trumped innovation.

Even if my crystal ball told me how fast change would come no one was ready to hear it then. These leaders were not stupid or myopic. They were just held fully culpable for even the slightest drop in market share. When any benefit from innovation has the potential to be more than offset by perceived repercussions to the old, but very profitable, way of doing thing business then progress takes a hit.

Anyway, I moved on.

1998 Top 100 Producers by AV Video and Multimedia Producer Magazine Award for the Guest Lecture Series - Richard Menta

College Students and Broadband

What I moved on to was a project that leveraged a key fact. At a time when most of the world attached to the Internet via a 14.4 baud modem most college students had fast broadband access.

Speed, provided by the very Universities that built the Internet in the first place, meant we could stream bandwidth heavy audio and video files to millions in higher education. Additionally, broadband promised to be a cheaper form of delivery over our then current (and still relatively new) practice of stamping media files onto physical CDs and pasting those CDs to the back of textbooks. It offered good business potential.

I began experimenting with early audio and video streaming applications back in the summer of 1996, when dinosaurs and 20 MB hard drives still roamed the Earth. Real Audio, an anachronism today under that moniker, was then called Progressive Networks and everything I used was a 0.x version of the app. It was at that point I first experimented with the MP3 format to deliver public domain recordings for a music course.

The idea of delivering entire lectures off of the Internet was there from the beginning. The company already delivered live lectures via satellite link to those Universities that had the money and real estate to mount large 6' dishes (old satellite tech) somewhere on campus. The advantages of online delivery of video, both in cost and convenience, were obvious even if the technology needed to distribute it was just barely emerging.

That August of 1996 the Guest Lecture Series was born, the first commercial delivery of lectures online and my new project. On-demand lecture streams would be provided as a free supplement to the textbooks they supported, giving those textbooks an additional competitive advantage in the marketplace. Our first lectures would be ready for the start of the spring semester the following January

Dr. Eric Mazur and the Very First Commercial Internet Video Lecture

The clip to the right is from the very first video in the Guest Lecture Series. In January 1997 Prentice Hall published Professor Eric Mazur's book Peer Instruction. A Harvard Physicist, Eric came across an interesting discovery in the classroom during the early 90's, which spurred him to develop his own innovations in classroom.

As I worked that fall with my team to build the platform of the Guest Lecture Series, his epiphany was offered to me as an ideal candidate for our series by one of the Science and Math marketing managers. It turned out to be the ideal lecture to launch the series and here's why.

Eric found that, as someone seasoned in the content he was teaching, he tended to endow his knowledge in a straight line from A to Z. This meant driving right through, rather than navigating around, the conceptual roadblocks students who are just introduced to the material struggle with.


Naturally, some of the students managed to work out those roadblocks on their own. This is where the man gets points for being perceptive. He noticed that when the students who successfully figured out the material shared their path to clarity with those who struggled, the collective light bulbs quickly went on for all.

More important, those students who 'got it' connected with those who didn't better than he did. That's when the light bulb flashed above Mazur's own head. Peer Instruction bears the fruits of this observation. An innovation that he successfully incorporated into his teaching style, by pausing at periodic points through any given lecture and instructing his student to talk over the material they just received with their neighbor. This is when those who got it were given the first opportunity to connect with those still grasping. As the video clip shows, comprehension soared.

It occurred to me that I could incorporate his discovery quite easily into the Guest Lecture Series, by offering a platform that allowed students to share their thoughts on the material they were watching online. A simple message platform gave students a way to query their peers whenever full comprehension proved elusive.

This is where those Texas patent trolls can begin to shake their collective heads. After all, today this is standard stuff on online learning platforms like Moodle and those corporate/vendor WebEx training streams. I was just the first to mate it with video.

From my perspective, there was nothing new about message boards, so there was no reason to think my including one was any great innovation. I added this capability to Mazur's lecture and it became a regular feature of the Guest Lecture Series.

In December of 1996, just before we broke for the holidays, the platform was completed and Mazur's lecture was uploaded in ahead of the planned January release of the book. More lectures were added throughout 1997 and later that year I was invited to present the platform at the Canadian Consolate in New York as a distance learning solution for remote towns in the Northern provinces. In 1998 I was recognized for my efforts as one of the Top 100 Producers by AV Video and Multimedia Producer Magazine.

20 Years Later...

Looking back, that decision of mine to build this feature into the Guest Lecture Series set the precedent that, as it turned out, became the template to everything that followed. I don't know if Dr. Mazur's Peer Instruction strategy became a heavily adopted model in the physical classroom. I do know it became the standard for online learning.

The Guest Lecture Series is an important event. If you look at the history of education - a history where online education from Kahn Academy to the University of Phoenix to online corporate training is now commonplace - it all begins commercially with the groundbreaking work of the Prentice Hall New Media Group. The Guest Lecture Series was just one piece of that group's output and the entire team deserves credit for its sustained influence.

MP3 Newswire, which I started after I left Simon and Schuster, has won awards and it has proved quite influential in the context of digital media. As a personal achievement, the Guest Lecture Series may be my proudest moment, simply because the reach of its influence is considerable. It is a milestone of the digital education movement and I don't have to exaggerate the details or pump up the facts to claim it as such. Its origins and delivery were quite modest, frankly. Nearly two decades later the reverberations of what started out for me as a consolation project are self-evident. I see it every time as I plug into yet another webinar to trying to teach me something about my day job.

No, the Guest Lecture Series didn't make me famous; it didn't make me rich; I am not one of the dot-com elite. If that is how you measure success that's ok. I may not be Mark Andreessen, but it is sobering to know that I can genuinely claim the tiniest sliver of how today's Internet has evolved. That, my friends, is pretty damn cool.