This blog has been archived and will not be updated further. For more IT Services blogs, see the front page.

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Official Blog is at

For those who find this site, this is a partial copy of the official blog which can no longer be updated from that live site due to a change in the service provided by OUCS.

Please visit the official blog site at for all the latest news and an RSS feed of postings.

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Workshop at UCL – 22-11-2010

For those tracking what’s going on, but not noticing the wiki or the mailing list, here’s a brief reminder of our (last?) Benefit’s Realisation Workshop for Steeple. We’re gathering at UCL on Monday 22nd November for a 1 day workshop to cover a range of topical issues. More details can be found at

See some of you in London 🙂


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When Law meets Technology

The above story caught my eye in relation to a US court decision to term “downloading” as not equal to “performance”, but to say that “streaming” is a “performance”. It’s got me curious about the UK position on the matter now, but since IANAL, I’m not going to chase that one for a while.

I have the feeling that this judgement could make an interesting impact on damage calculations for say, a libellous (or is it slanderous?) recording. After all, if they’re podcasts and being downloaded, they’re not being performed, so has a person been damaged by them? But if it’s youtube, or a streamed output… well…

And if that logic holds, does this suggest that any perceived “risks” to an institution are less from podcasting than streaming?

Anyhow, the Steeple blog isn’t dead…it’s just a little quiet at the moment with my being busy on various other projects. Some more coming this way in the next few months though as I’m tackling stats and monitoring/management setups for institutional podcasting.


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New resources on the website

Greetings all!

We’ve recently (i.e. in the last hour) added some new resources to the Steeple website that could well be of interest to you:

  • A kit to help you launch your institution into iTunes U
  • Updates to the audio and video podcasts from the Open University
  • 11 new audio interviews with various Steeple community members talking about their experiences in setting up podcasting at their institution 

Launching iTunes U Project Kit

This collection of slides, documents and notes was compiled by Apple in conjunction with Steeple and it’s members to provide a starters guide for anyone else looking to join the iTunes U public system. You can find the kit referenced in the Outcomes and Outputs section of the Project Report on the Steeple Website.

Quicklinks to download for:

Open University Podcasts

There are three video and three audio podcasts from the OU about their podcasting experiences, including a new audio podcast discussing issues of Rights management. You can find these files on the Steeple website in Resources -> Audio and Video -> OU Podcasts.

New interviews with community members

Another output from the Open University as part of the Steeple project is this collection of 11 audio interviews with various academic, support and administrative staff from 5 institutions within the Steeple community, where they discuss their experiences with podcasting and service creation within their institution.

You can find all these under the Interviews heading on the OU Podcasts page within the Steeple Website (Resources -> Audio and Video -> OU Podcasts).

Thus concludeth my marketing message for you today. More news soon on the recent Workshops run through our Steeple Outreach programme (Steeple BR) including screencasts and notes.


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Keeping on top of progress

There’s much debate going on in multiple locations about the future of various video codecs and playback mechanisms. If you’ve not already seen them, I’d recommend a read through these two postings from Jeroen Wijering, creator of perhaps the most popular flash based video playback tool in use on the web.

  • — talks about some of the other shortcomings in the html5 video tag specification, beyond the high profile badgering of the web browser vendors with regard to the codecs supported. The comments have a smattering of sensible inputs (and unfortunately a number of corporation hating FUD) but it does raise the issues over how HTML5 still needs to develop. 
  •… — this is a posting I read a few weeks ago and thought I’d passed on to you all already, but seems not. Jeroen is talking here about the launch of WebM and VP8 from Google, and how it compares with the current options. I’m not convinced by his excitement as to WebM becoming the de facto format in the near/medium term, but I think it is going to have a part to play. One thing is still clear, I’m not beating back the requests to implement our content in either Ogg or WebM/VP8. 

I mentioned the debates, well ignoring the official ones around the standards group, I’m paying close attention to those going on within the Terana TF-Media and the Opencast community (notably a discussion group being pulled together by Brian O’Hagan). I’ll report more on my observations and our actions as we move on.


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Podcast and Podcast Capture not signing in

Techie note that might be of help to some, and one I’ve just encountered.

Problem: Unable to publish a workflow to Podcast Producer 2 cluster – Client returned Unknown Error with a little yellow triangle warning.

Also found:
– that I could not connect to the PcP2 server via Podcast Capture on either the host server or any remote machines; – that the podcast cli was failing with:

LTGS-Macbook:zinstance ltgadmin$ podcast –installworkflow -s -u ADMINUSER -p PASSWORDHERE –path /Users/ltgadmin/Documents/Basic\ Single\ Test\ 1.pwf Packing workflow bundle: /Users/ltgadmin/Documents/Basic Single Test 1.pwf…
Packed workflow bundle archive: /var/folders/T5/T5mWe7F+GXWdPTvQsSRQxE+++TI/-Tmp-/podcast-workflow-download-CD308355-34A8-4B0D-ACDB-F11369786B68-20100611-7686-10decbx/CD308355-34A8-4B0D-ACDB-F11369786B68.pwf.cpgz
Installing /Users/ltgadmin/Documents/Basic Single Test 1.pwf…
Destination server:
Destination workflow: Basic Single Test 1
/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/auth_challenge.rb:37:in `auth_properties_to_hash’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/auth_challenge.rb:31:in `each’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/auth_challenge.rb:31:in `auth_properties_to_hash’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/digest_auth.rb:22:in `generate_authorization_header_value’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:141:in `add_digest_authorization’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:393:in `execute_once’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:284:in `execute’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:281:in `each’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:281:in `execute’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:66:in `post’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/workflow_administration.rb:121:in `install_workflow’/usr/bin/podcast:1002
Remote command ‘’ failed: undefined method `-‘ for nil:NilClass

– or something simpler:

LTGS-Macbook:zinstance ltgadmin$ podcast –listworkflows -s -u ADMINUSER -p PASSWORDHERE
/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/auth_challenge.rb:37:in `auth_properties_to_hash’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/auth_challenge.rb:31:in `each’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/auth_challenge.rb:31:in `auth_properties_to_hash’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/auth/digest_auth.rb:22:in `generate_authorization_header_value’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:141:in `add_digest_authorization’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:393:in `execute_once’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:284:in `execute’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:281:in `each’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:281:in `execute’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/remote_command.rb:49:in `get’/usr/lib/podcastproducer/client/workflow_administration.rb:20:in `list_workflows’/usr/bin/podcast:861
Remote command ‘’ failed: undefined method `-‘ for nil:NilClass

… but that the PcP2 web interface worked just fine with any valid username and password I tried.

Looking at the PcP2 logs I would see:

From attempts to login via Podcast Capture (on host server):

Processing WorkflowsController#index (for at 2010-06-14 15:58:03) [GET]
Parameters: {“action”=>”index”, “language”=>”en”, “version”=>”2”, “controller”=>”workflows”}
Rendering default/failed.xml.builder (401)
Filter chain halted as [:authorize] rendered_or_redirected.
Completed in 32ms (View: 1, DB: 2) | 401 Unauthorized […]

From successfully login via Podcast Producer Web Interface:

Processing CaptureController#login (for at 2010-06-14 16:01:37) [GET]
Parameters: {“action”=>”login”, “controller”=>”capture”}
Rendering capture/login
Completed in 10ms (View: 5, DB: 3) | 200 OK []

Google and Apple Mailing lists have been my friend in terms of finding a working solution, however I’m not yet confident about the cause of the upset in the first place. We have been doing some work to create a working OD for our institution based off of our lack of a central directory service, but this should not have impacted on the Podcast Producer setup, nor the machines used to connect to the PcP2 service, nor the accounts used (as they’re locally created in the OD, not imported from outside).

The Solution was to remove the Digest option from the http_auth_type keyset in the cluster_preferences.plist as described here:

If anyone else has this problem, and can isolate what it is they’ve changed to their setup to cause this to stop working (as it all once did just fine), please let me know.


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We’re not done… just finished the first act

Greetings fellow Steeplers

Time for a quick update…

Rumours of our demise are exaggerated, the official funding for the main project has come to an end but our community work is still active and funded through our Benefits Realisation programme, led by the fantastic Dr B based at Cambridge.

Our final report has been accepted by JISC and can be read online via our website or you can download a pdf of the report from the same location.

This blog (and associated Twitter feed) are remaining active and I’ll be posting irregular updates as often as I can with news, notes from Oxford, bits of Steeple documentation that was left out for various reasons and more. You too can provide updates to keep this an active channel for UK HEI podcasting news and notes by posting here too – drop me a line at for me to let you know how.

In other news and to explain the recent silence, I’ve been out of the country for a month honeymooning with my new wife and enjoying the delights of P&O’s Arcadia and the Caribbean… back now in sunny (though cooler) Oxford where I’m still working through some of the outstanding emails, so those that are expecting to hear from me, please be patient a little longer 😉


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Wise words for bloggers from Stephen Fry

In a ironic piece of timing, I had the pleasure to be catching up on a series of Podcasts, most recently from Stephen Fry, just after I’d written the previous posting. Now, I’m going to commit some more of the sins he talks about simply through this bit of self-indulgence of sharing the link to his Podgram with you.

var agent=navigator.userAgent.toLowerCase(); var is_iphone = (agent.indexOf(‘mobile’)!=-1) && ((agent.indexOf(‘iphone’)!=-1) || (agent.indexOf(‘ipod’)!=-1)); if (is_iphone) { $(‘quicktime_embed-jwbmqBqlIg’).show(); $(‘flash_embed-jwbmqBqlIg’).hide(); } else { $(‘flash_embed-jwbmqBqlIg’).show(); $(‘quicktime_embed-jwbmqBqlIg’).hide(); }

Why? If only because he eloquently speaks with humour and zest about several of the feelings I went through yesterday whilst mashing the keyboard to produce that “wee”± note. So, mindful of being shorter, I’ll stop right there…


±Yes, I will have to realise that, often, I don’t do short in a first draft. Keep watching this space, and it might receive some judicious editing, but then again, as an experimental outpouring of ideas and momentary perceptions, maybe it won’t.

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On reflection, this may not the project you think it is…

It’s final report time in the JISC project land of Steeple. For those unfamiliar with the wonderful world of JISC funded activities (which included myself prior to this), this intensive period of a month or so at the end of a project is largely focussed on delivering three Documents for submission to our funder. These include: a Budget Report where the dry numbers of spending and actions are accounted for and then left for scrutiny by the kind of people who don’t believe in daylight and joy (or so I imagine…); a Completion Report which reads like a blow-by-blow account of what was originally planned and proposed over 18 months ago contrasted to what came out of the mill after the wheel-of-time ground through the efforts and imagination of this creative and talented project team.

And a Final Report.

Yes. Quite. A Report. Finally. On what the project is about…


I find I’m not particularly fond of blank pages. A need to fill them with insightful content motivates me, but when faced with the blank pages that start this Final Report, I find myself pulled in so many directions. So, I’m writing this wee note (they always start as wee notes) partly as a way to help me structure these concepts and directions a little more, and partly to let you know some of the motivations behind some of what we are going to say in that document.

Writing for this report leads to a lot of reflective thinking, something which has been challenging to do in amongst the work and activities we have collectively done. The purists amongst you can debate project management mantras and theories with me at length another time (and ideally in a bar, after you’ve plied me with drink), and of the value of constant evaluation and reflection. I will simply state that reality hasn’t allowed for such noble ideas to flourish, and that perhaps our ambition and drive to deliver so much to so many, hasn’t been restrained enough to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.

Let me reflect for a moment on collaboration, chiefly the makeup of the project team, just so you can imagine day to day life in the Steeple world a little better. We have a creative and talented Principle Investigator in Peter Robinson (based in Oxford) who provides the core direction for Steeple’s work. Though when I say “have”, I should clarify that we have about a fifth of his time officially – or a day a week. As we are spread across three institutions along an arc 100 miles around London, we can note that there are local Project Managers to facilitate oversight of work in these locations.

Laura James has been the woman on point at Cambridge, and the tiny % of her that Steeple claims has been to work with a percentage of Bjoern Hassler (another immensely creative and passionate advocate for the use and development of media in education) and a few weeks of Aaron Zeckoski (Cambridge Portal developer). After finishing another project, the remaining % of Bjoern is now energising the Steeple Outreach mini-project funded through the Benefits Realisation portion of the JISC programme.

Over at the Open University, a tiny % of Ben Hawkridge has been overseeing and directing the work of a range of contributors including Laurian Gridinoc (Developer), Bernadette Attwell (Rights), Nick Watson (Editorial Policy), John Sinton (Technical Advice), Catherine Chambers, Kristoff van Leeuwen, Stewart Nixon, Jenny Barden, Jane Roberts and Angela Davies who have collectively focussed on Policy and Processes reporting, as well as touching on a range of the other technical areas.

I’d prefer to skip over my own role, but to complete this I’ll mention that I have been responsible for overseeing, well, myself. On paper I have been the only person 100% on the Steeple project, though in reality it’s more like 90% of me. Having been seconded from my prior duties as the Technical Lead for the Podcasting Service at Oxford, I joined this project in Feb 09 to oversee the project as a whole in support of Peter, and to do the technical development work based in Oxford, where we’ve been wrestling with existing hardware and software and trying to make it into a harmonious user experience in support of all podcasting activities. This has been… challenging I think is the euphemism applied. Nigh on impossible I think might be the plainer way to state it, a tough proposition made harder by the setup of IT provision within Oxford. I may touch on that again later.

An honourable mention should go to UCL’s Jason Norton and Adrian Birch, who but for a few minutes of bureaucratic nonsense would have been either part of the main Steeple project, or at least leading another Steeple mini-project through Benefits Realisation. Instead, they’ve been founding members of the community of practice that has built up around our work. Much more on that later.

Curiously, when I started writing on this blank page, I wasn’t intending to draft out the acknowledgements and appreciations, but perhaps in a way that’s a parody on the project itself. Let me explain…

The project started as a way to document and disseminate the hastily learnt skills and knowledge gained by the institutional partners through their involvement with UK launch of Apple’s iTunes U portal. The 6-9 months of near hell that the tiny teams at each institution went through to gather enough content for, and to lay the foundations of continuing support of, their iTunes U portals was something that had many similarities and shouldn’t have to be faced unprepared by any other UK HEI. On top of this was a stark awareness that the resources thrown at these launches in terms of manpower and money couldn’t be sustained in any meaningful way, so there had to be ways found to reduce that effort through automation of the many simple, repetitive tasks, whilst also increasing the scale and capacity of these efforts, as the content would only grow in quantity as time passed and rate of creation as awareness increased.

When I joined in February, 5 months after the project kicked off, we were focussed on gathering existing knowledge together and setting up an event to facilitate dissemination and discussion of this knowledge – and on institutional podcasting in general –  which was the Beyond Walls conference held in Oxford on the 3rd April 2009. Open were working on the policies and processes report. I had just come back from a Media Management and Distribution meeting in Zurich which ultimately lead to a Terena (or Europe-wide) Task Force for Media being setup, where it seems I was the sole UK representative. Oxford had, just a few months earlier, hosted an international conference on Podcasting that brought Berkley’s Opencast movement to the fore in the UK and Europe.

Through these events, and the many personal contacts made by those in and around the Steeple project team, the nucleus of a community of practice emerged in UK HEI, with Steeple seen as the leader/co-ordinator. This formal, and informal, network of people and institutions, with tangible communications seen through the wiki, mailing-lists and web-conferences, but also the intangible, through many one-to-one phone calls, emails and meetings, have shared not just information, but also emotional support, primarily for those who’ve been suddenly tasked with new and ever expanding requirements related to podcasting. The challenge of setting up a podcasting initiative/service isn’t just about technical systems, but about institutional change, and that is largely a challenge of politics and people. The application of reasoning, leveraging and general schmoozing needed to get support and remove the roadblocks. And now I’m dismayed at the pseudo-management-bable I’ve sprinkled into that statement – whatever happened to my technical background(?!)

This working with others approach at the core of our project only exploded further with work on the Cross-Institutional Aggregator Demonstrator. Here was something that had been put into the project as a tiny little concept to help sell the ultimate vision of what could be done after all the ground work represented in the Steeple project plan had been done. What happened was Bjoern’s experimenting produced a tangible asset which was seized upon by many spectators as something they could understand, something they liked, an accessible/independent portal to rival iTunes U in the making. Of course, this is a classic victim of its own success. What wasn’t apparent to those not behind-the-scenes, was that combining the loose data available from the three institutions was tortuous, and very difficult to automate due to a lack of compatible metadata. That many other institutions didn’t have the means to publish podcasting RSS metadata in the first place was also an issue. As was the choice of metadata and file formats to support, and the amount of control available. It wasn’t even searchable easily in the first incarnation.

This community interest combined with a tangible hint of what could be done, led to extra time being spent on developing the mechanisms and technologies needed to make this truly work, thus the Ensemble concept was born. Here we could see the need for some middleware service that would parse feeds of feeds (OPML linking to RSS initially, now likely ATOM linking to ATOM, or a combination), combine multiple institutions’ data into a harmonious construct, and then support the searching and filtering of this data and republishing as consistently formatted RSS/ATOM XML feeds. This middleware would be needed to accelerate this data mangling and provide a caching point because of network latency issues (realtime querying of 100s of RSS feeds is not practical). Through having such a system, institutions could deploy an instance as their primary metadata publishing service, national initiatives could use it to harvest wide swathes of video and audio content, subject specific portals could harvest and filter to specific content types, etc. The portals supported by an Ensemble metadata engine could then add further value to the content with educational pathways, community tagging and rating, comments and feedback could be collected, forums of discussion could be setup up around related content, and much more.

Well, reality has to intrude here. It all sounds so simple, everyone is using RSS, lets just mash it all together and voila! No. Not quite. I alluded to some of the issues this faces, and we’re not alone in this. Metadata standardisation and co-operation is critical for such reuse and distribution to succeed, and here our still growing community of practice comes to the rescue again. Two elements are needed to make a standard successful – agreement over the details, and significant usage and support by the intended audience. Through our community we have been able to get both of these ingredients, and so continuing work on Metadata schemas for podcasting are proving ever more popular and useful. Some refer to this work as being Steeple compliant, a compliment I think to everyone’s willingness to work together on this. But it’s not just the UK, this is a much wider problem, far larger than this project can support solely. However, our leadership in this (step forward Bjoern again) has seen the work be picked up by the Opencast community too, and that continues a feedback loop that is iterating now and likely to continue for some time yet.

It’s not all been smooth sailing though. When it came to moving from gathering requirements for web portal systems, to implementing a solution, opinions differed slightly on some of the details. It is worth noting that both Oxford and Cambridge were and are, needing to replace their respective web media portals, and the Institutional web portal work package was seen as a way to achieve this. As a Cambridge-led portion of work, their aim is to produce not just a demonstrator, but a production ready piece of code that they can deploy asap in support of their Streaming Media Service. At Oxford, our now 20 month old single-page listing of podcasting content has barely evolved and clearly needing a major upgrade, however, the hosting technologies and development philosophies aren’t compatible with Cambridge’s solution, so further work has been done to develop a second form of Institutional Web Portal, based around the Drupal CMS. Whilst the bean-counters might suggest this duplication of labour isn’t efficient, it actually is much more beneficial to our community. For one, it practices what we’ve been preaching about the use of standards to expose podcasting data, and the need to separate content hosting from display and selection (i.e. separate data from presentation). Both systems are built to ingest the common RSS/ATOM standards developed and established and to provide integration with secondary features/benefits such as we mentioned in the Ensemble area. For another, it means that at least two production capable systems could be picked between by other institutions allowing them to meet their own hosting and support needs.

So what about the background servers and services needed to gather content, transcode and publish it to these portals? The new work in this area has been the focus of Oxford’s efforts, and our background has been to build on an existing system and relationship with Apple and their Podcast Producer (PcP) system.

Reflecting back on when the project brief was written, there was no practical software or system available to support end-to-end podcasting workflows, and certainly not ones suitable for the varied HE environment. Oxford (and Open) had earlier been working with Apple to trial their (then beta) upcoming Podcast Producer system and saw in it much potential and the belief that it would be the best platform to build on for reasons of scalability, interoperability and continued support. Version one was out when the project bid was placed and whilst the core had much more development needed on it, version two promised to address a lot of this and was due out towards the middle of the project timescale. It therefore seemed like a reasonable projection that may of the issues we needed to resolve in terms of system integration and feature expansion would be taken care of outside the project itself.

As the project was started, we had also come to discover a range of other home-grown solutions to institutional media management and processing, many of which presented at Oxford’s podcasting conference in 2008. One of these was a system developed by a creative and innovative team at ETH in Zurich, called Replay – seen as the swiss army knife of podcasting. More systems crept out of the woodwork as time went by and we made more contacts, however, almost consistently, these home-grown solutions were deeply embedded in their host institutions and not ready to be transplanted. This also factored into Oxford’s decision to build around the Podcast Producer platform.

So how have we fared? Not as well as I have wanted. Events and happenings are said to be the worst things to occur when you have a plan, especially one forecasting 18 months of broad ranging work. I can give a laundry list of factors that have worked against us or delayed our efforts, but I’m saving those for another time. Needless to say things like: not having hardware to develop on till 6 months later than planned for; not being able to integrate with a centrally managed directory service until 2010; having to wait extra time for hardware drivers to be available to enable the deployment of PcP2 on top of the 4 month delay on it being released over the planning window; requiring extra training and consultancy for key elements that didn’t align with deployment desires; having hardware only available for a much shorter period of time than anticipated to use for development, before it was taken “into production” and unable to continue our research work; and more, have led to our struggling to get a working system up in place that truly reduces the amount of human effort needed to take a podcast from capture to publication. And as these unforeseen hurdles and recursive problems have just started to reduce, I find myself without the time to devote to actually implementing the work I’ve written about, designed, trialled and all but solved.

Frustrating doesn’t begin to cover it.

So now, I’m away from the technical development and faced with blank sheets of paper.

I’m looking at how to gather together the 1000+ physical outputs (ranging from blog/wiki posts, to reports and handbooks, to audio and video podcasts, and more) into a semblance of order.

I need to find a way to express what I consider the biggest achievement and asset of the project, our community, in a report that would normally read like a science dissertation.

I am searching for an engaging narrative to tell the story of the Steeple project in such a way that I don’t miss anything, yet make it readable and in under 20 pages.

18 months ago, the project plan read like masters level science project. Research X,Y,Z, do some background reading, perform an experiment or two to prove your hypothesis, and then write a report detailing the methodology and results.

Today, I’m faced with a blank page and a wealth of material and experiences that barely resembles that science project. I know we’re richer for it all, but how to express it.

On reflection, I need to find a way to show this project as what you needed, but maybe not what you expected.


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