Case Study: The Open University

Production Mill is the commercial version of a unique Content Production Management System first designed for The Open University. Since it went live in April 2013, Production Mill has been continuously used by some of the most creative minds in the UK. Their feedback and ideas have been incorporated into Production Mill, making it a system that not only supports and facilitates the creative process, but producers enjoy using.

The Open University (The OU) is the largest distance learning institution in the UK. It leads the way in the amount of original audio & video content it creates for its students and the general public.

Each year more than 10,000 pieces of audio & video content are commissioned and produced for the University, including the many factual programmes it co-produces with the BBC, both by internal University staff and a large number of external production companies.

Before 2013, the production process within the University was highly inefficient and created financial and legal risks. It promoted duplication of effort resulting in many lost man-hours.

The OU could not adequately track what 3rd party copyrighted material (such as music, images, movie & TV clips) were used in their Audio and Video content, leaving the University open to legal challenge.

Furthermore, restricted budgets were placing a greater emphasis on the reuse of existing content. But reuse was difficult, and in many places impossible, because there were inadequate records of what copyrighted material had been included in the existing content.

An off-the-shelf solution was sought, but nothing was found to match the OU’s requirements. The University brought in an external software consultancy, Knowing Logic, to develop a custom solution.

Led by the University's Licensing and Acquisitions department, the project was launched in late 2012 with the aim to be running in time to manage the production of the 2013-2014 academic year’s content.

The solution was called the Production Portal (now Production Mill). The project's aims were: fully track the 3rd party copyrighted material used in all University productions, save the University time and money in the production process, and encourage reuse of existing content, again saving the University money.

After a short agile development process, a pilot project launched on the Microsoft Azure Cloud in April 2013. Soon after, the project went live with all 2014 audio & video content produced through the new system.

Over the months and years, the system continued to grow and was successfully rolled out into new Univeristy areas. The Cloud technology underpinning the system meant no changes were to handle the increased user-base.

As it was embraced by new departments, each had its own ideas and suggestions, which were incorporated into the project.

The system now not only manages the production of all audio and video output, it now manages the production of all types of educational output from the University - including books, e-books, promotional material and TV and radio programmes.

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In 2015, the system won two awards. The THELMA ‘Digital Innovation of the Year’ award recognised the profound impact the project had on the University, as well as its applicability to the full education sector.

The Computer Weekly ‘Cloud Project of the Year’ award celebrated its innovation in using the technology provided by the Microsoft Azure Cloud platform.

The publicity from these awards generated interest from other UK Institutions, with many visiting the University to see the system in use and to discuss the OU’s licensing and production workflows.

Today, the system’s main features are:

1. Logging 3rd party copyrighted material that have been used in a piece of educational output, and the rights the University has licensed for those assets.

2. A rich multi-media cloud-based asset library, that content producers and academics can log into from anywhere to search, view, download and reuse existing content; and also upload new content they have created.

3. A production workflow and approval system for commissioners, producers and academics to keep track of production paperwork, budgets and timelines.

4. Automatic contract generation, to streamline the process of creating commissioning contracts for the large number of external production companies the University uses.

5. Reporting. Tracking everything being produced in the system allows University department heads to budget for new productions and to adjust staffing levels to cope with the demands of the University’s productions.

The Production Mill System in Numbers.

The OU’s version of Production Mill now has over 700 users, both internal University staff and external users from the many production companies the OU uses.

The system has been used to produce over 29,000 pieces of audio & video content, from an 18 hour long Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Managing Personal Investments, to short audio clips that are only a few seconds long.

Over 88,000 3rd party copyrighted assets have been cleared for use through the system, including: 40,000 images, 15,000 pieces of film footage, 17,000 human contributors, 800 locations and 4500 pieces of music.

Production Mill is the culmination of 4 years of simultaneous development and real-life usage at one of the world’s most prolific creators of content – written, recorded, photographed and filmed. If your organisation is looking for one system that can manage all of your production workflow needs, then Production Mill offers you a tried and tested solution that will transform the way you work.

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