Sync Hacks: How a School Uses BitTorrent Sync for Special Needs Education

Sync Hacks is a column dedicated to exploring new applications for BitTorrent Sync, as built by users like you. BitTorrent Sync is a free, unlimited, secure file-syncing app. (And now, it’s even more mobile.) If you’ve got an epic Sync idea, use-case or how-to, shoot us an email at team[at]resilio.com.

In this week’s Sync Hacks: Australian teacher Shane Spence uses BitTorrent Sync to help deliver a first-of-its-kind special needs education program based on video technology.

From Shane:

I work as a media specialist teacher at a school district in Victoria, Australia. In 2012, we launched meTV, a pioneering approach in engaging special needs students via video self modeling and video peer monitoring. Evidence-based research had shown us that this way of education allowed the viewer to acquire skills within a very short viewing period, by watching carefully planned video clips that make up a daily show. It was a way for us to teach our students behavioural, academic, social and personal skills.

What started as a pilot (in the form of a daily television show webcast within the school intranet), is now watched across Australia in special-needs schools, as well as in the US and Canada; it has now been watched over 15,000 times around the world. I’ve been humbled to see the accolades, having most recently been shortlisted this year for “Victorian Teacher of the Year of Disability and Additional Needs” and overall Teacher of the Year in the “Lindsay Thompson Fellowship.” It’s been a great validation of the approach. For a technology that’s been around for 25 years, it’s finally beginning to make an impact on education. And that is an amazing thing to see.

Technical Road Bumps

Implementing meTV opened up a host of technical difficulties for us. We had to invent a cheap, fast and effective way to record and upload HD videos of the shows. Custom equipment had to be collected and creatively assembled – all under a somewhat modest budget of less than $5000.

At the onset of the project, the entire thing was nearly derailed when we were unable to get enough cooperation from the IT department to enable network streaming (at a reasonable cost). meTV started to look like a pipe dream to us.

Then came BitTorrent Sync.

From my colleague Paul, the architect behind our implementation: I had already been using Sync as my own personal file cloud with two Raspberry Pi computers; it provided a simple and cheap 3 Terabyte backup and synchronization solution. What sold me on Sync was it’s ability to run behind various firewalls with little to no effort. It does the grunt work of moving files between servers, helping address a firewall in the middle that we had little control over. We now run a cloud server and WAN server, both of which are happily synchronized regardless of which server the video clips are uploaded to. The Sync API allows us to pragmatically monitor the transfer progress and make episodes live as soon as the folder synchronization is completed. We’ve essentially created a model that allows for replication in other schools.

The Road Ahead

meTV is planned for further expansion within both Australia and in schools around the world. The interest in the US and elsewhere is exciting and I look forward to continuing speaking about how this technology has helped address the needs of our students. We’ve continued to improve our implementation, looking at areas like mobile for an increasingly mobile world. My ultimate hope for meTV is to have it in as many schools as possible, helping as many students as possible learn in a new way.

Shane Spence is currently employed as a media (video) specialist teacher in Victoria, Australia, and has experience in teaching both secondary and primary levels in both mainstream and special education settings. He has worked as a media assessor for the VCE and also runs his own video production company. You can reach him here.

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