Digital R&D for the Arts Scotland: Case Study 1 - National Piping Centre
Each day in the run up to Nesta Scotland’s Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event we are going to share a case study showcasing what the ten projects from both calls of the fund have achieved.
If you would like to sign-up to attend the Spotlight on Digital R&D in the Arts event on the 21st in Edinburgh please click here.
I’ve not always been a fan of the Great Highland Bagpipe. My big brother played the pipes and the hour a week of tuition he received courtesy of the 13th Dundee Boys Brigade was never going to be enough to turn him into a piping superstar.
But what if he’d had access to online lessons via Adobe Connect from the National Piping Centre in Glasgow? Could have been a different story…
Read more about the National Piping Centre and their journey below – they have grown their tuition business without growing their premises (and increasing their costs) and have opened up live piping events to a global audience by overcoming technical obstacles to streaming from remote locations.
National Piping Center E-Learning Hub
Case Study by Rhona Taylor
“We needed to look at new ways to grow our tuition business without having to hire new premises. Now we’re teaching people right across the globe” John Mulhearn
The National Piping Centre has developed an e-Learning hub as an extension of its existing website with its technology partner, Yellow Brick House, to grow the centre’s tuition business without having to expand its premises.
Piping tutors at the centre in Glasgow can now deliver live webinars to students around the world, which are then stored and archived on the centre’s website as recorded lessons. Through the relationship that the piping centre has developed with the technology partner during the Digital R&D project, it is now exploring further digital projects and ideas, including the live streaming of events.
“We were already dipping our toe into online tuition via Skype, and we continue to do that,” says John Mulhearn, the centre’s e-learning co-ordinator and one of its piping instructors. “The way we do that is much the same as we would do person-to-person here at the centre, but via webcam.
“The Skype teaching was delivered one-to-one, whereas the idea behind this was that we would be able to teach groups across the world, all at one time. That was the premise for the whole project, and it was a way to grow our whole tuition business.”
The centre has been outgrowing its building in Glasgow for some time, Mulhearn says, and exploring new digital avenues allowed them to consider how they might expand their reach and their business without expanding the premises, in a cost-effective way. Tutors can now give a lesson to up to 99 students at any one time, who can be anywhere in the world.
“We needed to look at new ways to grow our tuition business without having to hire new premises. Now we’re teaching people right across the globe — from the West Coast of the United States to Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand.”
The e-Learning hub has been received positively by tutors and existing students, Mulhearn says, but the centre now has the capacity to teach far more people than are currently signing up to the online lessons. Now they face the challenge of marketing their product more effectively to take advantage of the new opportunity. “The overall idea has been very well received through our already existing market. A lot of our subscribers are people we already had a relationship with in one form or another, and it was positively taken up by them. We’ve tried to push it more through social media and I think there’s a lot of scope for developing that side of how we’re promoting it.”
The centre has learnt through the experience about what aspects of the hub work, and what could be improved. The system has faced some technical challenges, and the experience of those could be used to change the system for the better, Mulhearn believes. “I can see where it’s perhaps not as user-friendly as I would like it to be if I were using it myself. There are ongoing technical glitches with live webinars that become quite a nuisance to have to rectify.”
The success of the lessons is reliant on the technology working at both ends during a live lesson, and this has also caused some difficulties. “You might have a break in the internet connection or there might be problems with audio or just be glitches within the system, which means that we have to re-record the whole thing,” Mulhearn explains. “So instead of taking one hour, it takes two or maybe more. It could maybe be more efficiently done if we were not to do it in a live format.”
It is something the centre might look to do differently if they were starting the project again, Mulhearn says, and are currently looking to explore as the e-Learning hub progresses. “With hindsight I’d perhaps look at a different format to deliver the lessons. There are small technical things to do with the software we’re using, and perhaps a slightly different archiving system on the website, but these are things that we're looking to develop.”
The online teaching also required teaching staff to adapt not only to new technology, but to a change in how they delivered lessons. They brought in Fergus Muirhead, the piper and broadcaster, who carried out a training session for teaching staff on how to present themselves on camera, and some of the challenges they might face. “It has been a bit of a learning curve for everyone,” Mulhearn says. “We’re all very experienced in one-to-one and group tuition, but to talk to camera is a very different experience. Some people are more comfortable doing it than others but I think over time everyone has got more comfortable with it.”
The e-Learning project is part of a gradual shift towards digital online tuition and digital content in the organisation as a whole, and has fitted into the wider activities of the centre. As well as the new facility for online tuition, the organisation has created a media archive, through which they are able to store historical and educational documents. They are also developing an audio archive of old recordings.
“We’ve got a big collection of old 78s and reel-to-reel cassette tapes, so we’re digitising them and making them available through the archives. It’s allowed us to expand and make our content more available. We’re still at the early stages of really growing that market. It’s a time-consuming thing to go through, digitising old analogue recordings, but it’s something that we will continue to grow over time.”
One of the key successes of the project was the working relationship with the technology partner, Yellow Brick House, a collaborative digital media network based in Glasgow. With them, the piping centre has since developed ideas for further related digital projects, and the relationship was crucial to that happening, Mulhearn explains. “They’re an interesting little co-operative – they’ve got expertise in lots of different areas, and they were very good to work with. They were very understanding of what we were doing. It was a very new venture for them at the same time but they’ve delivered everything that we wanted.
“There are likely to be lots of different companies out there that can fulfil what you need, but you need to work with individuals that you feel happy working with and that you can build a future relationship with personally. And perhaps further on from that, people who you can perhaps see avenues for development further down the line.”
Yellow Brick House faced their own difficulties during the project, including losing their lead developer, but this was never an issue for the relationship with the piping centre. “They managed to resolve their own issues without bringing us into it. Through our relationship with them on the e-Learning website, we’ve developed a further relationship with one of their team members and another one of his companies. That’s enabled us to get more into doing live streamed events, so there’s been an off-shoot of that initial relationship.”
The live streaming of events is a new venture for the piping centre, and the organisation is at the early stages of exploring how they will develop it and potentially use it as a source of revenue. They have already streamed live events that have taken place at the piping centre and further afield. “We’d streamed various events from our Piping Live! event in August and also the Glendfiddich Piping Championship in Blair Atholl at the end of October. That was a huge success — we had upwards of 3,000 people watching online.”
The piping centre had initially provided the live streaming free of charge, but in February 2014 trialled a paid-for model for the Metro Cup Piping Competition in Newark, New Jersey. “We’ve been experimenting with different payment models, and Newark was our first attempt at putting a paywall up and seeing how it would go. I don’t think it quite met our expectations, which were perhaps slightly unrealistic, but we’re going to experiment with a few different avenues for revenue growth from these.”
Through the initial partnership, piping centre staff have received training from the technology partner to allow them to develop the capability to do this alone. While previous events have been streamed under the guidance of Yellow Brick House, they are now preparing to conduct their first live streaming without any external support. “We’re at the stage now where we’re about to take a step up to do it ourselves — we’re just about ready to go it alone.”
Overall, Mulhearn says, the Digital R&D project has allowed the piping centre to start a digital journey via its e-Learning hub that has the potential to develop and expand. “It’s allowed us to explore some new opportunities and ways of growing our own business.
Piping Instructor at the National Piping Centre
“The main difference with the webinar is that you’re not actually sitting talking to somebody – you’re talking to a camera and that took a wee bit of getting used to. But once you get your head around that, it's fine. I just look at it as being a lesson that’s just a one-way street rather than two.
“I've never been the best at public speaking, and so coming to a situation where you’ve got a camera and a microphone, I found a wee bit daunting. But once I realised that it’s no different from just speaking to someone in person it was fine. The training on presenting ourselves really helped. I dare say there’s still things I’m doing wrong, but it was useful.
“There have been hitches – luckily for me not too many – but there can be. Sometimes there’s been a problem with the internet, or one time I couldn't get logged in to the Adobe Connect system because they were doing maintenance on the site. The odd time there’s been a bit of human error involved – but we’ve worked round these things.
“It would be good if we had more people in a live lesson so there was more of a dialogue. You're having to think about what is it that people might do wrong and things like that, so it might be better if people were able to ask more questions. If we could do something to try to make it more of an interactive thing, that would be good.
“I’m very happy with the change and I've got used to it now – it’s just like any other lesson. I know what time it is, what I’ve got to do – I just make my way to the classroom, switch on and there you go.”
Director, Bright Signals and Yellow Brick House
“On this project we felt completely involved in everything from day one, and that’s part of why the relationship was so good — it was a partnership approach and we worked together. It felt very collaborative and the piping centre were very open to ideas. They had a concept but they let us lead on how it could be developed.
“R&D is really important to Yellow Brick House. We make a real point of having ‘side projects’ — stuff that we’re interested in other than paid work for clients. It keeps us exposed to other things and alive to what’s going on culturally. Some of our best creative ideas come from that.
“The working relationship with the piping centre was a real positive — it was a fascinating project to work on. It wasn’t lucrative, but it was really successful in exposing us to interesting stuff, and doing things that we hadn’t done before. We ended up live streaming an event from a castle in the middle of the Highlands that didn’t even have a 3G connection, and it was great to pull that off.
“We had a few headaches around the technology, and a few problems when the site first launched but that’s nothing out of the ordinary on a project like this. It’s opened up things for us — we learnt a lot and we’d certainly do something similar again.
“The whole Digital R&D project and the way Nesta approached it was good — it made projects happen that just would not have happened otherwise. Even if you took away the funding, the process of pairing the arts and digital organisations up with an open mind was interesting and showed the potential of what could happen.
“We have a lot to offer each other — it’s a uniquely good fit and should be supported and encouraged.”