The 21st Century Chalkboard: Distributed Collaboration in Higher Education
Technologies for presentation and collaboration in the classroom are expanding
the geographical boarders of the institution and helping to break cultural boundaries.
Here, Syllabus speaks with James Oliverio, a professor and director
of the Digital Worlds Institute at the University of Florida, about that institution’s
pioneering work in distributed collaboration.
Syllabus: In your work at the University of Florida, you’ve incorporated
new media into a distributed collaboration model. What is the basis for the
multi-faceted collaborative environment at the Digital Worlds Institute? What
is your core operating principle for telecollaboration?
James Oliverio: Part of my background has been in the performing arts and in
collaboration with people in a wide variety of projects across the arts and
other fields. I’ve found that the basis of collaboration is what g'es
on between people, whether they’re building a house with a hammer or trying
to create a dance from around the world over a computer network. In an ideal
situation, our technology would be so evolved that it would be totally transparent,
allowing us to communicate using all the non-verbal, non-text cues that have
evolved over thousands of years. So, the basic idea was not to hide students
or instructors behind computers when they’re allegedly interacting.
Figure 1: James Oliverio
JO: One of my pet peeves with education technology
is that oftentimes, people just talk about the boxes—focusing on acquiring
more computers with year-end budgets, or sometimes trying to teach classes in
computer labs. To me that’s not really the most effective way to collaborate,
especially if you’re going to be involved in a variety of projects. It’s
important to craft a space that is technologically sophisticated but people-friendly,
and very comfortable to be in as well.
S: As an Emmy award winner, you have a distinguished
background in theater and the performing arts. Do you relate telecollaboration
to theater in some way?
Figure 2: UF dancers
perform on virtual space.
JO: In theater, we have a stage that, in its raw state, is just a bare, open
space. Within that stage we can create an incredible array of experiences that
engage the audience and the actors as collaborators. Referring to the metaphor
of performing arts as a model for creating virtual space, I often ask my students
to name the earliest kind of virtual environments. They’ll say, “The
CAVE, 1980s, Chicago,” or something like that; and I’ll say, “How
about the Greeks?” And they’ll look at me and say, “But they
hadn’t even invented electricity!” Then I say, “Well, they
made their own.” And you know, theater is one of the most compelling types
of virtual reality that we have.
S: Then how did you use this model at the Digital Worlds Institute? What is
JO: We had the opportunity to design a space from a 6,000-square-foot open area
in an old gymnasium that we refurbished. Rather than use small rooms and try
to pack them full of the latest high tech stuff, we made a large space that
can be transformed, depending on the type of collaboration that we’re
trying to do. And whether it’s fifty people in one room here, or ten people
in this room and fifty more people on the other side of the planet, it’s
still the transparency of the interaction that leads to better collaboration.
Again, the design process was about creating something from an empty space—rather
than trying to use an existing room that you fill with technology and then squeeze
people into that tight space.
S: What is the most important characteristic of this type of collaborative environment?
JO: Well again, the notion of flexibility. In this
particular space we’re able to hold traditional lecture-style classes.
And, we can also host actual performing arts experiences. We can do large immersive
virtual environment displays, ceremonies, receptions, and depending on how we
configure the room we’re able to bring together students and faculty from
different cultures on one campus—that is to say, we have people from aerospace
engineering collaborating with people from visual arts, which is not a common
kind of thing, at least until recently.
We’ve been able to configure the space to suit people’s needs,
and if they need some telecommunications or video conference displayed with
a large-format system, we’re able to combine all of that technology; we
layer it into a large-scale projection environment without the collaborators
having to worry about the technology.
Figure 3: Sound design
in the digital media suite.
S: It sounds like providing technology staffing is a major part of this effort.
JO: Yes, a big part of it is to have a staff or some people who are trained
in operating the system. And we do look at the facility itself as one system,
rather than a structure that has some systems stuffed into its walls.
S: How is it that people from different disciplines are working together on
these collaborative projects? Is that one of your goals? Are you promoting cross-disciplinary
JO: I think that at universities people are often
categorized and characterized by what their job role is in a certain department.
These designations have a lot of connotations, both positive and pejorative,
depending on which culture is looking at the other. Yet we can find ways to
bring people together for a common project or a goal, take them out of their
cubicles, and let them concentrate on the parameters of a project in order to
see what the other one is doing in a shared space.
The Digital Worlds Institute (DW) at the University of Florida
The focus of the DW institute’s mission is on education and research
in digital media. DW combines expertise from the arts, sciences, humanities,
and engineering in order to help solve real-world problems in a digital world
environment. “Digital Worlds” are computer-based systems capable
of representing various aspects of real-world objects and environments through
the effective application and
integration of polymodal information rendered in digital media formats.
S: Do you see collaboration technologies that work well across disciplines maybe
even spawning new disciplines?
JO: Absolutely. And I think this is one of the things
that’s going to be happening more and more if we’re successful in
higher education in going through the cell membranes, so to speak, that keep
traditional fields apart. This will include, I think, combinations in the humanities,
the liberal arts, and the sciences. It will work if we’re able to have
contemporary professors not so much worried or afraid of or even concerned with
the technology; if they can use it somewhat like they would use a pencil or
a pen. One of my goals here is to make these tools available in such a way that
people feel comfortable using them, just as they would using a writing implement.
One of the latest technologies we’re working on now basically d'es that.
It uses an off-the-shelf laser pointer. Anyone can have it in the class, and
activate or interact with material on our 52-foot screen without having to touch
a computer keyboard or a mouse.
Figure 3: Producer J'ella
Walz at the REVE control console.
S: So is it your objective to make it easy to include everyone’s work
in a shared display?
JO: To me, when everyone can see the big picture
and indeed share in creating it, that’s a different kind of screen experience
than poking on your little PDA, which is actually an alienating kind of situation
for personalized collaboration.
I tend to say that what we’ve created here at the REVE, the Research,
Education, and Visualization Environment is a 21st century chalkboard, and everybody
gets to write on that chalkboard—not just the people that can draw really
nicely or only the people that can write the best equations. Everybody can take
the chalk, so to speak, and put up their own marks, and everybody’s work
stays up there at one time, so everyone can see the big picture.
S: Do you look at all this interdisciplinary collaboration as something that
could be very strategic—even leading to some restructuring of the institution?
JO: At least from the direction we’re coming
from it’s not.
We’re not thinking strategically in terms of reorganizing
an institution, but rather realigning personalized relationships. I look at
teaching and learning as really central to the mission of using these technologies,
and that depending on what the content is, if we’re teaching and learning
biochemistry or digital media, and we’re teaching and learning how to
collaborate, those are skills that are not generally taught in traditional institutions.
Part of my goal with all this work is to get back to what I consider a human-scale
and a human-centered design. When we make these boxes or technologies accomplish
a certain kind of function—be it to allow communication across a distance
or collaboration between departments—the more that people can interact
in their own way rather than to change their behavior to accommodate the technology,
S: So you’re really developing technology that supports more human-centered
JO: If we can create spaces that are enhanced by digital media and more naturalistic
interfaces, I believe that we’re going to spend more time collaborating,
learning, retaining, and creating.
S: How do instructors react to using this technology? What about instructional
JO: We cannot expect our professors to be technologists if they’re going
to be specialists in other areas. We’ve got to make this collaboration
technology as easy for them to use as a copy machine, a telephone, or a pencil.
A lot of times, you can show instructors a given technology, but they’re
either loathe to use it or they’re afraid or confused, and they just would
rather do it the way they’ve always been doing it. This is bad on both
sides of the equation—for the learner in today’s world, it’s
bad, but it’s especially unfortunate if it’s alienated the content
specialists or the professors.
S: Can you talk specifically about the REVE for a little bit? How did that evolve,
and what have you been able to do with it?
JO: Sure. When I first came to the University of
Florida in 2001 I was invited to be on the High Performance Computing committee,
or HPC, and this was literally a lot of physicists and rocket scientists and
network engineers that were trying to figure out how to use emerging, advanced
systems over distances for collaboration in science experiments. They were using
a communications tool called the Access Grid. Grid computing, as you probably
know, is hooking a lot of different computers together, oftentimes at a distance,
and letting them crunch the numbers to combine their resources instead of trying
to use one computer in one location. The Access Grid was established to try
to do the same, to bring people together into a shared space over a distance—not
just point-to-point, but allowing many people see and talk to each other in
the same shared space. When I saw that technology, I thought it would really
be great if we could get performing artists and people from theater, dance,
and music to use this tool to collaborate across boundaries. So we demonstrated
that in a project that was literally called Dancing Beyond Boundaries at the
Global Supercomputing Conference in 2001.
Research, Education, and Visualization Environment
A flexible space at the Digital Worlds Institute for research and education,
including a digital media environment with facility for distributed collaboration
and video conferencing. The space includes the following rooms:
- Polymodal Immersive Theater (PIT): Provides large-scale immersive visualization
capabilities for an audience of up to 48 people
- Virtual Production Studio (VPS): A large open studio with green screen,
video projection, Ethernet access to Internet2 and Access Grid potential
- Digital Media Suite (DMS): A variety of production and post-production systems,
ranging from digital video editing and compositing to audio and animation
- REVE Image Generator (RIG): An integrated computing and image processing
system designed with both a graphics supercomputer and PC cluster connected
to the high-speed network
Supporting technologies include immersive video display systems (both mono
and active stereo projection), mobile Access Grid and VBrick carts connected
over Internet2, image generators including SGI graphics supercomputer and
Dell cluster, visualization tools including SEOS Chameleon with Scorpion RealTime
compositing system and MultiGen-Paradigm VEGA. Theater environment includes
Digidesign ProTools running in 5.1 surround sound and the Digital Media suite
provides a host of production tools.
S: I’ve heard that was the hit of the show
JO: We were the only group of artists there, and the scientists were fascinated
by how these, quote, “art people” were doing something with their
technology that none of them had ever imagined. There was a master percussionist
performing in Brazil, and dancers in Minneapolis, and other musicians in Florida,
and dancers in Denver—all collaborating to create a new piece in three
days. And they’d never met each other. They were in two different continents
and four different cities.
S: And the REVE took off after that
JO: Yes, Dancing Beyond Boundaries was the beginning of our distributed collaboration.
Since that point we’ve built the REVE and done some other projects that
have expanded to three different continents in real time. Because we’ve
got a flexible space here, we’re not only able to house the participants
in the collaboration, but we’re also able to include audiences. And because
we’re involved in education as well as art and science, we’ve worked
on a lot of techniques, including camera placement and space configuration.
S: You’ve worked on another project more recently called Non Divisi. How
is that different from Dancing Beyond Boundaries?
JO: The difference is that Dancing Beyond Boundaries was done from the show
floor of a huge convention center and a couple other smaller studios. With Non
Divisi, we’ve been able to center the operations here in two spaces within
our new building and then project outwards from Florida to Korea and South America.
S: Is that something you plan to continue to do going forward, these global
JO: Yes. We actually have a team of people in various cities around the world
now, and we’ve been asked to do some things for a big festival in Italy
that will be coming up in the fall. In addition to that, we’re planning
on working more with engineers and artists to create shared virtual environments
so that not only will the experience be realistic—as in looking at video—but
the live performers will be able to inhabit shared, highly visual spaces that
have been created by animators.
S: How might you use the Access Grid in the future? And how might you gauge
JO: Grid Computing first came out of the notion
of using distributed computers to help solve problems. Then, the Access Grid
made it more collaborative by actually layering video with live people distributed
to work on solving problems. Initially, scientists and researchers at organizations
like Argonne National Labs would just talk to each other and give presentations
remotely. But video being a very malleable medium and certainly one that’s
accessible to people intuitively, we felt that it can be used in a lot of ways
that the system may not have originally been designed for. I view communication
as a one- or two-way street where when I say hello, and you say hello—we’ve
just communicated. But if we’re going to collaborate, that’s a higher
level of interaction than a simple communication.
Now, to create things in the arts, even if everyone is in the same room or
on the same stage, there is a relatively high level of collaboration. Systems
engineers attempting to analyze what we do in our distributed collaborations
would have lots of words and processes that they could talk about. Whereas at
the REVE, we’re doing collaboration at this point fairly intuitively,
rather than strategically from a structural analysis. But we do believe that’s
in part why it seems to be working so well—because we’re just acting
like people, as opposed to analysts, at this point.
S: Can you envision what might happen with the technology for telecollaboration
in the future, say in five or ten years?
JO: I think we’re going to get closer to what we consider realism, in
other words, the fidelity of the signal will get better; the video will look
better. Better audio and more immersion—immersion meaning either that
you’re totally surrounded by the technology or just engrossed in it because
you’re not thinking about anything else. There are two schools: One creates
immersion by physically putting the projectors all around you or by having you
wear a head-mounted display. The other, which I think is potentially more compelling,
is to have the experience so engaging that you’re not thinking about anything
else even if it’s on a small screen.
S: What are some of the major changes we’ll see in practice, regardless
of which of these two schools of thought you follow?
JO: When we talk about where this collaborative
technology would lead, I believe it follows from one of the key things that
it has enabled so far. It will continue to give us a sense of cultural perspectives
from people around the world that we would not have had otherwise, regardless
of how many books or Web sites we’ve read. I feel that one of the best
things that could happen with these collaborative technologies is that people
of all ages would have a lot more contact with others from around the world,
and understand other cultures better. Then in the future we wouldn’t have
to send tanks to make up for the shortcomings of those who had come before.
SEOS Chameleon with ScorpionRT
Barco Galaxy Active
Stereo DLP Projector
projectiondesign F1 SXGA
Pioneer PDP-502 plasma screen
Extron CrossPoint Plus
SGI Onyx2 Infinite Reality2
Dell Precision 650
NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000
Digidesign Pro Tools
Microsoft Windows Media9
Adobe Video Collection
Apple Final Cut / DVD Studio Pro
Macromedia Director and DreamWeaver
Discreet 3ds Max
Okino Computer Graphics
Sony DCR VX-2000
Lowel Super Ambi Kit
S: What infrastructure or planning has to be in place for all this to happen?
Is there any organization that can influence this the most?
JO: The infrastructure piece that we need to have
is more bandwidth going to various communities. We shouldn’t concentrate
so much on more expensive boxes at the end of the link, but just work on getting
the link there. And I believe in having spaces not unlike the REVE that are
not incredibly expensive to build and maintain but have good connectivity and
provide a conducive atmosphere for people to come together—whether physically
in the same space from different disciplines, or from across the planet from
different cultures—to find what their common denominator or their common
shared experience is.
In this country Internet2 has obviously been a major player. I think that we
need to find a way that every institution, from the community colleges on up
to the senior institutions, are hooked up, to if not Internet2 to another peer
network, and make that a basic commodity—rather than a luxury only for
the research universities.
I think that the solution from a technological and economic perspective is
not simply to throw more boxes into the schools, but to spend more time connecting
all the schools to a common network or a common access point so that they can
share their resources, and that will help across disciplines, across institutions,
and I believe ultimately across cultures.
S: So do you think that many other institutions could offer similar programs
JO: Now, I don’t think of any of this as a
I wish I could say it were inevitable. I think it’s possible but again,
a big part of what we need to do is to distribute access to the resources rather
than to try to populate rooms with boxes and put students behind the boxes.
Our screen and our 21st Century chalkboard needs to be larger and easier to
I believe that we could implement a lot of these at other institutions for
a relatively modest cost and then develop content to be shared and techniques
for people sharing live courses. None of this technology is terribly new by
itself, but the integration of all these pieces d'es not seem to be common yet.
Eventually, we will develop ways that we can have our partners in various institutions
around this country and beyond begin to use these tools so that they become
taken for granted. I believe we can do this within two to five years. I don’t
see why any higher education institution, if it is willing and interested, couldn’t
have spaces like this to use on a daily basis.
[Editor’s note: James Oliverio’s Web presentation
about his work at the Digital Worlds Institute, recorded with MediaSite Live,
can be viewed at: http://www.syllabus.com/collaboration/]