Next-Gen Video

The latest videoconferencing tools are enabling diverse learning initiatives at colleges and universities across the country.

WHETHER THE MANDATE is to offer a single class that trains students in studio production, to produce 25 videoconferenced classes a day for thousands of students across different continents, or to offer the very latest high-definition (HD) technology to a regional consortium of users, schools across the US are using the latest videoconference and audio/video streaming technologies creatively, to move to the next level of their very specific needs.

Telecommunications

AT GEORGIA TECH, quality control specialists
simultaneously monitor all 12 of the school’s remote
classrooms, as well as video signals from around the world.

High-Volume Videoconferencing

At the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, the technology that is the backbone of the school’s extensive distance learning program has to be responsive, flexible, and above all, reliable. The Distance Learning department needs to cover 25 to 30 videoconference connections a day to support 125 courses per semester during the main academic year, says George Wright, associate director of distance learning. In addition, the department hosts guest speakers, faculty presentations, conferences, and even local business meetings.

To handle this workload, the department relies on 10 Tandberg 6000 codecs, three 880 codecs, and one 1000. Georgia Tech recently chose to update an older bridge with the Tandberg MPS 200 MCU bridge to support its heavy videoconferencing load, in part because the department already had all Tandberg codecs, but also because through experience, Wright has been convinced of the reliability and longevity of the product. In fact, he says that although Georgia Tech currently has the capability of doing HD videoconferencing, that development is on hold for the moment. “We’ve got these old boxes that just keep running, and I’m not going to throw them out. Some of those Tandberg codecs are going on eight to 10 years old—we can’t kill them.”

Beyond classes and research conferences, the technology supports crucial single events dependably and seamlessly, says Wright. As examples, he cites a student at Georgia Tech’s campus in the Lorraine region of France defending her Ph.D. dissertation to a committee in Atlanta via videoconference, as well as professors who hold office hours via web meetings. “All they really need is a web meeting capability similar to WebEx, Moodle, or Elluminate, and a reasonably decent computer and microphone,” says Wright. Students then join in via an internet connection and microphone.

The Distance Learning department routinely captures all videoconferences and makes them available in an asynchronous format. Explains Wright, “Typically, we do a web stream, encoding in real time, so while [an event] is going on, we are also encoding, and theoretically someone could log on to an internet connection and see that web stream.” But as Wright points out, many grad students—who often work full time and are scattered in different time zones all over the world—prefer asynchronous delivery. “Everything we do uses standard code, so as long as we stay within IEEE standards, we can communicate with almost anybody,” he says.

Sharing Cutting-Edge Resources

Sometimes it takes the old-fashioned skill of bartering to make new technology work well. At least, that seems to be the case at SUNY-Cobleskill, a small agricultural and technical college that belongs to the 64-member State University of New York system.

Jack McNerney, a professor of communications at Cobleskill, is also the executive director of Schopeg Access, a nonproft, community-access television station on the Time Warner system. Historically, SUNY-Cobleskill has provided Schopeg with equipment housing, studio space, and utilities; in return, McNerney teaches courses in studio production at Cobleskill and uses Schopeg equipment to cover college events. “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” says McNerney: “We trade services for classes and coverage.”

When Schopeg was able to update its video system in June 2006 as part of its TV franchise renewal, the college benefited too. Faced with no staff and minimal funding, McNerney decided to purchase a Sony AWS-G500 Anycast Station—an 18-pound “studio in a box” —along with three Sony BRC-300 remote-control cameras. “It’s worked very, very well,” McNerney says. “Using the Anycast system, we can get down to two people and still run it. Yet the system still gives us the ability to control all aspects of production.” The Anycast comprises a six-input video switcher, six-channel audio mixer, character generator or text-typing tool, built-in frame synchronizer, scale converter, and an onboard-monitor LCD screen with multiple splits, as well as a streaming encoder and server.

Internet2’s bandwidth enables videoconferences to transmit subtle details of sight and sound—ideal for the performing arts.

The system’s portability was a major consideration for McNerney. “It’s the size of a briefcase,” he says. “With wireless mikes and remote control cameras, it takes 10 minutes to set up. The monitors are built into the unit, there’s only one power cord to worry about, and the cameras just tie into it”—features that are particularly suited to the large amount of sports coverage Schopeg d'es. “It gives us the ability to be mobile and put on a quality studio broadcast in the field, without needing a truck to haul everything. It’s a very sophisticated portable studio.”

The unit has sent McNerney and his students and interns in new directions. “We are now experimenting with streaming video, and we have a fair number of computer-literate interns who are working on the ins and outs of tying it into the campus network,” he says. For students, says McNerney, the unit also provides “a chance to see where TV production is going—particularly studio production: fewer people, wireless sound, more remote cameras.”

Performing in High-Def

The Mid-Atlantic Gigapop in Philadelphia for Internet2 is one of 32 similar sites that form the backbone of Internet2 in the US. Besides serving as an “on-ramp” to Internet2 for member instutions in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware, Jennifer Oxenford, MAGPI’s associate director, explains, “We also work with members to develop new projects and bring them some of the advanced technologies coming out of the internet community.”

The most exciting recent technology that MAGPI has added to its array, says Oxenford, is a LifeSize Room HD interactive-video unit. The Room system includes a codec, a LifeSize phone, and an HD camera. The system is easy to set up and assemble, says Oxenford. “We’ve been kicking the tires to see what we can do with it.”

Over Internet2, LifeSize Room provides details of sight and sound that make it an ideal tool for such applications as performing arts master classes or language classes, where being able to see and hear the speaker clearly is crucial. Initial response from users about the quality of the Life- Size videoconferences has been enthusiastic: One of the first master classes conducted over the LifeSize Room system featured composer Thomas Cabaniss, music animateur for the Philadelphia Orchestra, who, along with a small group of select musicians from The Philadelphia Orchestra, led a workshop for music fellows at the Miami-based New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy. The difference in quality was striking, says Oxenford. “You cannot do a master class over Internet1 with any sense of video or audio performance,” she says, pointing out that a 2-megabit interactive call of the sort the LifeSize Room System requires could eat up much of a school’s bandwidth, if done over a common internet connection. “Over Internet2, you’ve got that bandwidth through dedicated links, the video is better, the audio is better, and you don’t have the delay that makes the difference between something a musician in a master class can tolerate and something that just isn’t up to speed.”

Cultural exchange series are another possibility, as are events for the museum community. Says Oxenford, “To be able to see the detail in a piece of clothing—to be able to see cloth and fabric in a high-definition way—is really where we’re looking to take the unit.”

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