Videoconferencing | Feature

The Technology That Saved a University Degree Program

The video shows a troupe of dancers moving to the sounds of a slow keyboard melody, whose player is displayed on a giant screen above their heads. The image of the pianist gives way to that of a percussionist, then back to the pianist again. Each performer is located in some part of the world separate from any other performer.

The performance being recorded took place during the Intermedia Festival in April 2010. While dozens of artists, musicians, videographers, dancers, actors, and writers gathered in Indianapolis from around the world for the annual event, others participated through the Internet interactively with collaborators at the festival. Some of the technology used at the event was created in the Telematics Lab at the Donald Tavel Arts and Technology Research Center, which is the research wing of the Department of Music and Arts Technology in Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). That department, in turn, is located in IUPUI's Informatics Technology Building, which also houses the Abilene Backbone, part of Internet2, the primary network for high speed connectivity for research and education in North America.

If the connections among these entities sound complicated, that's because they are. But it comes down to this: By virtue of proximity to a really, really fast network, performers and technologists can make beautiful music together, no matter where they reside in the world. And if it weren't for high-end videoconferencing, the university department making these connections possible would have withered for lack of students and probably died off many years ago.

The story of the Department of Music and Arts Technology began in the mid-1990s when the shared campus of Indiana University and Purdue University began offering what was the first United States-based master of science degree in music technology. The focus was on educating students on computer-based music technology, multimedia and interactive design, and multimedia production techniques.

When Fred Rees, now department chair, arrived in 1999, the program was housed in a vacated elementary school and included a piano lab, a PC lab, a Mac lab, and a couple of other rooms for recording. That master program had 11 students, all attending classes in the traditional manner--on campus. The program had two full-time faculty members, three people on term contracts, and about 12 adjuncts.

Rees, who was interested in distance learning, had come from the University of Northern Iowa, where he developed the first graduate music education degree program in the country to be broadcast at a distance using that state's interactive television network. He knew the program he was now part of could grow through online means. "Ours was a resident program for an urban university here in Indianapolis. It was seen more as a local university," he said. "I could say with some confidence [that] we had gone through the pool of eligible master students who were able to come to campus. The online program exploded the population."

The then-director of the program had already started to do video-streaming with a couple of students before Rees' arrival. That program was offered in "beta" form until the fall 2000 semester, when all courses for the degree program were offered online.

In 2004 a new building was erected to house this program, as well as several departments, the aforementioned Telematics Lab--and operations for that high-speed data backbone that made ample video and audio streaming possible. The School of Music Program that supports the master's degree has a bevy of labs and well outfitted classrooms. One is full of iMacs, with surround-sound, Blu-ray, and high definition video. Replacing it, Rees estimated, would cost between $60,000 and $70,000. Another is packed with PCs. Several of the classrooms have multiple Polycom VSX 7000s room systems, all-in-one devices that include a point-tilt-zoom camera and embedded audio equipment for high-end videoconferencing. The rooms include custom desks for students, which have space for writing as well as room for both a QWERTY and piano keyboard.

For a typical class, Rees said, the instructor shows up about 10 minutes early to turn on the video-streaming units and connect that to Oncourse Collaboration and Learning (CL), a Sakai-based course management system developed at Indiana University. He or she will also turn on Adobe Connect Pro, which the program has been using for Web conferencing for a couple of years. Because all classes are networked (including all student computers), the on-campus and online students log in to chat and see each other as well as the faculty member.

Rees said he uses two monitors to run his lecture and also interact with the students. He works on a Crestron Touchpanel, which allows him to push out media from his computer and open up files on student workstations to share with the class. The complexity of the faculty operations doesn't faze Rees. "I'm a musician," he explained. "As an analogy, I'm used to playing instruments and doing other things at the same time. It's something you get trained to do."

With Adobe Connect, all the users in the class could pull up video windows displaying each student's face, but they generally don't. "The video windows are small. And the video quality wouldn't be great. Students can join that way. Many prefer not to. They stay in the chat room."

What fascinates Rees, he said, isn't so much the technology itself but how the setup allows for what he called a "class in a class." A running dialog is taking place in the chat window as the instructor is speaking. If a student doesn't understand something, others can pipe in with feedback, links, and definitions.

"Sometimes I'll get absorbed, particularly when I'm doing a presentation, and I won't look at chat," he said. "But I'll have a student in class say, 'Joe just asked a question about....' I can look down and answer it right on the spot. Students will see what I'm covering and hear me, whether they have video up or not."

Since Rees' class is outfitted with two cameras, distance students can view him straight on or sideways, or they can see other students in the class when Rees zooms in on them. By choosing a desktop share feature in Connect, they can view Rees's desktop activities. In-class students have a 30-inch TV screen to view the faculty presentation or distance students who might be speaking, or they can simply view the same images in Connect on their computers, which generally include 19- or 20-inch monitors.

All activities that show up on Rees's computer are also video archived through Adobe Connect. The recordings have proved useful not only for student review but also for helping those who have had to miss a class or have experienced technical problems during the session. Students in Asia and Europe--in drastically different time zones--typically take the class asynchronously. Although, added Rees, "Sometimes they'll jump in. If you're in Hong Kong, you're 12 hours later. A 6 p.m. class here is at about 6 a.m. there. You'd have to get up early, but it's not unreasonable."

An advantage of the software used is that Rees and other instructors can teach even when they're not on campus. For example, when he was in Australia doing research, Rees continued teaching classes through his laptop. The same happens on "snow days." "The old days of just canceling classes or having to get a substitute is not an option," he observed.

The current demographic for the degree program, which runs evening classes, includes about a third of on-campus students. The rest are from out of state as well as out of country. Denmark, Canada, Taiwan, and Korea are all represented. Also, some local students participate via distance to avoid the commute.

But the highlight of the technology available to the Master of Science in Music Technology program are those performances done at the Telematics Lab. This space supports Internet2-level transmission using high def cameras and uncompressed audio and video for performances. It offers surround sound and 3D projection functionality. But most important, it provides the ability for students to produce real-time multipoint performances between the campus and "anywhere else," Rees explained. "Whether it's a school on the other side of town, in Canada or Germany or Finland, this lab allows people to perform together."

Even latency--that slight delay caused by the physical distance data needs to traverse--poses no obstacle. The Lab uses technology from Netronome to reduce the latency so much it's not noticeable. That's important, for example, when musicians located at different places on the globe need to synch their performances note by note, just as if they were sitting side by side in the same orchestra.

"It's really rather neat," Rees said. "Of course, we're spoiled. I don't want to go into a regular classroom anymore."

Nor, apparently, do the students. When Rees arrived to the campus in 1999, the graduate program had 11 students. Now it has 80, most online. Faculty in the entire department has grown from about 17 to 55. Without that growth, he said, the program wouldn't exist--and particularly, not in Indianapolis, which, as he acknowledged, isn't exactly Los Angeles or New York. "In our case, our advantage is not only the level of expertise and service we provide, but also the fact that people don't have to uproot themselves for a year to get this degree."

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