Open Menu Close Menu

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.

S: Allegedly?

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 your stage?

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 projects?

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, the better.

S: So you’re really developing technology that supports more human-centered interactions…

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 support?

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.

The REVE: 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 tools
- 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 collaborations?

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 your progress?

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.

REVE Technologies

SEOS Chameleon with ScorpionRT

Barco Galaxy Active
Stereo DLP Projector

projectiondesign F1 SXGA

Pioneer PDP-502 plasma screen

Extron CrossPoint Plus

Proxima DP9280


VBrick 6200

Minerva VNP

Access Grid

Polycom VSX7000

3D Visualization
SGI Onyx2 Infinite Reality2

Dell Precision 650

NVIDIA Quadro FX 3000

MultiGen-Paradigm Vega
StereoGraphics CrystalEyes

Digidesign Pro Tools

Microsoft Windows Media9

Adobe Video Collection

Apple Final Cut / DVD Studio Pro

Microsoft PowerPoint

Macromedia Director and DreamWeaver

Discreet 3ds Max

Alias Maya

Okino Computer Graphics

Pure Data


Sony DCR VX-2000

Lowel Super Ambi Kit

Microsoft VisualStudio

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 soon?

JO: Now, I don’t think of any of this as a pipe dream.

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 use.

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:]

comments powered by Disqus