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River City Project

Advanced Teaching Technologies: Brave New World

After several false starts, 3D systems and next-generation teaching technologies are set to redefine education.

Brave New WorldMOST EDUCATORS WORK in brick buildings and the physical world, but Ed Dieterle prefers a virtual alternative. Dieterle is an advanced doctoral candidate and researcher at Harvard University (MA). His current focus is the River City Project, a multi-user virtual environment (MUVE) that’s similar in look and feel to The Sims, a popular online simulation game from Electronic Arts. If you were to “visit” River City, you’d discover that it is an interactive computer simulation of a river town, based in the late 1800s. But it’s more than that: The system combines digitalized Smithsonian artifacts with an inquiry-centered curriculum—all to engage middle and high school students. “The idea is that you ‘step through’ a computer screen and move into a virtual space,” says Dieterle. “You control an avatar. You’re participating and collaborating with other people. And you’re communicating with peers.”

Sound exciting? It is—and River City isn’t the only system of its kind. Across the globe, progressive universities are embracing any number of MUVEs, 3D environments, and “immersive” virtual reality tools. And within the next few months, several universities are expected to test socalled “telepresence” videoconferencing systems from Cisco Systems and other leading technology companies. By and large, these solutions promise to eliminate (or at least narrow) the digital divide, erase international borders, improve distance learning, enhance collaboration among administrators, and stimulate students’ imaginations. Tall order. The question is: Can they deliver?

How New Is New?

Brave New World

The River City Project combines digitized
Smithsonian artifacts with an engaging
multi-user virtual environment.

Though MUVEs and the like sound pretty cutting-edge, the fact of the matter is that virtual environments and 3D systems have been a work in progress since at least the early 1960s. Some historians believe the first computer game, programmed in 1962, paved the way for interactive learning (see “Technology Rewind: A Timeline,” page 33 of our magazine). Other pundits credit the New York Institute of Technology with blazing a trail to 3D computer animation tools: In 1974, the college launched its famed Computer Graphics Lab (NYIT CGL), after which the research group pioneered digital animation tools for more than a decade. NYIT CGL’s founders then went on to launch Pixar Animation Studios, creators of the first fully computer-animated movies.

Like most technologies, however, 3D systems, virtual reality, and immersive environments have suffered their share of setbacks. In the 1990s, many Silicon Valley entrepreneurs evangelized the power of virtual reality (VR). But most VR systems from that era were either too limited or too expensive for widespread deployment. Limitations in computer storage and bandwidth further impeded VR’s popularity at the time.

Even basic computer interfaces suffered throughout the 1990s. Bill Gates, for one, spoke frequently about “social interfaces,” wherein users would interact with characters on a computer screen in order to navigate basic applications, like memo writing or e-mail. But Microsoft’s first social interface, dubbed Microsoft Bob, was one of the worst-received products in the company’s history. Vocal critics claimed Bob consumed too much PC memory and power users considered it a “dumbed-down” user interface.

Next-Gen Teaching Tools: 5 Hot Tips

As you consider next-generation learning systems, keep this advice in mind:

  1. Stick with completed standards. Many wireless vendors that specialize in mobile learning, for instance, are expected to promote 802.11n hardware in the first half of 2007. However, the 802.11n standard won’t be completed until 2008, which means current products may not interoperate.
  2. Consider hardware appliances. A growing number of hardware companies sell specialized multimedia appliances. Generally speaking, appliances are less costly to manage because they are highly reliable and designed for a single purpose.
  3. Be skeptical. Many technology consultants will likely jump on the telepresence bandwagon. However, true experts on the technology can be difficult to find. Only about 14 Cisco Systems partners, for instance, are currently trained to deploy and support telepresence.
  4. Take a tour. Cisco, HP, Polycom, and other companies are offering telepresence studio tours across North America. Similarly, you can register and log on to many multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) to get a feel for 3D learning environments.
  5. Start small. Don’t forget: In the mid- 1990s, you thought the web was going to be easy! But a decade later, most universities are still struggling to organize, maintain, and protect their websites. The same trend will likely be true for MUVEs, which can grow quickly—and just as quickly become unwieldy.

Turning the Corner

Fast forward to the present, and the situation is decidedly different. For instance, the cost to manage and store rich video information, digitized lectures, and other multimedia data continues to fall rapidly. In 1997, the average large data center paid $1,136 per gigabyte of storage. Today, the price is closer to $90 per gigabyte, with some organizations paying as little as $10 per gigabyte, according to Computer Economics, a research and advisory firm specializing in strategic and financial management of information systems.

Broadband internet connections have also become more plentiful across college campuses and in homes. Roughly 62 percent of US households will have broadband links by 2010, up from 29 percent in 2005, according to technology and market research company Forrester Research. And Ed Golod, president of Revenue Accelerators, a New York-based tech consulting firm, asserts, “Rich online learning environments are finally ready to thrive because of widely available broadband, cheaper storage, and faster microprocessors.”

There is deep-seated antagonism toward games in education. Some educators feel that anything fun can’t be educational, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
—Jeff Cooper, Concordia University

Moreover, so-called Web 2.0 technologies— such as Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML)—have empowered software developers to design rich internet applications that scale to support thousands and even millions of users.

Birth of MUVEs

Those technology trends have paved the way for next-generation learning systems, particularly MUVEs such as River City, Indiana University’s Quest Atlantis 3D learning environment, the Tapped In online workplace, and Whyville.

“The benefit of educational MUVEs is that students will be more motivated to learn rather than when they are simply given a textbook to study and test from,” says Jeff Cooper, an education technology support consultant for the Tapped In HelpDesk, and adjunct professor at Concordia University (OR). “With MUVEs, learning becomes interactive and studentcentered, which is in line with the modern pedagogy of constructivism.”

Generally speaking, MUVEs are distant cousins of multi-user dungeon (MUD) games that were first written for minicomputers in the 1970s. “MUVEs are a natural progression from MUDs,” says Harvard’s Dieterle, adding, “but MUDs were mostly text-driven. Now, we’ve added graphics and sound to MUVEs. And instead of slashing and slaying a dragon, and saving a princess in a MUD, in a MUVE we show how to become a scientist.”

All the Right MUVEs

Below, quick snapshots of the MUVEs you should know.

Environment: River City
Backer: Harvard University (MA)
Purpose: 3D immersive learning environment similar to The Sims video game. Teaches students reasoning and problem-solving, with an emphasis on science.
More Info: website

Environment: Whyville
Backer: Independent
Purpose: Social environment that allows students to make their way within a virtual economy.
More Info: website

Environment: Quest Atlantis
Backer: Indiana University
Purpose: 3D learning environment.
More Info: website

Environment: Tapped In
Backer: SRI International
Purpose: Text-based collaborative environment where educators support each other and share best practices.
More info: website

In River City, for instance, students travel back in time, using their 21stcentury skills and technology to address 19th-century problems. The students work together in small research teams to help the virtual town address health issues. They keep track of clues that hint at causes of illnesses; they form and test hypotheses; they develop controlled experiments to test their hypotheses; and they make recommendations based on the data they collect—all in an online environment, says Dieterle.

Brave New World

IN RIVER CITY, students learn to become
scientists via avatars in a virtual 19th-century
world. Their every keystroke is captured,
notifying teachers what students do
and don’t know.

“We capture every keystroke that every student makes,” says Dieterle. “Students complete activities that are processed on servers, and e-mail updates allow teachers to understand what students do and don’t know. This allows teachers to guide students through assessment, rather than putting kids on the spot with questions.”

In contrast, Whyville is a virtual world with 1.7 million registered “citizens.” The system has its own newspaper; its own senators; its own beach, museum, City Hall, and town square; its own suburbia; and even its own economy (citizens earn “clams” by playing educational games). “It’s a place where students build identity,” Dieterle explains.

Although Whyville is designed for kids, educators foresee a day when similar MUVEs allow college students to study economics, social interactions, criminal justice, and so forth. “The range of potential applications is practically limitless,” says Paul Lipsky, an associate professor at NYIT who specializes in 3D computer graphics.

Another MUVE, Tapped In, is a text environment where professional educators collaborate with one another. Tapped In offers free professional development via hundreds of subject-area rooms (Math Resources, Science Resources, ESL teachers, etc.), and almost daily calendared events. “There are also regularly scheduled tours, and someone is almost always available on HelpDesk,” says Cooper.

The Telepresence Tools Are Coming

Below, a sampler of next-generation videoconferencing solutions.

Solution: Cisco TelePresence
Company: Cisco Systems
Background: May evolve into a solution for university boardrooms that unites remote campuses.
Price: Up to $299,000 for hardware, plus $40,000 in deployment costs and $3,000 to $3,500 per month for maintenance.

Solution: RealPresence Experience (RPX)
Company: Polycom
Background: Seats up to 36 people, making it a potential solution for distance learning applications or online learning sessions between campuses.
Price: $249,000

Solution: Halo Collaboration Studio
Company: Hewlett-Packard
Background: Initially designed for corporate boardrooms; lower-cost alternatives may target university administration offices.
Price: Up to $425,000, plus $18,000 per month per conference room for operating costs.

Remaining Risks

Despite growing interest in MUVEs and 3D learning environments, the technologies have their limitations.

Brave New World

CISCO TELEPRESENCE resembles a virtual boardroom;
life-size images of each participant allow attendees to read body
language, maintain eye contact, and truly interact with peers.

“The real limitation of a MUVE is that you have to have access to it,” says Dieterle, “and a lot of components have to be in place—hardware, a high-speed network connection, the operating environment— for everything to work just right. You can write a great piece of software, but if it d'esn’t work on school computers and teachers aren’t on board, it’s difficult to achieve success.”

Another limitation is psychological in nature. “Most schools ban anything with a ‘gaming’ interface or live chat,” says Cooper. “There is deep-seated antagonism toward games and anything gamelike in education. For some reason, educators feel that anything fun can’t be educational, which couldn’t be further from the truth.” And as with any internet site, there are possibilities for abuse, from students acting out, to sexual predators logging in. Almost all MUVEs have significant safeguards to mitigate both risks.

Moreover, MUVEs differ in design from one another. Certain sites, such as Tapped In, are open source and may be freely downloaded and installed. “However, ‘free’ is a relative term,” says Cooper. “You need programming support to run any system. I strongly urge educators to register for existing MUVEs and try them out, rather than trying to create their own environment. Reinventing the wheel is a very difficult thing.”

Picture Perfect?

While 3D computer animation increasingly dominates MUVEs, digital video is also taking on a greater role in higher education. For instance, dramatic improvements in videoconferencing technology could set the stage for more advanced distance learning applications.

Indeed, technology vendors such as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, and Polycom are evangelizing the new “telepresence” approach to videoconferencing. CT witnessed the power of telepresence firsthand during a visit to Cisco Systems’ New York offices in October.

In a typical setting, Cisco’s approach to telepresence resembles a virtual boardroom. During the October demonstration, six executives were seated in a New York office and another six executives were seated in a London office. Three 65-inch plasma screens, digital sound systems, and carefully placed cameras transformed the two physical rooms into one virtual boardroom.

Cisco TelePresence delivers life-size images of each participant, ensuring that it’s easy to read attendees’ body language, maintain eye contact, and truly interact with peers across the table— regardless of their physical location. Gone are the days of pan/tilt/zoom cameras, muffled speaker phones, and tubebased TVs that don’t capture the finer nuances of nonverbal communication.

Instead of slapping together thirdparty technology, Cisco spent two years designing and refining its TelePresence system. Everything in a TelePresence room—from the plasma screens to the microphones—carries Cisco’s logo. Even the accompanying furniture was designed by the TelePresence team. It’s as if Cisco studied Apple and that company’s commitment to the total user experience.

The Cisco TelePresence system will likely appeal to university presidents who seek to communicate with remote trustees. The current Cisco products are designed for small group settings, typically 12 people or fewer. By contrast, Polycom’s solution supports up to 36 people and its layout resembles a small, specialized lecture hall.

Technology Rewind: A Timeline

While multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) and 3D learning systems sound futuristic, their roots stretch back nearly 60 years.

1950s. In 1958, President Eisenhower requested funds that ultimately paved the way for ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the precursor to the internet.

1960s. Some pundits argue that computer-based learning was born in 1962, when a young programmer from MIT, Steve Russell, created the first computer game. Dubbed Spacewar, the game was written on a PDP-1, an early minicomputer from Digital Equipment (now part of Hewlett-Packard). Spacewar is similar to Atari’s famed Asteroids game from the 1970s, but instead of shooting asteroids, players in Spacewar took aim at each other’s space ships. The Spacewar project, which took about 200 man-hours to complete, inspired students and professors alike to examine how computers would revolutionize learning on college campuses.

1970s. In the 1970s, early computer adventure games such as Adventure (1973), Zork (1977), and MUD (Multi-User Dungeon, 1978) paved the way for MUVEs, according to the Summary of MUD History.

1980s. MUDs began to make the transition from combat-oriented games into learning systems in 1989, when a game called TinyMUD debuted on Unix systems. TinyMUD, written by Carnegie Mellon University (PA) graduate student Jim Aspnes, focused on virtual problem solving, user cooperation, and social interaction among the MUD visitors.

1990s. By the time the World Wide Web went live in 1993, universities finally had the perfect storm for online learning: Graphical user interfaces on a global web of interconnected PCs. Still, rich visual learning tools take time to get right. Many of the first true videoconferencing systems surfaced in the 1990s, but they were clunky, expensive, and built on proprietary hardware and software. Proprietary systems have since given way to industry-standard offerings.

Today... Modern standards such as voice over IP (VoIP), Gigabit Ethernet, and session initiation protocol (SIP) provide a foundation for fast, reliable, and even mobile learning solutions.

Mobile Telepresence

Meanwhile, HP has its own take on telepresence, known as Mutually-Immersive Mobile Telepresence. HP Labs is designing technology that will give professors, researchers, or administrators the sense that they are truly present in a remote place, such as a boardroom or lecture hall.

The ultimate goal, according to HP Fellow Norm Jouppi, is “to give you the ability to catch the eye of someone in the room, or even whisper an aside to them— without you having to be there at all.”

With this goal in mind, HP Labs has created what it calls a surrogate: a machine that d'es the traveling for you. This robot-like device’s mobility rivals that of a state-of-the-art wheelchair. The system carries sets of cameras and microphones that give a 360-degree audio and video view of its surroundings, while displaying your head on four flat-panel displays.

HP hasn’t disclosed if or when it will release the robot-like device. However, the company has introduced telepresence technology known as the HP Halo Collaboration Studio. HP, much like Cisco and Polycom, is initially targeting Global 2000 companies with the boardroom-like system. Early adopters include PepsiCo, Advanced Micro Devices, and Dream- Works. Longer term, HP also expects major universities to test and possibly deploy the system.

Big Potential, Big Challenges

Sales of telepresence systems are just underway now but are expected to reach $300 million by 2008, according to Gartner IT analysts.

Despite their power, telepresence systems will face their share of challenges. First, there’s the price tag. HP’s Halo Collaboration Studio can cost as much as $425,000, plus operating costs of $18,000 per month per conference room—well beyond the budgets of most universities. Polycom’s RealPresence Experience (RPX) telepresence systems cost as much as $249,000. And Cisco’s highest-end offering checks in at $299,000, plus $40,000 in deployment costs and roughly $3,000 to $3,500 in monthly maintenance costs.

Some universities aren’t intimidated by the hefty price tags and maintenance fees, however. Sources say Harvard, for one, contacted Cisco multiple times about beta testing the company’s telepresence offerings, prior to the Cisco TelePresence launch in October.

Yet, cost isn’t the only hurdle facing telepresence systems. Universities may also need to upgrade their data centers and wiring closets to make telepresence function. A typical, high-quality telepresence session requires anywhere from 2Mbps to about 10Mbps of dedicated bandwidth between locations, Cisco concedes, and some remote locations simply don’t have that type of bandwidth available yet. What’s more, universities will need a modern voice over IP (VoIP) switching infrastructure to make everything work. The final challenge involves the installation: Only about 14 Cisco partners, for instance, are trained to install telepresence solutions (although the company claims more partners are coming online rapidly).

Still, while next-generation learning systems are sometimes cost-prohibitive, it’s a safe bet that telepresence and immersive learning systems will become increasingly affordable as time moves forward. Consider, for instance, trends in the plasma TV market. Over the past two years, plasma TV prices have dropped more than 50 percent, according to multiple research firms. Ultimately, that kind of downward trend will allow telepresence to make the jump from corporate boardrooms to university campuses.

WEBEXTRA :: Harvard’s Chris Dede on technology change in education Click here.

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