Washington State University: Video Bridging the Digital Divide

There are any number of reasons that prevent potential students in remote areas from relocating to pursue educational opportunities. Yet many of those students are willing to use advanced technology to further their education. In the 1980s, Washington State University (WSU) served this demand by creating a distance-learning network.

WSU's approach to distance learning relies on two separate networks, one that is IP-based, the other ISDN. WSU was one of the first universities in the country to create learning centers designed for communities so small that a branch campus was not feasible. In these communities, the university establishes a classroom linked to the main campus via videoconferencing and the Internet.

"Through the distance-learning networks and learning along with remote research and extension centers, Washington State University is able to offer 120 distance-learning classes per semester," says Randy Cross, multimedia specialist for the College of Agriculture and Home Economics and manager of the IP-based network. "We are one of the busiest distance-learning networks in the country."

The Washington Higher Education Telecommunications System
The Washington Higher Education Telecommunications System (WHETS) is the university's ISDN-based distance-learning network. Operational since 1987, WHETS links university classrooms electronically across the state to enable live, two-way video interaction for distance learning. Courses are offered among sites on a common schedule that coincides with courses taught on each campus. "Interactive video communications allows the university to offer a wider range of courses at all locations," says Cross.

WHETS currently serves more than 22 academic programs with about 110 courses per semester and 10,000 hours of instruction annually. The university is finalizing plans to allow access to and between similar systems in other states. In addition to delivering academic courses, the university community leverages the network for faculty and administrative meetings, student advising conferences, and staff development programs.

In total, WHETS supports more than 1,200 hours a year of videoconferences and meetings to support instruction, research, and public service. An additional high-speed data service uses the excess capacity of the digital transmission system to provide voice and data services between campuses. The WHETS network currently includes a mix of video communications end-points. Cross says the network, which includes Polycom's VS 4000 among its video technology, is moving rapidly to standardize on Polycom systems.

WHETS has served as a model for higher education institutions, driving a proposal to expand it to all higher education campuses in the state, according to Cross.

The Washington Educational Conferencing Network
WSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics represents 35 percent of the institution's total student population and hosts the university's IP-based distance-learning network—the Washington Educational Conferencing Network (WECN).

"Not only are we able to hold a number of classes over our IP video network every semester, we find it extremely useful for our multi-campus committee and administrative meetings," says Cross. "Being able to meet by video greatly reduces travel time between campuses for faculty and students. As the quality of service for IP networks continues to improve, we plan on leveraging the cost-savings benefits of IP video to expand the number of classes we offer over the network."

The university uses Polycom's ViewStation 128 group videoconferencing systems and its ViaVideo desktop video communications appliances to enable real-time, interactive communication between students and faculty. The systems allow participants to share documents through multimedia presentation tool support. Presenters can use an assortment of popular meeting tools including VCRs, document cameras, and white boards, and can leverage computer presentation programs such as Microsoft Power Point, Macromedia presentation programs, Web browsers, and other PC applications.

For connectivity, the WECN IP network relies on 768 connections on Internet2.

Moving Ahead
Cross measures the success of the network in terms of usage, and he has seen tremendous results. IP traffic alone has increased 500 percent over last year. "WSU faculty and students alike have embraced the networks," says Cross. "Students benefit from exposure to a broader array of faculty members, and faculty can share their knowledge with a larger and more diverse pool of students. All participants agree that the added diversity benefits classroom interaction."

In 2001 WSU's College of Agriculture and Home Economics created the "Center to Bridge the Digital Divide." The mission of the Center is to assist people, communities and government agencies to overcome telecommunication disparities. This will take place through education, community projects, applied research, and policy analysis. The center uses the resources of the two established video conference networks. Initially, the Center will focus on Washington state, but the vision is for the Center to become a national resource.

For more information, contact Randy Cross at rcross@wsu.edu.

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