The AVCs of Display
Aug 1, 2005 12:00 PM, By Beck Finley
Video display is changing howand wherewe learn.
Think of a classroom. For most, a blackboard-walled room with rows of desks comes to mind. But that's easy. Think back earlier, and you might come up with the slippery feel of the chalk's powdery residue in your hand, the wet-dog smell of wool sweaters warmed by the steam heat of an ancient radiator, or the abrupt woof of lighting a Bunsen burner. But then came modern technology, and the classroom changed.
As fast as schools and universities could fill out the paperwork asking for grants and endowments, they were installing whiteboards, projectors, LCD and plasma displays, computer labs, and teaching stations equipped with simulated frog dissection software, PowerPoint programs, and web browsing and streaming capabilities. But none of these technological advances took the student out of the classroom — until now, that is.
New ideas are focusing on ways to augment the traditional classroom experience. This is what a modern university's distance learning program and a metropolitan school district's science lab on wheels have in common. With the former, engineering students can watch lectures via live videoconference, and live or on-demand over the Web from the comfort of their own home or office. The latter is a 40ft. bus that travels to Philadelphia elementary schools to teach children about science and technology. Neither embodies the traditional idea of a classroom, yet each adds to the in-classroom experience in its own way.
Mobile science learning lab
The Fattah Learning Lab doesn't have much in common with a typical school bus. For a start, it's not yellow. The former 47-passenger bus has been converted into a state-of-the-art mobile science lab. The Philadelphia-based, nonprofit Educational Advancement Alliance (EAA) created the lab to bring a hands-on, interactive technology experience to elementary schools throughout the Philadelphia area.
This innovative approach takes the students out of their regular classrooms and into a high-tech world. Lessons learned in the lab are meant to supplement the science and technology courses provided by the School District of Philadelphia. This is no small task.
Already the learning lab carries the burden of living up to its namesake, U.S. Representative Chaka Fattah, who worked in Congress to initially fund the EAA. Fattah boasts a nearly 20-year voting record for progressive educational policies and programs for Pennsylvania.
The EAA chose a veteran systems integrator that wasn't daunted by the chore of retrofitting a 40ft. bus with cutting-edge AV technology. Audio Video Systems Group (AVSG) of Marple, Pa., worked within the confined space of the bus to install a 42in. Pioneer high-definition plasma television, seven workstations with 15in. Hitachi LCD monitors, a digital surround sound system with dual subwoofers and eight speakers, and a DVD player and VCR for the content library — all controlled by two 6in. AMX flat-panel, touchscreen remote controls.
“Taking into account what the requirements were for this space, we were somewhat flying by the seat of our pants,” says Rich Diperstein, sales engineer for AVSG.
Because of the size of the bus, AVSG decided on a 42in. screen instead of a 50in. unit. A rear-projection display system was rejected for depth reasons, as was a ceiling-mounted projector due to height requirements. The video source is a custom-built computer server, and there is an additional server on board for backup. The five-disc DVD player, Sony VHS player, computer video inputs, and Internet camera can be used with the plasma screen or from the vehicle's Internet workstations.
All of the video is scaled up to VGA resolution with Extron DVS 204D video scalers, even the DVD composite and VHS components, so it can be displayed through the LCD computer monitors and the plasma screen at the highest resolution possible. For audio, there are eight inside speakers: four on each side. Each group of four is fed with subwoofers so the audio experience matches the video experience, which, Diperstein says, is “very thunderous bass and very loud, crystal-clear audio.”
One 6in. AMX touchpanel display is at the rear of the bus just below the plasma screen, and the other one is at the entrance of the bus, right at the top of the steps. They control all aspects of the system. There is a wireless microphone system that can be used within the bus as well as outside through four loudspeakers — two on either side — that actually swing out from underneath the vehicle's luggage compartment.
In addition to fitting in the space, the installment's other requirements were to keep things aesthetically pleasing and close to the walls, since the display equipment itself is not the interactive focus of the lab.
“Everything is really meant for observation predominantly,” says Diperstein. “There's no physical interaction between any of those particular devices and the kids themselves. There is other interaction that the school's floating lab will have. The kids will interact with the experiments. We had to give some thought to that — to durability, tamper-resistance, and ease of use and operation.”
The maiden voyage of the Fattah Learning Lab was in January. It continues to spend approximately a week at each scheduled school.
Distance learning at Villanova
Established in 1905 in Villanova, Pa., Villanova University's College of Engineering provides programs in four engineering disciplines: chemical, civil and environmental, electrical and computer, and mechanical. To afford remote students the opportunity to take classes, in January of 1999 the college started offering a distance education program at no additional charge to students.
The college's distance education department determined that there would be two ways for students off campus to receive course content: live videoconference or on the Web (live or on-demand). Therefore, it invested in both a videoconferencing facility and web-based streaming technology.
“We used to make a portable system to go around to any classroom, but we found that was just opening ourselves to myriad problems,” says Sean O'Donnell, director of distance education for the college. “The microphones wouldn't work or a cable got disconnected or the classroom doesn't have the right lighting, the right sound.”
As a result, distance education classrooms were created. Instead of bringing the system to the classroom, the classroom would be equipped with the system. However, the technology choices were still tricky.
Graduate engineering courses provide a particular challenge for distance learning. Unlike the technology that can easily capture and stream PowerPoint slides for liberal arts classes, the equipment for these more technically complicated courses need to clearly display complex graphics and simulations — highly detailed imagery from a variety of sources — used by professors at the college. And the technology can't distract students from the in-class experience.
“Most of the time, the classrooms that I've seen are set up as studios, so their primary function is the web broadcast and the secondary function is the in-class component,” says O'Donnell. “We've reversed that. Our primary function is to enhance the in-class experience, so we use the best projection, the best presentation tools for inside the classroom, and, at the same time, equally mimic that on the Web.”
The components for the first classroom were put together piecemeal and used on a trial-and-error basis that would evolve over the years. Once the distance education department confirmed what worked, two more rooms were built.
“Once we got the design of the first room, then we built the other two rooms from the ground up, doing the complete construction from floor to ceiling and integrating the same technologies we used in the lower room with the latest state-of-the-art integrations and better projection technology,” says O'Donnell, who also served as the design engineer for the rooms.
O'Donnell says Villanova University supported distance learning in the program's earliest stages. The university completely funded the two rooms that were built in 2004. Any distance learning rooms in the future will be funded by the College of Engineering, although the university is allowing the college to operate the program as an entrepreneurial initiative. Under this plan, 85 percent of tuition from new students the engineering school brings in will go directly to the program. That allows the school to funnel funds back into the program in order to pay for any new technologies officials want to add to the distance learning classrooms. That way, the College of Engineering doesn't have to ask the university to fund the project.
“In the past, you'd have to go with your hat in your hand and say, ‘You know, I'd really like to advertise; Can I get a couple grand here?’ Or, ‘I want to build this room; How can we organize a couple hundred thousand to do that?’” says O'Donnell. “Now we just say, ‘We expect to see X amount of students this year, so our tuition will be X amount of dollars. We get 85 percent of that, and we'll use it to build.’ The way the university really supported us was by allowing us to operate in that manner. With everything else, it all goes to the university, and then you ask them for money.”
The long-term goal for the department is to have five distance education classrooms, including a revamp of the first classroom, by 2007. The basic system for the first classrooms was built on the RealNetworks line of products, including RealServer, RealProducer, and RealPlayer. The technology was successful at streaming audio and video over the Web, but it lacked the RGB component. The department thus found itself having to manually convert any type of VGA to a video signal. In January 2004, the department started using Mediasite's Sonic Foundry system, which was better suited for the type of instruction the engineering professors were giving.
“We've created these rooms where you wouldn't know they're a distance education classroom,” says O'Donnell. “Whether you're across the video teleconference, inside the classroom, or on the Web, you're getting the same thing. The underlying tagline is that we try to mimic the experience at each location.”
In fact, the display component in the distance education classrooms has helped to boost in-class enrollment. According to O'Donnell, enrollment in distance education classes is, on average, 20 percent to 30 percent higher than enrollment for standard classes. Since 2004, more than 100 graduate students have taken online courses — the majority from the Philadelphia area because the college doesn't advertise the program nationally. All distance learning classes are capped at 20 students in adherence to Villanova's low student-to-faculty ratio standard.
In-class students are given access to the same web material that distance students receive, accessed through WebCT, an online course management provider. All students in the classes have the distance learning system's full capabilities at their disposal, including the ability to watch lectures in the comfort of their own homes as many times as they wish.
“Whether you're a distance student or an in-class student, you're all a part of the same class,” says O'Donnell. “So it's the same access page, the same everything. You put the two sections together and it's one class.”
The distance education classrooms are designed for graduate courses only. Both the college and university agree that undergraduate classes should not be taught via distance learning because of the large amount of actual interaction that needs to take place in the engineering labs. The closest to the distance learning experience that undergraduates can get is during upper-level senior classes that can be enhanced by using the technology. “What we do is actually require a stronger attendance policy of the undergrad students to make sure they come to class and that they're using the archives for what they're supposed to be: as a secondary means of reinforcing what was done in the class,” O'Donnell explains.
The Mediasite system has a realtime recorder and server to automate the capture, management, and delivery of multimedia presentations. It features the proprietary VersaVisual tool — a dual-channel, realtime processing technology that allows the capture of multi-source, multiformat visual content from analog and digital sources. Eventually, the classrooms will run five Mediasite systems simultaneously every weeknight. With the system, students with broadband access can watch classes streamed live or on-demand. Those without broadband access can download each class to watch offline.
NEC rear-projection projectors are used in the classrooms, but at the center of attention is the Clearview screens, manufactured by Pro Display of West Yorkshire, England. Clearview screens are a type of transparent rear-projection screens that are attached to Plexiglass or a window in order to catch light from behind.
“Our biggest problem is people running into them when they're off, because it looks like they're not even there until they're catching light,” says O'Donnell.
Sony DVI cameras capture the professor giving the lecture, and Tablet PCs are used as presentation tools.
“What's really unique about using the Tablet PC is that it takes the place of all those other presentation tools,” says O'Donnell. “We have no use for a whiteboard. We have no use for a document camera. We have no use for pretty much any other projection, like overheads, that other people use or that I've seen. We eliminate all of that and just use the Tablet PC because it's a much more powerful presentation tool than a lot of those other extraneous components.”
“Nobody's turned on to Tablet PCs yet as a presentation tool,” O'Donnell continues. “What a lot of people are doing is they're creating these electronic presentation screens that basically hook up to a computer and can run different software and you can write on them. But Tablet PC integrates that all into one machine, and you have the full use of all the PC functions, as well. It's just perfect, especially in engineering, where you're doing lots of computer simulations.”
Upgrades to the systems continue. Presently, Tandberg videoconferencing technology controlled by Crestron equipment is being added to the system by systems integrator Road Data. Also, the distance education department is adding more microphones and speakers as needed.
Ultimately, the system was designed to take the burden of running the technology away from the professors. At the College of Engineering, professors merely walk into the classroom and start teaching on the Tablet PC. A few regular instructors have even brought their own Tablet PCs into the classroom and set them into the docking station.
“A lot of people, when they're designing distance education classrooms, want to put the technology in the professors' hands,” says O'Donnell. “That's a change for a professor, and you have to find someone who's amiable to that.”
Most of the professors' training on the classroom systems takes place five minutes before their first class. They're shown how it works, and about five minutes into it, they're used to it, O'Donnell says. The Tablet PC was chosen mostly for its ease of use.
“The Tablet is a very inherent way of teaching,” he says. “You're using a pen on something that is the size of paper. If you can write on paper, then you can use a Tablet. It's just a PC. All of our guys are used to working on a PC.”
Additional benefits for the professors include only having to teach each lesson once, even though they're reaching multiple audiences. There are no restrictions on the types of materials the professors can use as learning aids. And the in-class system integrates with the WebCT course management platform, which allows live chat and online posting of notes or other materials to supplement the lesson.
To keep the system running smoothly, who better to employ as technicians than graduate engineering students? O'Donnell uses eight to 10 graduate students each semester. All graduate courses are held in the evening, and with the current three distance education rooms, three techs are needed at a time. The graduate students aren't allowed to serve as technicians for the classes they're taking, however.
“We're the highest-paying job on campus,” says O'Donnell. “The reason being because we are responsible for three live broadcasts, all at the same time. It's not a joke job. If you're not there on time, if you're not doing your job correctly, you will ruin a broadcast. And then the distance students don't get what they need. You, in effect, hinder those students' education. So all of our operators know the importance of their job, and we pay accordingly. We expect a high level of professionalism from them. I heard one time that if you pay peanuts, you'll get monkeys.”
The College of Engineering's distance learning program has become a model for other programs at other colleges in the university. Representatives of the other colleges have come to the classrooms to experience the technology for themselves. The system is so easy to use that sometimes professors from the other colleges teach courses in the distance learning classrooms.
“We have one guy from the business school who teaches a management course, and he's very computer unsavvy,” says O'Donnell. “He just does not know what he's doing with computers. We just get it set up for him, get all his notes open and ready to go, and put his PowerPoint up. Once he's in PowerPoint, he certainly knows how to go from there. You can't go wrong once you've got it going.”
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