Networked Multimedia at the University of Connecticut
A university researching multimedia delivery and distance learning has as many options to choose from as a kindergartner sorting through an oversized bucket of Legos. However, often the logistical, financial and compensatory issues become so complex in themselves that the numerous technical options enabled by the convergence of voice, video and data technologies never receive adequate attention.
All too often, immediate requirements of specific programs drive the purchase of needs-specific hardware, as opposed to the development of a campuswide multimedia-access strategy. Purchasing decisions on interactive compressed video systems, satellite dishes, conference room control systems, media retrieval, new cabling systems and interactive television classrooms always seem to focus on solving a particular departmental need, not the real need for campuswide information distribution and networking requirements of multimedia.
Most colleges and universities looking into what essentially becomes the addition of a whole network for distance learning are finding themselves where they were with data networks 10 years ago -- highly localized, generally isolated and under-powered. Those locations that do "get connected" tend to do so in only one way, perhaps with two-way video but not a fax machine, or a satellite dish without e-mail, or a compressed video cart lacking Internet access. This is fine as far as it g'es, but two-way connectivity is the real goal.
Bold, New Approach Pioneered
At the University of Connecticut, the Communications Services Group in the University Computer Center has been examining distance learning needs within the context of a managed distributed network for both analog and digital content. The aim is to create an integrated information system that marries the best of video networks, data networks and voice networks under a single user interface.
Using a network-connected PC with a video overlay card and video distribution technology developed in conjunction with Compaq Computer Corp., the full spectrum of multimedia resources and capabilities becomes available at every connected Windows 95-based PC. Compaq is now marketing this as Compaq Networked Multimedia (CNMM).
The key to the design of CNMM is its flexibility, the way it can "absorb" many different types of analog and digital information technologies while simultaneously providing access, control and distribution throughout the campus(es) using the common Windows 95 interface (see sidebar, The Solution Architecture, for more details).
Combining traditional technologies from voice, data and video distribution systems, then coupling those with an Internet protocol-based control (via TCP/IP) means that the cost to implement the system is fairly constant as the number of connected locations increases. Plus, unlike digital-only video solutions, there are no inherent bandwidth limitations to the number of simultaneous separate programs that can be conducted with the CNMM. Resources like compressed video codecs, CD-ROM towers, videodisc players, satellite dishes and other video resources can be centralized at one location (like the university library or a district's media center) or distributed among different locations on the network. Either way, each media source can be made universally available at all locations.
So What D'es This Offer?
For students in the classroom or teachers in their office, their desktop PC accesses not only the "usual" applications like Microsoft Office, but also resources like full-motion or compressed video, fax, voice mail, CD-ROM or any other media type in its native format. For instance, videotapes display on the PC in full-screen, full-motion while CD-ROM clips come to the desktop PC as they normally do, compressed and in an onscreen window.
Plus, with Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer, at the click of a mouse, teachers or students can search the Web for more information about the topics under study. For instance, a high school science class could do a Web search for articles on rockets, review a videodisc on space, watch a satellite downlink of NASA Select (a public broadcast satellite service), conduct a two-way full-motion videoconference with an expert across town, or "dial out" through a PictureTel codec to a NASA conference room in Florida to have a dialogue with NASA "mission control" personnel.
Via seamless, networked multimedia made possible by CNMM, all of this becomes possible -- controlled right from the desktop at any number of individual PCs connected on the campus infrastructure.
Early Beta Activities
As the beta site of CNMM, the University of Connecticut has been exploring some possible applications. The university's School of Education, for instance, uses the CNMM system to connect to one of its "professional development centers" located at the Natchaug Elementary School in Willimantic, Conn. Professors at the university allow classes of teachers-to-be to interact with actual K-6 class experiences via the video link. Student teachers later placed at Natchaug Elementary also use the system to stay in touch with advisors at the university. Fourth-graders at Natchaug even use it to watch researchers at the university conduct science experiments.
Natchaug is the second poorest district in the state, hardly able to keep the old Mac SE computers they have up and running. CNMM allows the university to make its much larger cache of resources available to students and teachers at Natchaug. The school can also utilize the university as a "hop" along the way to other sites in Connecticut or elsewhere, logically making a connection from the elementary school to another, end-point "affiliate."
CNMM provides the platform to integrate previously disparate voice, video and data technologies already so prevalent on each of the University of Connecticut's campuses under a single user interface, while affording the manageability, scalability and operational advantages of common communication infrastructures. In effect, networked multimedia becomes educational technology's own "bucket of Legos," providing the structure for rapid design, construction and modification of technological and programmatic needs.
Robert Vietzke is the primary designer and implementor of the Networked Multimedia Project, and the lead technical consultant between the university, Compaq Computer Corp. and Dynacom Information Systems. His other responsibilities and experience are with applications design for AT&T 5ESS ISDN services, cable plant and infrastructure design, as well as satellite and CATV distribution.
Web Page: www.nwmn.uconn.edu
For more information on CNMM, contact Compaq at (800) OK-COMPAQ.
This article originally appeared in the 02/01/1997 issue of THE Journal.