Distance Learning's Growing Reach

by JOHN WALSH, Senior Vice President Compression Labs, Inc. San Jose, Calif. and BOB REESE, State Training Facilitator Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System Georgia College Macon, Ga. Education has received a much needed boost in the form of distance learning and a key catalyst for the growth of distance learning is video communications. This visual extension of the classroom includes videoconferencing, where multiple classrooms conduct interactive sessions; broadcasting, where one site communicates to multiple classes; and personal conferencing, where individuals can communicate with one another visually on their computers. Video communications has become affordable and practical for distance learning through the use of a technology known as compressed digital video. This technology makes the transmission of video less costly by reducing the size of the video needed to be transmitted. Before compressed digital video, only a handful of educational institutions operated small analog-based closed-circuit television networks. Today, the distance learning environment has changed dramatically. Educators increasingly seek new solutions to a myriad of challenges including rising costs, reduced operating budgets, over-utilized resources (from faculty to the physical plant), and growing competition for a declining student pool. At the same time, advances in both two-way interactive and one-way broadcast video technology have made distance learning more versatile and cost-effective than ever, ideal for a wide range of educational applications. Distance learning has become a core educational strategy in the 1990s, with a reach that extends to a broad cross-section of institutions and curriculum providers around the world. Full Spectrum of Applications The picture most often associated with distance learning is that of college students on an outlying campus gathered to watch a televised lecture by a professor at a campus several hundred miles away. And indeed, the broadcast of selected courses taught by distinguished or popular professors to remote sites is one of the most common distance learning applications. But it is by no means the only one. Today, digital video is used for a full spectrum of applications designed to meet the diverse requirements of students and institutions alike. These include: Statewide cooperative educational programs involving many institutions offering curricula for grade levels from kindergarten to graduate school; Multi-campus administration of distance learning designed to share resources among participating institutions; Faculty workshops providing high-quality, cost-efficient professional training and that promote improved communications among geographically dispersed instructors; College-level degree programs for non-traditional students who are employed full-time in the business community; Specialized job-skills training taught by highly qualified faculty members in disciplines such as engineering, medicine and business; and Innovative curricula like global field trips where students can be taken almost anywhere through the magic of video. Distance learning provides educational institutions with a number of important benefits. First, it can significantly extend, and often improve, the quality of an institution's educational offerings&emdash;ensuring that students on remote campuses or attending rural schools have access to the same classes and teachers as those on the main campus or attending better-funded urban schools. In addition, distance education can bring added consistency to the curriculum, for example, by making certain that all students&emdash;regardless of campus&emdash;take core courses from the university's two or three best instructors in each subject area. Second, distance learning delivers substantial economic benefits. It reduces the time and expenses required to shuttle instructors from campus to campus around the state or across a large school district. Further, distance learning can help schools maintain or increase student enrollments, generating much-needed added revenues. Third, distance learning can actually provide a university with a strategic advantage in penetrating potential new market segments, such as corporate education, continuing adult education and job training. This has important implications for institutions seeking to make up for lost revenues due to declining student populations and ever-increasing competition. It's no surprise, then, that so many institutions have adopted distance learning as a mainstream educational tool. There are two primary approaches to distance education: two-way videoconferencing networks that provide face-to-face interaction between teachers and students, and one-way networks that broadcast video instruction or training to a large number of locations, handling questions or feedback from students through audio hookups or fax machines. Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System The Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System (GSAMS) is the largest interactive distance learning network in the world. GSAMS uses two-way, full-motion videoconferencing to create a virtual educational and medical community across Georgia. Over 200 classrooms or other sites are connected to the GSAMS network, with more being added this year. Students in primary and secondary schools, as well as at colleges and universities, take a variety of courses ranging from mathematics and foreign languages to community health nursing. For students at schools in rural Georgia, these courses have greatly expanded their learning opportunities&emdash;giving them access to classes taught by the state's best teachers. GSAMS also provides special enrichment programs that would otherwise be beyond the reach of many students. For example, a video link with the Atlanta Zoo enables students to "visit" the zoo and "sit in" on more than 50 different presentations and demonstrations. Jim Anderson, director of strategic network development for GSAMS, says, "The zoo experience can be so real, one mother called to complain about her child's unauthorized field trip&emdash;only to learn that the visit had taken place by video." To meet the special requirements of distance learning, the GSAMS network uses high-end codecs and self-contained Radiance videoconferencing systems from Compression Labs, Inc. (CLI). Video classes are transmitted at 768 kilobits per second (kbps) at 30 frames per second and 480 lines of resolution, achieving true television-like picture quality&emdash;a key requirement for effective distance learning. The image quality helps make the technology transparent and promotes eye contact between teachers and students, encouraging healthy discussions. GSAMS has also installed 15 voice-activated multipoint control units (MCUs) so that multiple sites can be connected together for a single class if desired. These voice-activated MCUs switch to the video and voice of the last person to speak on a multipoint connection. Thus, a student and teacher exchange, during a Q&A session, for example, remains visually intact and technically unencumbered during a multipoint connection. California State University System While Georgia has made improving education for rural students a primary target of its network, California has used videoconferencing for a number of years to improve both the reach and efficiency of its extensive state university system. All 22 California State University campuses are tied by a videoconferencing network running at 384 kbps. This network is used for a wide variety of applications: CSU Northridge, located on the outskirts of Los Angeles, provides classes and counseling services to students on the Ventura campus an hour away. California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, offers basic math and English classes to several dozen students on Swanton Pacific Ranch&emdash;a working agricultural facility 200 miles to the north. CSU San Diego has placed CLI's easy-to-use eclipse rollabout systems in nearby Escondido High School so advanced students can take college-level classes from CSU professors. The university system also uses videoconferencing to provide low-cost, convenient accreditation courses and other continuing education for instructors; to interview prospective faculty members anywhere in the world without travel; and to enhance administrators' productivity by using video for monthly meetings with the state chancellor's office in Sacramento. Kansas City Education Network Like the California State University system, the University of Missouri is considered a pioneer in utilizing videoconferencing for both educational and business-related purposes. Five years after the start of the University of Missouri's highly acclaimed network, the Kansas City Education Network (KCEDNET) began with a very specific charter: to help Kansas City build and maintain an ample base of qualified high-technology employees. KCEDNET is run by a consortium of five educational institutions in Kansas and Missouri: the University of Missouri–;Kansas City, Kansas State University, Central Missouri State University, the University of Kansas, and the Metropolitan Community Colleges. The videoconferencing network provides graduate and undergraduate science and engineering courses to employees at a growing number of major corporations in the greater Kansas City area. Courses are carried live before, during and after the normal workday, providing maximum flexibility for busy career-oriented individuals. Because the programming is beamed directly by omnidirectional microwave to video classrooms at each of the companies, employees do not have to spend work or leisure time commuting to college campuses. To further extend its reach, KCEDNET simulcasts its programming via a local cable company so homebound students or those with family commitments can also benefit. Interaction with instructors is handled by two-way audio. The network has also added gateways to connect to other networks such as American Cablevision's INET, which serves universities, colleges, police departments, hospitals and libraries; and to a Cable in the Classroom program for public K-12 schools. All together, KCEDNET provided over 9,000 hours of educational programming in 1994. Like many other educational institutions, KCEDNET chose CLI systems because of their video and audio quality. "When classes are large and long, uncompromising, near-broadcast quality video is key," says Tom Brenneman, director, University of Missouri–;Kansas City's video network. Impact North Carolina As impressive as videoconferencing's contributions have been at the college level, the technology has been equally well-received by younger students. For instance, in the past, students at Blowing Rock Elementary, Parkway Elementary and Watauga High School in rural North Carolina didn't always have access to the latest teaching techniques and resources. Today, they can take classes taught by Appalachian State University faculty or participate in collaborative learning efforts involving other schools as part of Impact North Carolina: 21st Century Education, a distance education partnership developed by Appalachian State and local companies. Dr. Richard Riedl, who oversees the project, explains, "From the very beginning, we wanted to be driven by applications, not technology. The goal is not merely to pipe information from one site to another, but to create an interactive learning environment encompassing a full range of subjects." Many activities begin as computer-based or multimedia projects for students at one school, then are shared by video with students at another. For example, recently fourth-graders started writing stories on their computers, then transmitted them to fourth-graders at the other elementary school on the ISDN network, where those students finished the stories. Video allowed the young authors to share their collaborations by joint readings. Impact North Carolina's holistic program is intended to be cross-age, cross-discipline and cross-schools. It's designed to benefit teachers as well, by providing ready access to continuing education courses plus frequent and fully interactive feedback for students and teachers in the various classrooms. From a technical perspective, the network is one of the first in the nation to use Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) technology to deliver video communications through digital telephone lines. This dial-up service&emdash;becoming increasingly available&emdash;is highly affordable, costing Appalachian State just $1,000 a month for the entire ISDN network. School of Visual Arts Not all distance learning takes place on a large scale using room-based systems. At the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in Manhattan&emdash;the largest undergraduate art college in the U.S.&emdash;desktop videoconferencing is enriching one-to-one learning for 5,000+ students. CLI's Cameo Personal Video systems allow SVA students and instructors to freely interact with one another&emdash;discussing artistic concepts and displaying their projects. For example, renowned artists and SVA faculty members David Biedny and Bert Monroy recently conducted a class on computer-based design from their respective studios in California. Using the Macintosh-based Cameo systems, students in New York could see the artists and watch them work on a large projected display of the computer screen. The students were also able to show their own work and have it critiqued by Biedny and Monroy over the video link. SVA chose the desktop systems for their affordability, convenience and ease of use, as well as to facilitate the sharing of computer art during classes. Future plans call for linking more remote artist/educators by video, not only in the U.S. but anywhere in the world. Broadcast Distance Learning While many institutions insist on the face-to-face interaction provided by two-way videoconferencing, some schools prefer the economy and efficiency of one-way broadcasts using compressed digital video. Typically beamed by satellite to dozens or hundreds of classrooms, digital broadcast distance learning offers distinct advantages over older analog-based networks. First, by compressing video signals, one can transmit digital channels in a fraction of the transponder bandwidth required for analog channels. This makes it possible to offer more classes at a wider range of times to suit student requirements. Second, compressed digital video technology provides breakthrough economics, saving institutions millions of dollars a year that can be applied toward enriching curricula. And third, digital television provides clearer, crisper video and audio&emdash;with none of the ghosting, snow or other interference that can plague analog broadcasts. National Technological University National Technological University (NTU) offers 12 masters degree programs with courses drawn from 47 leading engineering schools including Boston University, Georgia Institute of Technology, New Jersey Institute of Technology, North Carolina State University, Northeastern University, Purdue University, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. Headquartered in Fort Collins, Colorado, NTU operates one of the largest one-way digital distance learning networks in the world. NTU annually delivers more than 800 graduate courses and 400 non-credit classes over 44 satellite uplinks and 300 compressed digital downlinks to over 100,000 technical professionals at Fortune 500 companies and government agencies across North America. Before converting to compressed digital video technology, NTU used two satellite transponders to broadcast four channels of programming 24 hours per day&emdash;at a cost of more than $2 million a year in transmission charges. CLI's SpectrumSaver digital broadcast system enabled NTU to add enough digital channels to move most of its delayed night time and weekend broadcasts into business hours&emdash;and still fit everything onto one transponder, cutting transmission charges in half. "The conversion from analog to digital has allowed us to provide more programming at more convenient times, along with improved video and audio," says Dr. Lionel V. Baldwin, NTU president. "A proprietary control system we developed lets us deliver up to 14 channels of course work simultaneously, originating from multiple uplinks on the network." GALAXY Classroom On another front, the GALAXY Classroom is blazing new paths by applying multiple technologies to literally reinvent the educational process. The $24 million GALAXY Classroom is a satellite-based elementary education network that brings learning alive for young students. Underwritten by Hughes&emdash;with a matching grant from the National Science Foundation and contributions from other philanthropic groups&emdash;the non-profit endeavor is now managed by the Galaxy Institute for Education, El Segundo, Calif. The unique program design is the product of a collaborative effort among some of the nation's best teachers, principals, curriculum specialists, children's book authors, and television writers and producers. Brief TV programs are created to explore broad instructional themes or present problems for students to solve. After watching them, students&emdash;guided by their teachers&emdash;discuss and write about what they have learned, ultimately faxing their work over the satellite link to the facilitators and other GALAXY classrooms. Some of these faxes are incorporated into subsequent broadcasts. "We have seen a dramatic increase in student involvement and achievement," says Ben Casados, executive director of the GALAXY Classroom. "We are convinced this project can make a significant contribution to elementary education nationwide." Westcott Communications Compressed digital video is also playing an integral role in improving the delivery of training to corporate America. Westcott Communications, Inc., the world's largest business television programmer, operates seven distance learning networks over a single satellite transponder using CLI's SpectrumSaver. Westcott's networks include: ASTN, providing programming for automobile dealerships on subjects from service procedures to parts management; FETN, supplying critical training and the latest safety information for fire department and other emergency staff; HSTN, delivering continuing education and specialized training to a variety of hospital personnel; IDTN, providing corporate America with customized training and education via 43 electronic classrooms nationwide. LETN, giving intensive training in procedures and techniques used by patrol officers and other law enforcement personnel at local, state and federal levels; LTCN, offering affordable skills training for staff members at the growing number of long-term care facilities in the U.S.; and TI-IN, broadcasting a wide range of live courses for K-12 students, as well as offering convenient, low-cost inservice training for teachers and administrators. Westcott's networks allow for testing and tracking credits using a toll-free phone number and voice-activated computer system. Detailed records are kept on each individual, so organizations can monitor the progress being made. But people don't have to follow a formal curriculum to benefit from Westcott's specialized training. "Our programming is designed to be easily consumed," notes Mike Mooney, vice president and chief technology officer for Westcott. "An individual can join a class in the middle, spend 15 minutes and leave with something that can be applied right away." Making the Grade In the 1990s, distance learning has clearly made the grade. Hundreds of two-way interactive and one-way broadcast networks based on compressed digital video technology have been created across the U.S. and in countries around the world - providing higher-quality, and in many cases otherwise inaccessible, education to students of all ages and for many needs. Innovative use of this technology has significantly reduced institutions' costs, improved the utilization of faculty and physical resources, and given educators a meaningful advantage in what has become a very competitive environment. Most importantly, when combined with other media, video has proven to be a highly effective way of getting and holding students' attention, so real learning can take place. In an increasingly complicated and cost-conscious world, distance learning has truly become an essential tool in helping to reach more students with the quality education they deserve. John Walsh is senior vice president for planning and strategy with Compression Labs, Inc. (CLI) in San Jose, California. Walsh is a noted authority and much sought-after public speaker in the telecommunications industry, with more than 27 years of experience in computers, telephony, and video communications. Bob Reese is state training facilitator for the Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System (GSAMS), based at the Education Technology Center at Georgia College in Macon, Ga. A former science teacher, guidance counselor and coach in Georgia's public schools, Reese was named a STAR teacher. Prior to accepting his present assignment, Reese served as director of technical instruction and support services for the Bibb County schools. Contact information is available.Products mentioned: Radiance Videoconferencing System, eclipse Videoconferencing System, Cameo Personal Video system and SpectrumSaver digital broadcast system; Compression Labs, Inc., San Jose, Calif. (800) 538-7542.California State University System Patricia Cuocco, Logistical Support 4665 Lampson Ave. Los Alamitos, CA 90720 (310) 985-9429; Fax: (310) 985-9642 Georgia Statewide Academic and Medical System Georgia College, Macon Campus Educational Technology Center 3920 Arkwright Rd,, #385 Macon, GA 31210 (912) 471-5380; Fax: (912)471-5379. Hughes GALAXY Classroom c/o Hager, Sharp, Inc. Stephanie Drea (202) 842-3600; Fax: (202) 842-4032 IMPACT North Carolina Appalachian State University Dr. Richard Riedel, Vice Chancellor University Placement 134 Administration Building Boone, NC 28608 (704) 262-2090; Fax: (704)262-2347 Kansas City Education Network University of Missouri KC Instructional Video Network (KC-EDNET) Tom Brenneman, Director 301 Fine Arts Building 5100 Rockhill Rd. Kansas City,MO 64110-2499 (816) 235-1096; Fax: (816) 235-1170 National Technological University Doug Yeager, VP Marketing 700 Centre Ave. Fort Collins, CO 80562 (303) 484-6050; Fax: (303) 484-0668 New York School of Visual Arts Computer Lab 209 E. 23rd St. New York, NY 10010 (212) 592-2630; Fax: (212) 592-2509 Westcott Communications, Inc. Michael Mooney, VP Chief Tech. Officer 1303 Marsh Lane Carrollton, TX 75006 (214) 716-5525; Fax: (214) 716-5112

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/1995 issue of THE Journal.