Lakehead University has overcome its physical distance from the rest of Ontario with “”smart classrooms”” and an Advanced Technology and Academic Centre (ATAC). The Thunder Bay, Ont. university has eight undergrad and graduate programs available through distance learning, and runs a private IP network

between it and a number of regional school boards.

ATAC director Bob Angell says the project started three years ago when the university was looking for ways to make better use of learning technologies. “”It quickly became apparent that the challenge of that environment was to make it user-friendly, and to make it a room that would enhance teaching as opposed to (making it) a technology boondoggle,”” says Angell.

Before developing the centre, the university ran a smart classroom — complete with plasma screens, projectors, audio and computer hardware — as a pilot project for a year.

According to Lakehead, traditionally, offsite students would join the class via a hanging television screen, often off to the side of the classroom. Lakehead has, instead placed the offsite students on a plasma screen positioned among students sitting in the classroom. A camera is placed above the screen to capture the actions of the professor. That means the professor does not need to look to the side of the classroom to address an offsite student, and students who are dialling in from offsite get the benefit of having the exact same perspective of students who are sitting in the classroom. When an offsite student wants to ask a question, all she has to do is push a button to talk.

During the pilot, says Angell, the university figured out how to deal with challenges ranging from physical space problems to the tech-complex issues of configuring touch-screens properly. “”The first couple of iterations were not very good and faculty found it difficult,”” he says. Once the wrinkles were worked out with the pilot, Lakehead looked for a partner to help it develop large-scale videoconferencing for its ATAC, and instead of choosing an established vendor, it opted instead for Sony.

“”When we looked at bringing a partner to the table it seems unusual that we’d go with the one that had the least experience in videoconferencing, but we did it because they had the most to gain,”” says Angell. “”Their engineering was occurring onsite.””

Other partners include IBM, SGI, Nortel, Bell Canada and Sony reseller Precision Camera Inc.

The university has raised $34 million from government and private sector donors.

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