A distance educator learns its lesson

Lakehead University has overcome its physical distance from the rest of Ontario with “”smart classrooms”” and an Advanced Technology and Academic Centre.

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 whose classes are used in distance education.

ATAC director Bob Angell said 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,”” said Angell.

Before developing the $44-million centre, the university ran a smart classroom – complete with plasma screens, projectors, audio and computer hardware – as a pilot project for a year.

During the pilot, said 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 said.

According to Lakehead, traditionally off-site 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.

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 rather than 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,”” Angell said. “”Their engineering was occurring onsite.””

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

According to John Kutcy, general manager, education industry for IBM Canada Ltd., the centre is using IBM NetVista desktops, eServer X-series servers, Intellistation workstations for high-end graphics, and a range of IBM software.

IBM has been involved with Lakehead for a number of years, he said. When the decision to build the advanced technology centre was made, the university was looking for the best hardware and software solutions, he adds. “”We were interested in being their partner because it’s a tremendous new building and a terrific venue to have our technology in use and showcased.””

What makes the project unique, according to Precision Camera Inc. educational sales rep Drew Bolland, is that the university now has the first truly multimedia classrooms in the country. PCI, he said, which worked extensively with Sony engineers to design the system, plans to sell the product as a turnkey solution to other universities.

The challenge for the integrator was to make everything work together, he said.

“”It’s not just videoconferencing,”” he said. “”There are so many factors there — document cameras, DVD, VHS, videoconferencing and audio. What was unique to this install was we had audio for every student and that made a big difference. In a lot of classrooms what you normally do is have the professor mic’d but not the students, so when you’re into some of the large classrooms with 150 to 300 seats, having good audio and having it work clearly is really a challenge.””

But while the technology in the classroom might make them “”smart,”” it’s the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION) the university is connected to that extends its capabilities beyond its northern shores.

“”I am able to IP videoconference around the private IP network Lakehead has fostered in northern Ontario, and the advent of ORION has just made that go all the way from Barrie to the Manitoba border,”” Angell said.

Lakehead, he said, shares a medical school with Sudbury, Ont.-based Laurentian University, and being able to run IP traffic on a private IP network “”means we deliver not steppy video but very high-quality video with a minimum 512K transmission rate; we usually go at 1 MB and there’s no time delay. It’s very impressive.””

And connecting to ORION provides northern educational institutions with a connection to networks such as CA*Net4 and Internet2 and other research networks in Europe and Japan, says ORION spokesperson Andre Quenneville.

“”It means having access to advanced research and education networks for the first time, networks that larger universities have taken for granted for years,”” he said.

So far, all Ontario universities and two-thirds of community colleges have signed on for ORION. The organization is shooting for 100 over the next couple of years, Quenneville said. “”The plans are to sign up enough members so we’re self-sufficient.””

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