Schools take high-speed approach to higher education

Across Canadian campuses, there is a revolution taking place. And like the song says, this revolution will not be televised — it will probably be Webcast.

High-speed networks and advances in videoconferencing technology will make it easy for everyone to participate. Next March, for example, students in the drama and speech communications department at the University of Waterloo will be producing a play called The Adding Machine with Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and the University of Florida.

The play, written in 1923 by Elmer Rice, deals with the way modern technology dehumanizes people.

“It ‘problematizes’ what we’re doing,” says Gerd Hauck, head of the University of Waterloo’s drama department. “It demonstrates it but at the same time it questions it thematically through the play itself.”

Each of the participants will be in separate locations. Cumbria College of Art and Design in the U.K., will provide the scenography for the play, which will take place in real time. Each university will also be presenting to a live theatre audience, and the whole event will be streamed over the Web.

This kind of multi-location videoconferencing and collaboration, at least in the live theatre world, would not have been possible a year ago, says Hauck.

At the 7th Megaconference in December 2005, for example, in which 450 organizations participated to share their uses of H.323 videoconferencing, Hauck’s department presented a few scenes from a play via videoconferencing with students at Bradley University.

“It was flawed,” he admits. “We had some connectivity issues.”

It was, he says, a baby step. But with the advent of Waterloo’s access to the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION), participants in the March 2007 production should have all the “uninterrupted, unjagged connectivity” they need.

“There will always be delays but we’re hopeful with the fibre optic networks we will be able to do what we want to do,” he says.

It’s not a done deal yet – there are fibre optic networks up to the theatre but there are some 25 metres remaining to be connected, and all the testing has yet to be done.

But, he says, “We know experientially it’s far superior to what we’ve played with so far.” 

As always, success is determined by the strength of the weakest link, Hauck adds.

“It’s like driving a Ferrarri on country roads with huge potholes. We can’t go faster than 20 miles an hour even though we have the engine and the car to drive at 300 MPH.” 

The University of Waterloo is just one of the many educational facilities in Ontario looking for ways to take advantage of the collaborative opportunities ORION affords.

But Roger Watt, U of Waterloo’s group director of network services, information systems and technology, is just relieved he doesn’t need to know or care what everybody on his network – which includes 900 researchers and 2,600 grad students — is doing anymore.

“There are all kinds of things going on on this campus that we don’t try to track down,” he explains. “It’s like asking us in this day and age not only who has pencils, but why they’re using them. It has just become such an accepted part of the infrastructure by those who know it’s there.” 

Watt doesn’t have to worry about it because ORION provides an enormous amount of bandwidth both for communication within the institutions in the province and to similar networks in other countries. As well, the university can now buy general Internet connectivity “at the best price on the planet,” he says, which means researchers and educators who grew up knowing bandwidth was a precious commodity and that they had to be really careful not to squander it now have to be taught otherwise.

“We did such a good job of telling people they had to be really conservative in their use of bandwidth that it’s taking time to get the word out.” 

Waterloo now has a 1GB connection to ORION and a 300 Mbps connection to Cogent.

“Is that enough today? Absolutely,” he says.

At the moment, the university’s 1GB connection to ORION is running at about 25 Mbps. “If we plot the growth curves through this time to 2009, assuming nothing more than normal growth, it will still be enough,” he says. “But that does not account for the fact that sometime between now and then people are going to come up with new applications that are going to ramp those curves up even higher.”

That’s not going to be a technology issue, though – ORION has been “beautifully architected,” he says, with a scalable technology that will enable the university to go to 10 Gbps when necessary. 

The Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) is taking similar steps to encourage its faculty to see high-speed networks as a teaching resource. OCAD, which has been part of ORION for three years, is staging workshops to show faculty and staff what they can do.

“They need to see examples,” says Sara Diamond, who was recently appointed president of the school.

OCAD is also part of the mobile digital commons network, a research project that involves OCAD, the Banff New Media Institute and Concordia University. 

OCAD, says Diamond, is using high-speed networks to work with researchers from a variety of disciplines such as art, engineering, social sciences and health sciences to solve problems such as how to get people to quit smoking using mobile phones, jewelry or clothing.

“Our philosophy is let’s bring everybody into the same space to solve the problem instead of this siloed approach to problem-solving,” she says.

Find out how Canadian schools are making use of other technology products and services, including iTunes University, in the September issue of Technology in Government.

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