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May 11, 1998

Videoconferencing classroom ushers in new era of 'distance learning'

By Tim Stephens

What may be the classroom of the future is in use today at UC Santa Cruz, where faculty are incorporating videoconferencing and advanced computer technology into courses ranging from network engineering to Hebrew.

At a news conference and open house today (Monday, May 11), UCSC administrators demonstrated the high-tech teaching facilities recently installed on the campus and at a UCSC Extension site in Cupertino. The new classrooms have been used since January to provide live interactive instruction to students at remote locations, to bring guest lecturers into classrooms from distant sites, and to support other types of interactive learning and collaboration.

Called "distance learning," this approach is not a new concept so much as a reinvented one. As early as the late 1960s and early 1970s, UC campuses offered a simple form of distance learning, using one-way video and one- and two-way audio to transmit some classes. Community colleges began similar broadcasting at about the same time.

However, the advent of fiber optics and superfast computers in recent years makes a radically improved approach possible--one in which people hundreds of miles apart can interact almost as if they were in the same room.

"The innovative use of distance learning technology at UCSC is expanding the boundaries of the university," said Chancellor Greenwood.

The centerpiece of the new facilities is the high-tech classroom in the Applied Sciences Building where today's news conference was held. The seamless integration of a broad range of multimedia technologies into a user-friendly environment sets this classroom apart from other videoconferencing facilities.

The UCSC Extension facility in Cupertino has a "mirror" classroom with most of the same features. A dedicated high-speed T1 network connection links the Cupertino site, in the heart of the Silicon Valley, to the UCSC campus, about 25 miles away across the Santa Cruz Mountains.

In addition, the videoconferencing features of the new campus facilities are being used to teach intercampus courses that combine the resources of different UC campuses. Last quarter, for example, students and faculty at UCSC and UC Davis joined each other via videoconferencing for courses in viticulture and Hebrew.

"By leveraging precious faculty resources, videoconferencing allows the small number of students interested in certain specialized topics, such as Hebrew, to join students on a distant campus and thereby gain access to a course that might not otherwise be available," said UCSC Executive Vice Chancellor Michael Tanner.

UCSC's Jack Baskin School of Engineering is one of the main users of the distance learning facilities. The mirror classrooms enable engineering faculty and lecturers to teach courses from either location while simultaneously serving both UCSC students and working professionals in Silicon Valley. Sophisticated technology enables students at both sites to not only see, hear, and interact with the instructor, but also to view instructional materials that might originate from the instructor's laptop computer.

Patrick Mantey, dean of the School of Engineering, said the new facilities are improving the school's ability to meet the demand for highly trained engineers and technical professionals in Silicon Valley. In cooperation with UCSC Extension, the School of Engineering offers a newly established master's degree in computer engineering, with specialization in network engineering. All courses in this graduate degree program are offered to students in the Santa Clara Valley at hours convenient to working professionals and take full advantage of the distance learning facilities.

"This new graduate degree is expressly designed to meet the needs of engineering professionals in Silicon Valley," said Mantey, who joined the news conference via videoconference from the Cupertino site.

The main distance learning classroom at UCSC has seating for 35 students. An adjacent lecture hall that seats 156 is also set up for distance learning, and a smaller conference room is available for faculty to hold "electronic office hours" and for other small-scale videoconferencing purposes.

The 35-seat classroom is clearly the most technologically sophisticated of the new facilities. Software specially designed for this project by AV Associates (Storrs, CT) enables an instructor to control all of the equipment in the room using a simple touch screen. The resulting level of systems integration is unprecedented, said Craig Bradway, director of educational accounts at AV Associates. Despite the complexity of the systems incorporated into the classroom, faculty members with a couple of hours of training can operate the room without technical support.

"Other universities have similar videoconferencing capabilities, but usually it takes three technicians to operate the systems," said Tanner.

A variety of innovations enabled the designers to mask the technological complexity of the classroom. For example, they installed a sophisticated audio processing system based on technology developed for hearing aids. The audio system uses small microphones in the ceiling to pick up sound and automatically adjusts to accommodate the volume of the speaker's voice and the speaker's location in the room. As a result, the sound transmitted through ceiling speakers at the other end is natural and undistorted.

Another special feature is the ability to capture course content, including not only audio and video but also materials presented on the "electronic white board," an interactive touch screen, computer monitor, and electronic chalkboard all rolled into one 72-inch-diagonal screen. The screen can serve as a display monitor for the main instructor's workstation, the instructor's laptop, or a student's laptop.

The ability to capture and store lectures in a digital multimedia library has enormous potential for making the most of instructional resources, said Tanner. The high-tech classroom can serve as a kind of faculty recording studio. It also serves as a central control room for the entire campus. Videoconferencing feeds from remote sites can be distributed to other locations on campus via the campus cable television network.

In recognition of the enormous potential these new technologies offer to enhance the quality of instruction at UCSC, Chancellor Greenwood announced the establishment of a new awards program to stimulate the development of courses that take advantage of the new facilities. The administration has earmarked $15,000 for course development grants, to be distributed evenly among the academic divisions and the School of Engineering.

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