Champagne Interaction on a Beer Budget
Transnational Ed until now has been conducted either as 100% asynchronous e-learning, which is not popular in the undergraduate degree programs currently driving the field -- or classroom-style, accomplished through travel (expensive), by sub-contracting direct instruction to local faculty, or both. Videoconferencing is used in some high profile graduate programs, but unless they're doing it in stealth mode, no one is using streaming technologies on a regular basis in international education.
This situation is about to change. We believe that two-way audio and video transmission over the free public Internet has come of age and is now a viable proposition for use on a routine basis.
Just this week we conducted another test of a low-cost system, which gave us a rock solid connection between Utah State University in Logan, UT and a site in Singapore. Using room lighting and an ad hoc microphone set-up, we had a great talking head image, easily understandable audio, and perfect lip sync. It is clear that this configuration is workable for delivering lectures across the Pacific Ocean and enabling two-way interaction, such as Q&A. Here's some details:
1) Time of Day: It was 7PM in the Mountain time zone, 9AM in Singapore. This is when most of the live lectures will take place -- early evening in the U.S., early morning in east Asia. Local Internet traffic at these times was not a problem.
2) Hardware: Polycom ViewStation SP 128, the low end of Polycom's videoconferencing product line. It supports 15 fps at 128 kbps max, which works just fine for this application.
3) Internet Connections: T-1 out of our university, ADSL into the Singapore site. This turns out to be important. When we try to connect directly to the local network at our partner's campus, there is too much else going on and the system fails. With a dedicated ADSL line going right into a classroom, the system works like a charm.
Of course we will be upping the ante on hardware very shortly. Products like the Viewmaster SP are designed to go point-to-point. We will be needing multi-point capabilities soon, but for now, we're happy to crawl before we walk.
During the Fall '03 semester, we intend to use this approach for several hours every day, five days per week.
Synchronous videoconferencing is not a panacea, however -- it needs to be part of an overall teaching and learning model which also includes asynchronous techniques as well as non-mediated face-to-face interaction.