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May 1999

Collaborating For Distance Education


Nearly 40 years ago, educational visionaries founded the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) (www.cic.uiuc.edu) to foster collaboration among 13 world-renowned universities. While the committee was successful in bringing together educators and students, the effort faced geographical challenges from the very beginning. In recent years, the Internet began to look more like the answer to members' immediate collaboration needs, from cooperative research to joint teaching programs. But although they used the Internet extensively for information exchange and publication of course material, real-time collaboration was their ultimate goal - and they needed a solution.

One of CIC's subgroups, the Digital Video Working Group chaired by Larry Amiot, identified virtual meetings as a way to enable real-time communication among more than 150 CIC groups and committees, most of which meet up to six times per year. The 13 universities pooled their resources and experiences, and last November their efforts paid off: The Digital Video Working Group went live with real-time collaboration.

The group successfully conducted a two-hour virtual meeting with 38 people at 13 video-enabled sites across eight states. The 13 sites stayed connected for the entire period, using different bit rates (128 Kbps, 256 Kbps, and 384 Kbps) on different networks with diverse systems. And they stayed connected without any interruptions. Success gave way to an absolute consensus among the leaders of the group that this landmark virtual meeting was just the first among many virtual meetings to come for CIC.

Led by Bob Dixon, Senior Research Engineer, Ohio State University in Columbus, a group of engineers within the CIC Digital Video Working Group was responsible for the proof of concept. "When we initiated this project, our emphasis was on demonstrating that we could use H.320 and H.323 systems at different data rates to conference between institutions in a seamless and cost-effective manner," explained Dixon. H.320 is the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) (www.itu.org) standard for multimedia conferencing over ISDN, while H.323 is the standard gateway protocol for voice over IP.

Video conferencing technology at various sites including Illinois, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania was available to the working group. But no one had put the pieces together and demonstrated that a multiple protocol, multiple data rate, multipoint conference was a highly effective solution for CIC member meetings.

For the November virtual team meeting, nine of the 13 sites used room and desktop H.320 ISDN-based systems. Two were configured with H.320 systems over IP and two were set up using H.323 over IP. In addition, the University of Illinois' Multipoint Conferencing Unit (MCU) was in the network for mixing and switching the various audio and video signals during the meeting. The MCU permitted participants to see and hear speakers, particularly those leading a discussion, regardless of the manufacturer of the end point, the communication protocol, or the bandwidth of the speaker's connection to the bridge. Gateway and Video Interface Units (VIU) from RADVision (www.radvision.com) translated between H.320 and H.323 protocol devices effectively.

"We saved CIC money. The cost of the virtual meeting was considerably less than the cost of bringing 38 people together in one location," said Dixon. He also explained that the CIC Digital Video Working Group project would not end its efforts with one meeting. Over time, he said, the working group will shift more of its user base to the Internet2 IP infrastructure (see the Reality Check column, "ViagraNet: A Green Light for Internet Traffic?" in the April 1999 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY), and reduce the reliance on ISDN services. "When we use the Internet and our IP infrastructures, the participants won't have to carry those expenses and we believe that their usage will rise dramatically," predicted Dixon.

As a result of this effort, virtual, highly flexible multipoint video meeting environments will be used to support various collaborative activities that have, until now, required CIC member faculty or students to travel. "The video conference was a great success," said Amiot. "The technology performed well, and demonstrated the ability to integrate conferencing systems with differing speeds, both room-based as well as office-based systems, and most importantly, both ISDN and Internet connected systems. We believe that we have taken a giant step toward the routine use of the Internet for video conferencing."

Roger G. Clark, director of the CIC, is enthusiastic about the successful demonstration. "Digital video technologies are critical to the future of the CIC," he said. "We are much closer than ever to the day when we will be able to hold a meeting without scheduling a whole day for it, when students can 'sit' in remote classrooms for specialized courses, when collaborating researchers can confer face-to-face across great distances and view the same data or phenomena in real time," he predicted. "Then we will realize the real impact of the work of our video group, and it will be in the form of a dramatic increase in the pace and the quality of inter-institutional cooperation."

Dr. Michelle Blank is president of RADVision, Inc. RADVision provides core technology components for building complete H.323 multimedia networking solutions. For more information, visit their Web sit at www.radvision.com.

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