Collaborating For Distance Education
BY MICHELLE BLANK
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.
INTEGRATING THE COMPONENTS
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
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
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.