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Industry Insight
February 2002

Jim Machi

Can VoIP Make The Grade?


I ended last month�s column by saying that I expect to see many more applications taking advantage of VoIP in 2002. Although I wish I could accurately predict the future, unfortunately I�m not Carnac the Magnificent. However, I do think one potential application shows the true potential power of VoIP technology. That application is education.

As a concerned and involved parent, I often help my kids with their schoolwork. This got me thinking about how VoIP could be used in an educational setting. Could my daughter make use of VoIP to contact her classmates? Certainly. Each student could download a VoIP client, and then use it to discuss schoolwork online. (Would they use it? Yes, but not for schoolwork. Knowing my daughter and her friends, they would most likely use it to talk about anything but school.)

Then I thought about a coworker�s son who commutes to a nearby state college along with other students from all over the area. Now there�s a good use of VoIP, I thought. They can discuss class topics, trade knowledge, and collaborate on projects over the Web. The technology exists today. In fact, it can be -- and is being -- used by students worldwide.

So why, I thought, isn�t there a large universe of schools using VoIP?

I know schools use the Internet in many different ways. It can provide information to parents, taxpayers, teachers, students, and prospective students. School calendars, policy and procedures, homework assignments, upcoming events, and special announcements are just a few examples of how schools use the Internet.

But what about learning? How can schools use VoIP to assist their students? Firmly convinced that using VoIP in the educational environment was a great opportunity, I began to investigate.

I surfed over to the Web site of the college my coworker�s son attends, which happens to be in New York. There are dozens of SUNY (State University of New York) campuses around the state. They offer access to many online classes -- from anywhere to any of the campuses. So, for instance, someone in upstate Watertown can take a class in apparel design offered by the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Online discussions and collaboration are also provided for. All this online activity is impressive, but there�s still no VoIP, I said to myself. Sure, the students can talk to each other using VoIP, but that�s ad hoc, not integrated into the classroom environment. There�s no ability for live, real-time interaction.

Integrating VoIP into online learning seems to me to be a tremendous opportunity. Enroll in the class, log on, and then �join� the class using VoIP. Students could interact with their professors and other students in real time. They could share information live, both during and after class -- truly enhancing and enriching the educational process. The technology exists to do this today. It would only take a conferencing application tossed together with a collaboration application.

What�s missing is the integration -- convergence -- of the various elements. Certainly students can talk to each other. Yes, they can take online classes. And there are conferencing solutions with VoIP. But are these available as an integrated package developed as a complete solution? Not that I�m aware of. Today, there are only piecemeal parts of the solution.

Remember a few years back (well, seems like only a few) when the PC was finding its way into schools? PCs were in the library or resource center, where students went to use them for specific reasons. Spreadsheets, linear equation analysis, and word processing were just a few of these special uses of the PC. The PCs weren�t fully integrated into the educational environment. In fact, only a few applications were specifically developed for the educational market segment. So school systems purchased a few PCs and a couple of applications, installed them, and let students and educators use them as best they could.

Now think about today�s educational environment. The PC has truly been integrated into the classroom. Each subject (even physical education) has incorporated the PC into the learning experience. In fact, the PC has almost become the spiral notebook of this era. There are PCs in most every classroom. And there are thousands of educational programs geared to students from preschoolers to postgraduates.

What caused this tremendous growth? One major reason was the increased power and decreased cost of the PC. Other key reasons were the ability to network PCs and to provide access to the Internet. But I believe the biggest factor was the development of educational programs. These applications took full advantage of the PC, networks, and the Internet, combining them into one invaluable teaching tool. Can you imagine a school system today without PCs?

I believe the current use of VoIP in education is just like the early days of the PC. Schools have the PC and network infrastructure. What they don�t have is applications that integrate VoIP into this environment. When these applications become available, they�ll likely be rapidly adopted -- provided they are integrated solutions, not a mish-mash of what exists today.

So even though I�m not a psychic, I can see that education is one area where VoIP can add tremendous value. The underlying infrastructure is already there. All it will take is the right applications. Sound familiar? It should.

Jim Machi is director, product management, CT Server and IPT Products, for Dialogic Corporation (an Intel company). Dialogic is a leading manufacturer of high-performance, standards-based computer telephony components. Dialogic products are used in fax, data, voice recognition, speech synthesis, and call center management CT applications. For more information, visit the Dialogic Web site at www.dialogic.com.

[ Return To The February 2002 Table Of Contents ]

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