Sometime during 2002 Mike Mooney and Perry Ward at Memorial’s PDCS showed me a Polycom videoconferencing unit they were evaluating. Up until that time they had mostly been using Intel Team Stations for videoconferencing but had discovered some of the products from that company and had decided to evaluate them. Their initial findings were positive and they shared what they had found with me. I was quite intrigued as well and they arranged it so that I could also have a look at the equipment they had obtained.
Frank and I had a chance to take a good look and our initial impression was very favourable. We had several issues that might be solved through the use of the equipment. First, CDLI’s management team was divided approximately half and half between St. John’s and Gander. While we were able to conduct most of our live meetings using vClass, the software we were using for our synchronous classes we had a need for video and, at the time, good video was not supported. In addition, the Labrador School district had much the same issue with two separate board offices separated by hundreds of kilometres of dirt roads. In both cases we had to spend considerable time and money in travel between the two centres.
We discussed this among ourselves and decided to tender for four units. We placed one in each of the four locations: St. John’s, Gander, Goose Bay and Labrador City. It took a bit of configuration to get them up and running but once we did the effect was immediate. The frequent trips stopped; not because people were ordered to stop traveling, mind you, but because people decided for themselves that most of the trips were no longer necessary. As Frank Shapleigh says, “I considered giving up my Costco membership because I wasn’t driving to St. John’s every other week for work anymore.”
Once we got comfortable using the systems for meetings between members of the leadership team we began thinking in terms of what new pedagogical tools we now could bring to bear. We immediately thought of the art courses we had and of the then fledgling experiencing music course we were developing. Good quality two-way video and audio meant students and teachers could now see what one another were doing. The experiencing music course had a small performance component and it was obvious to everyone what were the benefits to both students and instructors in this area. Likewise in art the instructors now could provide instant feedback on technique rather than doing it indirectly by looking at finished or partially finished pieces. So much better to see how things were done rather than looking at the end results!
We therefore began outfitting the student endpoints with videoconference units, starting with Art and Music sites. Soon after, Tech. Ed. was layered in and from there we continued to the remaining sites until, eventually, every distance education school was equipped.
Stubborn technical issues came early on. Videoconference units are not the kind of things you plug in, turn on, and expect to function, just like that. It took a lot of work getting the systems to work reliably.
“But what about Skype,” you ask. “All I have to do is install the software and get a user account. From then on all I have to do is call people on my contacts list and it works.”
True enough, but there are several things about Skype:
- The video is generally crappy and unreliable.
- The audio is generally crappy and often garbled.
- It is generally not permitted on enterprise networks owing to the many security risks it brings.
To get videoconferencing working on networks you have to get the IT managers onside.
- The system has to be given a fixed IP address on the network. This may be done by statically assigning it internally or by dynamically assigning a fixed IP based on the unique Media Address Control (MAC) that every networked device has. What’s more, each IP address on the virtual private network (VPN) has to be mapped to a bona fide, Internet-facing IP address so that equipment outside that VPN can communicate with it.
- The firewall on the network has to be made aware of the system and has to correctly pass the network traffic intended for the videoconference unit. This generally involves ‘port mapping’ or IP mapping. If that’s not complicated enough, many VPNs actually use more than one firewall. Getting videoconference traffic successfully through a pair of firewalls can be very tricky.
- When in use the devices use a large amount of bandwidth and the network has to be designed to give priority to the audio and video streams when necessary.
In theory, doing those things is straightforward enough from a technical perspective. Firewall and router settings are just table entries and systems administrators can do them easily enough. In reality, though, it’s just not that simple. School districts are all separate entities, each with their own policies and procedures. Furthermore there are other organizations that need to be in on It as well such as post-secondary schools that also may need to use the system. Some of the technical services are managed by third parties and, unfortunately, many of the interconnections between those district based VPNs can be through the public Internet (also known as the wild, wild west). In reality, getting the settings done took a lot of time and effort. There were quite a few growing pains encountered along the way. The various computer networks are segmented so throughput across the networks was often difficult. Worse, getting videoconference traffic from one network to another often resulted in one-way or low quality transmissions.
Generally the distance education classes went reasonably well enough because both students and teachers needed it to work and stuck with it until it did. The issues were solved and things stayed that way. Unfortunately, many of the early events we undertook that primarily involved adults did not fare so well. The adults had much less tolerance for fault in the early stages and, when they encountered the early growing pains, they were left with the impression that the system did not work. Many, unfortunately, gave up on it and never came back, even though the technical issues have been solved for years now.
In time, most of these issues have been solved. Some still remain. The two schools served by satellite-based Internet find the quality is not great. Since the signal must be bounced on a two-way trip of to a satellite located about 22,000 km above the equator there will always be a delay of approximately 0.8 seconds for the video to make the round trip. This makes the conversation a bit stilted. Our sites on frame relay do not have a whole lot of bandwidth to spare and find that videoconference sessions tend to result in general network congestion at the school so we only use it sparingly at those sites.
Videoconference units are, by default, point to point. That is, you can only call one other site. This poses a problem as many of the useful applications for teaching are multipoint in nature; that is, the instructor generally likes to combine several sites. For a considerable extra cost many, but not all, videoconference workstations can be upgraded so that they can connect to more than one endpoint. Three plus one (3 + 1) is a common multipoint configuration. A videoconference unit that is 3 + 1 enabled is capable of connecting to three other units. In such an arrangement the users see all four locations arranged ‘Hollywood squares’ style. Usually the 3 + 1 unit is configured so that if one site speaks for an extended period then its video grows to occupy all of the screen and remains this way until that location goes silent and someone speaks at another location. When this happens the system reverts back to ‘Hollywood squares’ unless that speaker goes on for an extended period.
At first we equipped the instructor sites with units that were 3 + 1 capable so that they could bridge in as many as three different locations at a time. Generally this was good enough but not always. Some classes were comprised of more than 3 school sites. When this happened the instructors would have to break the class up and bring them on in parts.
In time we were able to purchase a videoconference bridge. This was a device whose purpose was to combine multiple sites so that the users’ own equipment did not have to do it. The first unit we purchased was able to work with any number of combinations up to a total of 32 sites. At maximum capacity, for example, we could run a large class with 32 sites or, more reasonably, 4 classes, each with 8 sites online and so on.
We rarely ran the ridge with large groups as our teaching model did not leave us with classes comprised of large numbers of sites. Typical classes have around 20 students and the number of sites is typically between 3 and 7. Very large sessions were something we used for special occasions. Some examples included:
- Schoolstock: a yearly ‘battle of the bands’ event held for several years in the mining town of Buchans. This was a day-long event and schools went to Buchans from all over the province to compete. On that day we would move the school’s videoconference unit to the gym and have it set to show the bands who were performing. We would leave the bridge open so that schools that sent bands could call in and listen to their bands or even talk to people at the site.
- Lights, the Canadian performer (and others on different occasions) have generously given their time and visited a videoconference studio where we connected her to our bridge. She gave a class to all of our music students.
- Education Week openings have been done live using the videoconference bridge. The opening ceremonies have been dispersed among a large number of participating sites and the rest, who did not play a speaking (or singing) role have been connected via one-way webcast.
In time, the original bridge began to show its age. The original one could not handle any content besides video (we could not show computer content such as slides, for example) and was not High Definition compatible. Last year we replaced it with one that added both those missing features and which also had a higher connection capacity. It was also considerably smaller. The original bridge was about the size of a ‘bar fridge.’ The new one is about the size of a typical PC. We have observed the overall performance on the new bridge to be much better—video is clearer and smoother.
And time marches on. Desktop video clients, such as Microsoft® Lync™ are now sophisticated and reliable enough to be used for many of the kinds of purposes we have. Presently the CDLI is in the process of implementing its own Lync server and hopes to integrate it, using the current bridge, with its installed base of dedicated room-based videoconference units. Desktop clients are are a good choice when it’s just people talking to people but the larger room-based systems still are best when we want to work with groups or see finer details—watching a student playing guitar, for example. The future is ‘looking’ bright.
Next: Yes, of course, CDLI students do science labs.