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Closing the gap
new technologies are bringing online students and instructors together

By Ann Quigley / January 2002

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A professor from the University of Nottingham Law School in the U.K. recently stood at a lectern before University of Dallas, Texas, pre-law students. He suggested a role-playing session, assigning a student to play the part of lawyer, while he played judge. The student relished the chance to strut his stuff as a trial lawyer, and at one point passionately approached the "bench" to hand the judge a piece of evidence. But this wasn't possible. Though the student could see a three-dimensional image of the judge, look him in the eye and converse with him, his professor was actually thousands of miles away—in Nottingham.

"There was a lot of laughter when they remembered the Atlantic Ocean was between them," says James Stephens, National Sales Director for Teleportec, a Dallas-based developer of a broadband conferencing system that allows speakers to appear Wizard-of-Oz style before remote audiences. Unlike traditional videoconferencing, which displays video images on monitors or projection screens, a teleported person appears life-size, seated in a chair or standing behind a lectern, and can use eye contact and body language to communicate.

This technology is new, and not cheap, so at this point few professors or executives are saying "Beam me up Scottie," before beginning a lecture. Today's online courses tend to involve text-based lectures, multiple-choice tests, and online chat sessions or bulletin boards. But research suggests the market is hungry for more, and slowly, advances in e-learning technology are shimmering into view. According to technology market research firm IDC, worldwide revenues in the corporate e-learning market will surpass $23 billion by 2004, up from less than $2 billion in 1999. "Vendors in the e-learning market are proving to be quick studies," said Cushing Anderson, program manager for IDC's Corporate eLearning research.

'N Synch

Videoconferencing has the potential to personalize e-learning, and it has been the subject of much effort by vendors over the years—which may soon pay off. It was originally heralded as the next big thing at the 1964 World's Fair with the introduction of Picturephone, and again in the 1980s and '90s with the introduction of ISDN and then desktop videoconferencing. Hounded by poor sound quality and long latency times, the technology never quite took off. But technologies like teleportation may solve those problems. "Unlike those Japanese movies where the voice comes after action, our technology is perfectly synched," says Stephens.

In addition, it's now a full two-way system, using ISDN lines or a broadband network like a VPN. The speaker appears to viewers in 3-D and full color, but with an electronic gleam, like a character from Friends stepping from your TV set and standing in your living room. He or she can lecture, make eye-contact, and field questions from remote listeners. Along with distance learning, Teleportec is marketing the technology for corporate communications, medical consultations, and political campaigning. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was teleported to several rallies during his re-election campaign.

The Eyes have It

On a less-grand scale, researchers at Microsoft are developing a software solution to the eye-contact problem, which has traditionally plagued videoconferencing. The lack of gaze-awareness in standard video conferencing has contributed to its lack of popularity, says Jim Gemmel a researcher in Microsoft's Telepresence Research Group, part of the Bay Area Research Center (BARC) in San Francisco. "Being able to make eye contact is a major component to making video compelling," Gemmel says. "Gaze is such a powerful social cue—it affects something deep in the psyche."

Gemmel and his colleagues' software, which won't be on the market for a few years and is geared toward small groups of users, uses computer-vision techniques to track participants' head and eye movements. This tracking information, which is transmitted along with the video stream, is then used to graphically place the head and eyes in a 3-D environment that provides gaze awareness and a sense of space.

Technology is also being developed to track students' movements in another way: through the paths they take in their maze of courseware. Collecting data on how students interact with software can provide clues as to what works and what doesn't, says Carol Vallone, CEO and president of WebCT, an elearning technology provider for higher education. "On an aggregate level, we're interested in having a profile of students who are doing well, to discover if they function in a particular way," Vallone says. Such analysis will also allow companies like WebCT to personalize content.

Let There Be Bandwidth

As more online learners gain access to broadband, more technologies involving streaming audio and video and high-quality graphics can be incorporated into e-learning courseware. The grand opening of the experimental Internet2 network, created by a coalition of universities and corporations working to combine awesome speed with reliability, will make teleportation as easy as teleconferencing, and will even allow music lessons to be taught over the web. The Manhattan School of Music currently uses experimental Internet 2 technology to teach cello to students at the Oklahoma University School of Music.

Some caution that bandwidth isn't everything, and that improving elearning has more to do with using what we have now instead of leaping at the latest technology—like making a great soup out of what's in the refrigerator instead of running to the gourmet shop. "My belief is we are on the cusp of a change," says Chris Reed, V.P. of Corporate Strategy for the e-learning technology firm Centra. After heralding a range of cutting edge technologies as one-size-fits-all solutions, vendors and educators are beginning to recognize the more complicated truth: Often a blend of technology and traditional methods is best, and "different blends are needed to achieve different learning outcomes," says Reed. "In higher education, you have to look at where technology makes sense and where it doesn't."

"It's not about pipe size," agrees Anderson, of IDC, "but about creating the right content, quickly and easily." Vendors shouldn't focus on new technology so much as problem solving, he says. "Pick a business problem, and chances are they already have the technology they need to solve it."


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