Broadcast studio at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.
Distance learning, while by no means a new concept, is in a constant state of renewal as technology continues to advance. Indeed, e-learning―online learning―boomed at the beginning of the 21st century.
Today, as the Internet is increasingly accessed via mobile devices, there has been a rise in mobile learning: mlearning. Let’s take a look at the latest distance-learning techniques, how it is used, and what market trends tell us about the future of government distance learning operations.
Philip Westfall, general manager of the Defense Education & Training Network and an executive at the Federal Government Distance Learning Association, spoke to us about his use of distance learning technology. Although the federal government uses both terrestrial (streaming) and satellite feeds, he advises that there are differences in what you can get from these delivery models.
“Streaming isn’t as good for educational purposes due to the quality of the feed, whereas satellite gives a higher quality,” he said.
In particular, Westfall recommends using HD video if the system will support the bandwidth.
Russ Colbert, the federal government market director for Polycom, said that most global schools and government departments and agencies have transitioned to HD.
“Because of more efficient technologies over the years, less and less bandwidth is needed,” he said.
Indeed, John Stritt, distance-education director of Nebraska’s Educational Service Unit 10 (ESU10), said its facilities make use of fiber for transmitting HD video lessons. Colbert observed that government facilities most commonly use a mixture of fiber and satellite.
VADDIO’S WALLVIEW CCU HD-19
The most popular distance learning product from Vaddio is the WallView CCU HD-19 paired with an AV Bridge.
“The WallView CCU HD-19 features a 19X optical zoom with high-resolution imaging that provides crisp images in a wide variety of environments,” said Hailey Klein, marketing manager for Vaddio.
Klein pointed out that using a CCU interface with Vaddio cameras will enable two key features: greater control over white balance and the ability to work over long distances―up to 500 feet away from the head end, using CAT-5e cable.
The AV Bridge is paired with the camera to take the HD signal and convert it to a standard USB interface. This allows the camera to be used with any Unified Collaboration-based software, such as lecture capture software or video conferencing software such as Skype, Microsoft Lync, Cisco Jabber, Citrix GoToMeeting and Adobe Connect.
No software drivers are required for the AV Bridge on the PC or Mac. It is automatically detected as the video and audio source for the software when the room audio system is connected to the AV Bridge.
Polycom’s Colbert said that the company’s RealPresence Platform acts as the unifying hub for the system’s communications. RealPresence is standards-based and interoperable with solutions from other vendors, providing connectivity regardless of device type, protocol, network type or available bandwidth.
RealPresence is currently being integrated into tablet technology for mlearning.
An example of Polycom's RealPresence used in a university setting.
“Our customers make presentations available on the web for on-demand playback,” Colbert said. “Polycom RealPresence Video Content Management solutions helps speed up knowledge-sharing by overcoming distance and time zone challenges. The lessons can be streamed live and published to a video library using just an Internet browser. Students or employees can view the lessons on any device at any time.”
The U.S. Air Force uses Polycom’s unique mlearning capabilities.
“The AF’s satellite distance learning network has partnered with Polycom to create the capability where a wireless, mobile device can send a video to the Polycom network center, which then sends the video to the AF satellite uplink facility,” said Jolly Holden, executive director of the Federal Government Distance Learning Association at American InterContinental University.
The video can be transmitted to 2,360 fixed-dish classroom sites located throughout the world―all in real time, and at an average cost of 20 cents per student-hour of training.
Westfall explains the process of creating an educational video.
“The videographer uses a NewTek Tricaster to produce the video, which is transported to a satellite uplink facility, then downlinked to an integrated receiver-demodulator and fed to a TV. No engineers are required on the receiving end.”
In other words, the system uses dedicated video technology and not IT connections.
“This allows for 95-percent success rate on communications,” said Westfall.
Colbert expanded on classroom origination gear.
“Today, cameras are automatic for the most part, allowing students and teachers to concentrate on content, not technology,” he said. “For example, Polycom’s EagleEye Director is a camera that automatically zooms in on the person speaking. It locates active speakers and, through simultaneous voice triangulation and face-finding, accurately crops their images in the display.”
Instructors at ESU10 have no involvement in the videography, but there are situations when the instructor has to take the bull by the horns.
“The teacher has some control over the camera,” Stritt said. “In pre-meetings, the teachers share what they’d like to see at the beginning of the term. Technology can handle most of it, but it does need some input from the teacher, such as staging areas and whiteboards. Students at the receiving site also have some control over what will best benefit their viewing needs.”
CLASS SIZE, BREAKS, COSTS
Attendance at distance learning events can be anywhere from small to huge, with groups as large as 1,500 people. However, experts have an idea of what makes an optimum group size.
“Rooms no bigger than a conference room, with 20 students, are optimal for interaction,” Westfall said.
He is well placed to provide such advice, as he supplies up to 250,000 student hours of live education annually, which equates to 2-3,000 students at $2 per hour of student instruction. “This cost covers maintenance, course material, satellite and instructor’s fees,” he said.
Two instructors present a distance learning class at the Air National Guard's TEC TV, McGhee-Tyson Air National Guard Base, Tenn.
“Most of the distance learning in the federal government is focused on continuing education; there is no set class size since all of the federal government and Department of Defense agencies operate autonomously,” Holden said.
The ESU10, on the other hand, caters to 25 students per class at more than 34 different sites. However, the bottom line is transferring the information to receptive participants, regardless of the room size.
“When it comes to enrichment or virtual fieldtrips, any class size will work,” Stritt said.
So, how can lunch hours be dealt with in the world of online education? For the federal government, it has to be considered.
“The classes are designed not to have anyone up in the middle of the night,” Westfall said. “Also, they are conducted in the early morning for only four or five hours for overseas students, and all courses have breaks. There can also be eastern and western courses.”
One of the benefits of distance learning is the cost savings, as it eliminates considerable travel expenses, as well as lost productivity when employees are on the road. Still, there are costs to operate and maintain the equipment, as well as administrative expenses.
“Nebraska has 40 different teachers who are listed as remote teachers,” Stritt said. “At least 50 courses are being sent out daily.”
This amounts to healthy savings.
“The state education uses a repository,” Stritt said. “The goal is to have more presentations using the record option of the camera. Not much is available currently, but the ESU10 will work to have more password-accessed sites soon.
“Government training has banded together to share bandwidth to save money,” Westfall said. Those savings can be considerable.
“The U.S. Navy has reported up to $4.5 million savings annually for the Navy’s Learning Network,” said Polycomm’s Colbert.
OUTCOMES AND TRENDS
“Successful outcomes really depend on the material and amount of information,” Westfall said. “Intrinsic motivation is key.”
Stritt agreed, highlighting that teachers who have good face-to-face skills and use good instructional practices obtain the best outcomes.
“Communication is often missing in distance learning and communication between teacher and remote students is paramount,” he said.
Successful outcomes ultimately will drive market trends in distance learning.
“A key trend we see in the marketplace is the wide use of software applications for communication, lecture capture, live streaming and recording meetings,” said Vaddio’s Klein.
These software applications are attracting customers by providing flexibility―using the processing power of the PC to perform tasks previously performed by hardware. There is no longer a need to invest heavily in dedicated hardware solutions that can become obsolete or only perform one pre-designed function.
Distance learning, particularly e-learning, is well established in the U.S. and growing in availability and affordability. Although there is much progress that can and has been made in this area, the ease of use and accessibility of mlearning needs to be considered and advanced in the coming years, which may eliminate the need for classrooms completely.
In the meantime, one constant in the ever-changing distance-learning market is that we will always require high-quality software, video gear and audio equipment.