The Distance Learning Curve - Building a Distance Learning Facility From the Ground Up

Early DL system has lessons for today.
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Early DL system has lessons for today.

In 1984, I was working for a high-priced video systems consulting firm in New York City, when we were asked to design a distance learning facility for a new IBM building just north of the city in Westchester County.

Although I was fairly young and relatively new as a consulting design engineer, I did have experience as a video engineer at a college and had worked closely with professors and students for some time. Designing a video educational system seemed like a natural for me.

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Control room operator handled pointing cameras, controlling audio, running VCRs and graphics.

Of course, IBM had some thoughts on what the system should look like and how it would work, so I coordinated carefully with my IBM contact, an educational specialist named Ralph Grubb. Possessing a Ph.D. and experienced at both teaching and the ways of IBM, Ralph was a patient and helpful collaborator.

Ralph had seen a distance learning classroom at the University of Maryland in College Park and wanted something like that, only with more technology as befitting IBM’s industry and financial stature. Spending more of IBM’s money wasn’t a problem for me, so I set out to put IBM’s requirements down on paper in the form of signal flow diagrams, rack elevations and room plans.

When the initial system was fully designed and ready to be integrated, Ralph asked if I knew anyone who could supervise the installation, then operate the system for IBM. I raised my hand and subsequently became an IBM employee working at the company’s educational facility in Thornwood, N.Y., where I remained for seven years.


We initially ended up with one “studio” classroom with 28 seats, an associated studio control room and a master control room to which cables from the building’s other educational spaces were routed. Over the next couple of years, we added another two distance learning studios to this building, which became the headquarters for an IBM educational system called the Corporate Educational Network: CENET (pronounced SEE-net).

CENET had receive sites at IBM facilities all over the U.S. and at least one in Canada, and the system was a popular destination for educators studying distance learning.

“While on active duty in the Air Force, I was tasked by the Commandant of the Air Force Institute of Technology to bring the AF into the 21st century regarding [distance learning], so I traveled to IBM-Thornwood to benchmark IBM’s satellite system in 1989,” said distance learning specialist Jolly Holden, who is now the executive director and co-founder of the Federal Government Distance Learning Association. “The consequence of that visit ultimately resulted in the AF deploying a satellite-based DL system that is active today and referred to as the Air Technology Network (ATN) and expanded to include the Government Education and Training Network (GETN).”

The initial version of IBM’s distance learning studio in Thornwood used a crude “hot-line” style telephone system to get interaction and questions from students at receive sites. Within a couple of years, IBM adopted a sophisticated touchscreen-controlled interactive system that included dedicated microphones and touch-response buttons at each student desk. This educational conferencing system, including the microphones, touchscreen, codecs and even the software, was built by NEC.

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The instructor faced the rear of the classroom and used the touchscreen monitor (on right) to handle student interaction.

We had a huge variety of equipment to make the system work. Each studio classroom had four Ikegami three-CCD cameras in different locations, including one in the ceiling that was used as a document camera. Three of these cameras (including the ceiling-mounted camera) were controlled by Telemetrics pan/tilt systems, which gave us smooth and natural pan, tilt, focus and zoom capability. I believe that this IBM system was one of Telemetrics’ first installations.

The fourth Ikegami camera was mounted on a pedestal at the back of the classroom, right at eye level for a seated instructor. This camera was on a Vicon security-style pan/tilt head, since we never moved it while a class was underway. The Telemetrics pan/tilt systems could be moved by the operator to smoothly follow an instructor around the room.


One very interesting feature of the studio classrooms was the fluorescent lights that used directional louvers to angle the light into the faces of the on-camera subjects. In most classrooms with fluorescent lights, the lights fire straight down―that leads to unflattering dark eyes and over-emphasizes bald spots. With the directional louvers, we got relatively attractive shots of both the instructors and the students, since both had light sloping in from the right direction.

In the studio control rooms, we had Echolab DV5 switchers, Soundcraft audio mixers, Sharp program/preview monitors and Panasonic source monitors, Tektronix waveform monitors and vectorscopes, Chyron character generators and a couple different Sony video recorders for tape playbacks. Since this was IBM and we frequently had to display computer images, we used YEM scan converters to give us broadcast (NTSC) signals from PC screens.

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A view of the IBM-Thornwood building from above. Note the two satellite dishes in the middle of the roof: One for NTU and another for IBM-CENET.

Back in the master control room (which we called the Video Control Center or VCC), a large 3M (now PESA) matrix switcher let us switch any studio to any of our three NEC codecs. The VCC also had lots of 20-inch Panasonic monitors so that the VCC’s operator could keep track of the broadcast classes and any recordings on the 10 Sony 3/4-inch recorders. The operator in the VCC coordinated with the operators in the studio control rooms using a Clear-Com intercom system.

The NEC codecs were interesting, and used pre-MPEG digital compression that was proprietary to NEC. The video and audio―remember, this was standard-definition―were encoded onto T-1 (1.5 Mbps) data streams and sent out via satellite to IBM’s receive sites. Today’s codecs can make much better-looking SD video with 1.5 Mbps of bandwidth, but the NEC codecs were pretty good in their day. The NEC codecs had the engineering and software to handle the proprietary touchscreen interaction system that the instructors used to engage the students.


All this standard-definition video gear was cutting edge for a corporate education facility at the time, but it’s hopelessly obsolete today. I left IBM in 1992 and company shut down the CENET system at the end of 1993, so it never had to undergo an upgrade to high-definition technology. Interestingly, the analog audio gear and intercom system would fit right in at many facilities today.

My role was to keep the system operating, which included assigning producers to work with instructors to prepare materials for a broadcast and making sure the control room was staffed by a trained operator. I handled the training and scheduling, as well as taking care of system maintenance and upgrades.

The building at IBM-Thornwood was thoughtfully designed for such systems, with extensive use of raised flooring and cable raceways. The building had a big auditorium, lots of classrooms and dozens of small breakout rooms, all of which had audio/video cables leading back to the VCC for interconnectivity. The system also had a building-wide cable TV system on which we could piggyback several internal channels to the entertainment lineup that we got from the local cable company.

No system such as this exists in a vacuum, and this facility relied on earlier designs (such as the University of Maryland system referred to earlier) as its jumping-off point. Likewise, subsequent systems like the one used at the Air Technology Network fine-tuned the technology for its specific needs, then blended in new technology as it became available.

Remarkably, those of us who ran the CENET system at IBM often struggled with instructors (who were my IBM-employee colleagues) to get them to use the system to its potential. Although many instructors were eager to use the system, many others simply wanted to teach using traditional chalk and chalkboards, and didn’t want a camera in the room.

I expect that has changed today for most distance learning systems.

Bob Kovacs is the editor of Government Video magazine.