Long-Distance Learning Becoming Teacher’s Pet

Video quality and streaming produced a shift in distance education
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Video quality and streaming produced a shift in distance education

Not to long ago taking a distance-education class meant pushing a VHS tape into a home VCR and watching a pre-recorded lecture on a consumer television while taking notes in a spiral-bound notebook on a coffee table. Not so today.

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One of George Mason University’s ‘connected classrooms’

Improvements in video quality, client support and the ability to stream video have produced a massive shift in distance education. In addition, high-definition (HD) has made it easier than ever for smartphones and iPads to be used by students to view video classes. Those have made distance learning more significant for higher education, as shown by the 2011 Survey of Online Learning which reveals that nearly a 33 percent of all higher education students take at least one online course.

Among those involved with academia is Joy Hughes, a George Mason University (GMU) official who used a telepresence conferencing room for the first time at a GMU facility in Virginia. When that occurred, Hughes—who is GMU’s vice president for information technology—was connected to her boss, who was in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Hughes says when her boss walked into his remote conference room, he reflexively reached out to shake her hand. He then “caught himself from three continents away” and realized he was seeing her lifesized video image, she said. “This is a good example of immersive technology.”

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The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command uses Blackboard’s Learn 9.1. software for online training.

Using Cisco System’s TelePresence technology, the university has five special connected classrooms at three campuses. It is part of the state’s 4-VA initiative, which links public universities like GMU, as well as the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, from around the state. The rooms allows the schools to conduct meetings among the universities; share classes that otherwise would not be available to students; and collaborate on research initiatives.

However, the high-tech telepresence classrooms are not for all classes, Hughes said. “There are some courses that can be taught with regular distance,” education technology, she said, adding, “If I were taking a chemistry course, it’s not so important that I see somebody’s body language.”


Distance education is especially important in the government environment where agencies have to offer widely dispersed in-service training for federal employees or the military, which is responsible for ensuring far-flung troops are up to speed on new weapons and war-fighting strategies.

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Vaddio’s AutoTrak HD-18-Mount

Over are the days when students sat mutely in front of a television screen. Now students are producing content to prove they understand the classes; that contents presentations or collaborating with other students via blogs or Internet discussion boards, said Tim Hill, president of Blackboard Professional Education.

The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command recently chose Blackboard’s Learn 9.1 as its online software platform to train more than 150,000 soldiers through the Army’s Lifelong Learning program. It’s a massive effort. Serving more than 35,000 Army, Air Force, foreign language and cultural courses in nearly 40 schools run on Blackboard’s system.

“It’s a very interactive system,” Hill said. “Typically the best learning happens on the social instruction side. Let’s say you have 30 officers spread all over Europe, getting instruction on leadership skills or combat techniques. With Blackboard, those officers in the field will interact in real time and respond to each other on blogs.”


As distance education has become more mobile, it has also become more intensively interactive via telepresence technology that uses a multiple codec video system. It is a high-end system using state-of-the art room designs, video cameras, displays, sound-systems and processors, coupled with high-to-very-high capacity bandwidth transmissions.

The magic of a telepresence system includes tracking cameras for instructors, student cameras and touch-to-talk microphones for remote students, video whiteboards, high definition document cameras and fully integrated computers that drive the content, said Michael Baker director of vertical marketing for Vaddio. The Minnesota-based company makes robotic camera technology and serves as a distance education technology integrator.

“We wanted to make it simpler, almost like the Staples Easy Button,” Baker said. To further the concept of easy use, Vaddio has produced the PresenterPOD controller which is located on the instructor’s desk, which has two large round buttons for control over the automated content and a third, small square button for PIP on/off adjustments.

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Digital Rapids TouchStream

The system is integrated into the classroom so that the camera follows the instructor around the room, Baker said. “We wanted to take the technology out of the hand of the instructor,” he said. The system is integrated into the classroom so the camera follows the instructor move around the classroom.

The centerpiece of Vaddio’s automated camera tracking system is AutoTrak, Baker said. The instructor wears a lanyard belt pack that emits infrared (IR) light received by an IR pan/tilt/zoom (PTZ) camera. Video is then sent from the IR PTZ camera to the tracking camera, which results in a smooth, accurate panning motion that follows an instructor, he said.

The system eliminates the need for a staff person to operate a camera. Both the IR camera and the tracking camera are based on Vaddio’s single-chip CCD ClearVIEW HD-18 high definition PTZ camera. The system can deliver both standard definition (SD) and HD video from the tracking camera. Vaddio also offers the StepVIEW presence sensing mats, a rubberized, non-slip exposed auto locator mat that tracks the instructor.


Many of the advances in video distance education would not be possible without video compression or streaming. Video works much like an old-fashioned picture flipbook, taking a series of still images and playing them back in rapid sequence to create the illusion of continuous motion. Each still image or video frame is a discrete digital photograph. Without some form of compression, the streams and files generated by digital video consume a large amount of network bandwidth and disk space, making it difficult to move and store video. Video compression uses sophisticated encoding techniques to squeeze the excess information out of video, making the resulting streams and files smaller and easier to work with.

VBrick, headquartered in Wallingford, Conn., provides streaming video integration solutions. VBrick’s encoders combined with the VEMS Mystro video management system, offers high-impact educational video allowing students to receive and broadcast original content.

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“The use of video as a teaching solution is soaring,” said John Shaw, VBrick Systems’ chief operating officer. “The reason is simple, video has proven itself time and again as an incredibly powerful and efficient communications mechanism.” For example, Vbrick offers a Multi-Format Set Top Box (STB) that allows video to be distributed to LCDs and plasmas, projectors and other large format displays. The system both decodes H.264 and Windows Media, as well as MPEG 2 and MPEG 4 part 2. The STB can be controlled by an IR remote or through VBrick’s media management systems.


Digital Rapids, based in Ontario, offers the TouchStream video encoder which enables multiplatform immediate live streaming of lectures and the recording of clips to files for subsequent ondemand viewing, said Mike Nann, company director of Marketing-Communications.

“Streaming video is such a key component of distance learning,” Nann said. “It’s not enough for video for distance learning to be just accessible on PCs any more; mobile phones and particularly tablets have become the preferred access devices for many students, he said adding Digital’s encoders create web streams for Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight while simultaneously creating iPhone and iPad outputs.

Another reason for the growth of distance education is there is no limit on class size, Nann said. If students do not physically visit the college, online access also allows students to selectively access modules of given courses. Students can take classes that increase their own personal/professional development, he added. have it too.”