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Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 1

The University of Maine System has been televising distance learning classes for 20 years, and recently it upgraded to a statewide Haivision IP network to carry signals to students. Senior systems an 12/14/2010 7:00 AM Eastern

Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 1

Dec 14, 2010 12:00 PM, With Bennett Liles




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The University of Maine System has been televising distance learning classes for 20 years, and recently it upgraded to a statewide Haivision IP network to carry signals to students. Senior systems and design engineer John Tiner is here to tell us how the system was set up and how it all works.

John welcome to the SVC podcast; coming to us from the University of Maine System where you've got a statewide AV network for distance learning up and running using Haivision hardware. But first, how about telling me a little bit about yourself? What do you do for the University of Maine System?
Well, I'm a part of the systems engineering group that's part of a larger IT group that services the entire university's system. So our group is responsible for the video classrooms, video conferencing, all of the video networks; a lot of the traditional AV thing, room construction, projection, special events, video streaming—all that kind of thing. [Timestamp 1:34]

Now do you have certain people who specialize in things like help desk and others who concentrate in maintenance and installation or is it just everybody is called on to pretty much do everything?
Well, the field engineering and system engineering breaks up a little bit into specialty areas. We concentrate on the design and the construction of all the facilities and all the equipment integration, network integration. We service a lot of the networks that are particular to the projects we're working on; the original microwave networks, the original video conferencing networks and special optical networks, and RF networks, satellite—that kind of thing. And there's a separate group that's a part of the services group and they run the help desk; they're the front level technicians. They're fielding a lot of these calls at the front line and then they escalate them to field engineering or systems engineering as appropriate. [Timestamp 2:34]

And this looks like a pretty involved project for a statewide distance learning where you brought in Haivision gear; you've been with them for a while now.
I don't know if the folks at Hai really realized … they were very excited because we were one of their first customers way before they were even Haivision. And we bought an awful lot of their gear for the backbone here so we were one of their first biggest customers, and they were very excited when we went back to build this system, but I don't even think that really we had been running the same type of network for almost 20 years. The codecs have changed, technology has changed a little bit, the transport's changed a little bit, but really we've been doing this for a long time and it's been very successful. [Timestamp 3:20]




Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 1

Dec 14, 2010 12:00 PM, With Bennett Liles




What was the overall goal of the project?
Well, the overall goal was to replace the transport of the existing live video system. That's a statewide system; it interconnects all of the campuses of the University of Maine System, all of our off campus education centers. And originally that system blanketed the entire state with multiple receiver locations—something on the order of 80 locations—with a combination of fiber-optic network, microwave network, and some other small networks in between. So the goal was to upgrade all of those individual pieces of the old network and switch entirely to an IP-based transport. So that's what the Haivision equipment allowed us to do. [Timestamp 4:14]

And this is a fairly competitive field in IP streaming. Any special reason why you decided to go with Haivision on this one?
In our case, we had been using the original Haivision hardware as part of our backbone originally. We had their old MPEG-2 series that they called the hai 560 and we were using that for IP-based MPEG-2 transport. We had about 20 or 30 of those pieces of gear, and that had proven to be extremely reliable for us. So from a hardware standpoint, Haivision was already a known entity and we were experienced with their way of doing things with their equipment so that was an easy choice. [Timestamp 5:02]

Well yeah, especially on a huge project like this one. If you're already familiar with the reliability of a specific make of gear, it's probably smart to stick with what you know.
Right, well the other thing that made that more attractive was that they had married with the video Furnace software piece so the hardware and the software together now gave us familiar hardware but a total management system so we were able to look at the codecs on the one end, network performance in between, the set-top boxes at the far end, and had this scheduling piece and management all rolled up into one integrated package instead of using solutions from different vendors, so that also made it very attractive. [Timestamp 5:49]

Obviously better than starting with something from the ground up that you're crossing your fingers on and going on faith and referrals. So we've talked a bit about the delivery mechanism, but what about the content? What's being delivered on this, and what's the scope of this thing?
This fall we're offering 84 courses, I believe, just over 80 courses. There are about 3,800 students enrolled taking the live television courses, and there are somewhere just over 60 locations statewide where they're taking those courses. So that's running from 7:30 in the morning to about 10 p.m. at night and usually four concurrent live classes and that's pretty normal to have about four live classes running simultaneously. [Timestamp 6:38]

And that might not sound like a whole lot, but it's no small task when you've got that much stuff going on all at same time. Once you get a routine going from production through engineering, I guess everything smoothes out, but trying to get that ball rolling is a big job. So how do they do the production in the classrooms? Do presenters, I guess faculty, do any kind of control on the equipment for this?
No, they don't have to do anything they don't want to. Actually that's … the original goal of the project was to just be able to have a faculty member or a presenter walk in, walk up to the lectern, and start teaching. So they don't have to do anything. There aren't any touchpanels, no kinds of controls or buttons, or anything for them to actually operate. They clip on a wireless microphone, they walk up to the lectern, and they could just teach and leave everything up to the classroom technician—that's staff members that we call distance education technicians or DETs. And they're responsible for moving the cameras, controlling the audio sources, intercepting phone calls from students at the remote locations, manipulating all the graphics, filling in the content on the chromo key green screen, recording, play back—everything. So some faculty members actually do design their own graphics for the course, their own computer graphics, and they might choose to use the instructor PC that's at the lectern at the front of the room, and they might advance the slides or do the webpage presentation, but they don't have to do that. That can be done entirely by the DETs that are working in the control room. [Timestamp 8:25]

And where's all the encoding gear located? Is it right there in the production studio or is the program signal transmitted through some other means to it in a central location somewhere?
Well, the equipment is now located in the production classroom. Previously we had to transport back to the core codecs and use fiber-optic networks to get from building to building and that kind of thing, but at almost every location now the Barracuda encoders are located physically in the production classroom, right with the equipment, and it's just connected to the LAN right there in the room so that's actually made it easy. [Timestamp 9:02]

So they're pretty much in the care and feeding of the distance education technicians?
Well there are exceptions. At this campus, for instance, there's a larger video facility—a sort of a main origination terminal—and there's other systems passing through, satellite systems, video conferencing systems, a recording studio, editing rooms, and other centrally located equipment. So here we've located the encoders in the central … the video control center so that we can manipulate things and occasionally we have to pass the classrooms through a captioning encoder or tie the two systems together but generally, yes, the encoders are just sitting with the technicians in the equipment rack with all the production equipment. [Timestamp 9:48]




Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 1

Dec 14, 2010 12:00 PM, With Bennett Liles




OK, and the picture I have in mind of this is pretty much just a little TV studio where the instructors are out in the studio and the technicians are in a control area separated by mainly a big window or something and just operating a video switcher and sound mixer and so on.
That's absolutely correct. The rooms were originally constructed with that intention, so there's a very small, and I do mean very small, control room directly adjacent to the large classrooms. There is a standard video switcher, audio mixers, video monitors, the telephone interface equipment, some routing and distribution equipment, power equipment, PCs, scan converters—that kind of thing. [Timestamp 10:29]

And when the phone-in is done by students on the receiving end, how is that monitored by the instructors? Do they have an IFB, or is it a mix minus coming in through an open speaker somewhere? How does that work?
The telephone calls come in through the control rooms through either … something like a Comrex telephone interface or a Westel conferencing system, and we take the four-wire audio out of those systems and feed it back into the classroom and feed a mix minus into the telephone system back to the students. So the instructors, almost always, are standing in front of a live class as well as the remote students and sending the telephone callers back into the classroom obviously allows all of the students that are in the live classroom to hear the conversation as well. [Timestamp 11:13]

Well, that's pretty sophisticated, keeping in mind you probably have some students on the crew. I guess you have to train some students on the system every year or maybe every semester to help out. Now I read you're using a greenscreen on this too. How is that used?
Well, that's typically used as a pull-up curtain. It's a pull-over greenscreen that's on a track in front of the white board so an instructor can opt to either use the traditional whiteboard and just turn around and write, or they can slide the green curtain over and … typically what's done is the chroma key is filled either with computer graphics, so that might be a PowerPoint presentation, a website, any PC content that the instructor or the distance education technician might want to put up. Sometimes, say in a math class, that will actually be filled with the ceiling document camera so the instructor's writing formulas or some kind of complex equations on a piece of paper on the lectern but that camera is filled in back of them on the greenscreen. [Timestamp 12:02]

That sounds like a fun thing for the students. They must get excited about it when they see all this gear and consider all the creative things they can do with it—it would sure generate some interest.
It's been received very well. We've been conducting live video classes for 20 years now—in one way or another using one set of equipment or different networks—and it's evolved a little bit, but ever since the beginning we've had really positive feedback from all of the students, both in the live classrooms having the benefit of the AV displays in the classroom and the added technology and the students that are out at the remote locations. They tend to enjoy taking the live television classes and report that it's a positive experience. [Timestamp 13:06]

Well, that sounds like an incredibly engaging thing being able to bring students in from a distance rather than going brick and mortar for everything. It seems to be working and well received. I very much appreciate you being here for part one John to take us through it, and in part two, we'll get more into technical details and get maybe the people's side of it too but thanks for being here.
Well you're welcome. It's a pleasure.

Thanks for joining us for the SVC podcast with John Tiner of the University of Maine System. Show notes can be found on the website of Sound and Video Contractor Magazine at SVConline.com. Be here for part two as John goes into the Haivision Stingray set-top boxes and how the Maine Distance Learning Network is administered, next time on the SVC podcast.




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