Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 2

Distance learning and classroom capture offer a powerful balance for the effects of shrinking budgets and growing class size. Senior systems and design engineer John Tiner offers his experience in ho 12/28/2010 6:53 AM Eastern

Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 2

Dec 28, 2010 11:53 AM, With Bennett Liles

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Distance learning and classroom capture offer a powerful balance for the effects of shrinking budgets and growing class size. Senior systems and design engineer John Tiner offers his experience in how the University of Maine System is using Haivision to take learning beyond the campus on a statewide IP network. Next up on the SVC podcast.

John thanks for being back with me for part two on the Haivision network at the University of Maine System. A tour de force and distance learning, and you're obviously no newcomer to that. How long have you been delivering classes for the distance learning network?

We've been delivering live video classes for 20 years, and we've also been delivering live interactive videoconferencing classes for about 14 years, so we've been doing this for quite some time. [Timestamp: 1:17]

So you've got it down by now and you went all-IP with the Haivision system, the basic premise of this new project. What format video and sound are you feeding into the Haivision encoders?

We're still using good old analog NTSC. The core equipment and the infrastructure for the system was based on broadcast NTSC equipment, and it would have been cost-prohibitive to upgrade the entire system in the production facilities to high definition or new digital equipment, so we stayed with the standard-definition analog equipment and purchased the Haivision equipment that would allow us to work with that. [Timestamp: 1:57]

Well when it comes to distance learning, it's all in the content as long as everything is clearly visible and as long as you have def—it doesn't necessarily have to be high-def, at least not in the beginning. How is this thing administered? Is there one central place where you handle all of the codecs, or is it classroom by classroom?

Most of the project is handled with the systems and field engineering groups here at this particular campus of the University of Maine System, and the administration is handled by basically myself and two other engineers and the Video Furnace software basically allows us to look at all the encoders and all the set-top boxes, and look at the intermediate conditional access and hardware authorization, and scheduling and channel line ups all in one place, so it's really pretty easy to administer the entire system. The original deployment and installation was quite involved, but now that the year's in, it's pretty easy to manage. [Timestamp: 3:07]

Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 2

Dec 28, 2010 11:53 AM, With Bennett Liles

Yeah, what kind of a time frame did you have on getting all this old stuff out, or everything on the old system you were going to take out, and everything new in, up and running and ready to go?

Well, we were very fortunate in that respect. The existing network and distribution system was such that it could remain in place and run in parallel while we were deploying the new Haivision IP-based distributions system, so we worked over the summer to have the new equipment in before the start of the fall semester. So basically everything was ready to run mid-August, I would say, but we had a few particular locations where there was some delay in getting the network connectivity set up or construction or some other access restrictions and they were able to remain on the old network while we had already migrated to the new network. And then we simply switched those systems off as they weren't needed anymore. [Timestamp: 4:05]

Yeah, I work on a university campus, and that week or two right before fall semester starts is always a real fun time for the tech people.

Yeah, it was a very, very busy time. [Timestamp: 4:17]

That's when you're going to have the tech people throwing themselves out of windows, hopefully just on the ground floor. So you obviously had to coordinate tech and non-tech people, and the faculty, while they're experts in their subject areas, are not necessarily the techies on this. So how do you coordinate between the faculty and the IT? Who does what on that?

That actually happens at several different levels, and the first line for the faculty is to work with the distance education technician [DET] that's working in the classroom with them. They worked with the same instructor for the full semester. They get very well acquainted. The DET helps the instructor develop graphics, presentations, helps to ensure that they understand what's legible and what's not, what font sizes to use, what kind of material is appropriate. They're pretty much the first interface with the faculty, and then there's a second level of support. We actually have a constructional design staff and that's their full-time job is to make sure that they're there to assist faculty with developing courses for distance learning, be it live video or streaming or purely web-based courses. And then there's another logistics staff that deals with the faculty regarding the distribution of materials and collecting tests and exam proctoring at remote locations, all those kinds of things that go with having the remote students. [Timestamp: 5:49]

Yeah, when those students at the receiving end … I would think that probably on the production standpoint the people at the other end of the line there that may be more consistently the big challenge because they may not have the level of training, the local facilitators, that the tech guys have at the origination point. So how do you handle that? Is there one person as a local facilitator who knows what to do and how to call in and handle all the tech stuff?

Well, we'd like to think that it's not necessary to have anybody at the other end, and usually, I'm going to say 99 percent of the time, the students really are able to work the system on their own. If they're at a university location, one of the campuses, or one of the off-campus centers, obviously university staff are on hand, and if the student's having trouble with the telephone or for some reason they turn on the set-top box and they can't find the channel they're looking for or the TV doesn't seem to be working for them, they can go talk to one of the staff members. But we prominently display the 800 number for our support center in all the rooms, and our goal is to be able to have the students operate the equipment themselves and call an 800 number and get some quick help if they actually run into a problem. [Timestamp: 7:16]

Well on the tech level, sometimes the students may be a little ahead of some of the faculty members.

Well like I said, there's not a whole lot that they have to deal with. In this case, they really just have to make sure that they can find the class that they're looking for on the correct channel and that the equipment is turned on. We try to keep it as simple as possible. We actually have more problems with missing phones or misplaced remote controls than we do with equipment failures. [Timestamp: 7:47]

Distance Learning in the University of Maine System, Part 2

Dec 28, 2010 11:53 AM, With Bennett Liles

Oh yeah, remotes grow legs as soon as the lights are turned off. You mentioned the set-top boxes, are those the Stingray set tops you're talking about?

That's correct, we purchased the Stingray set-top boxes so we could continue to emulate the existing delivery model that we had which is ... a student or several students in a viewing classroom at the remote locations. The Video Furnace software offers a desktop PC base player, but we didn't want to go that route of trying to have people in the computer labs watching the content on the desktops, so we installed the, I think it's 137, Stingray set-top boxes in the remote viewing locations. [Timestamp: 8.37]

Wow. That in itself would have been a pretty big thing to keep track of. Now you've had some time to look at this and see what works and maybe what doesn't, and I was thinking there might be some types of subject matter that work better for distance learning than others. Has that been the case?

Well, generally almost any class that you can conduct in a lecture style seems to lend itself to live television presentations well. So we've run science classes, math classes, English, history, business, nursing, music, art … just about anything that you can think of—some special accommodations are made. For instance, if it's a music class, we might have to make some special audio arrangements. They might want to bring in a live band or have some kind of special accommodation, but most of the time if the material is prepared properly, they can walk in and really teach just about any traditional subject the same way that they would in a standard classroom. And the classes that do require a much more interactive format or have a smaller numbers of students that are geographically dispersed, those classes occur on the videoconferencing system, so that's a little bit different. Some of the upper-level engineering courses and writing courses, those kinds of things, are moved to a different system entirely. [Timestamp: 10:07]

Yeah, I was thinking that maybe some of the arts or theater classes might be more of a challenge, but if you're doing things like statistics or things that get pretty complex it would be to the advantage of the students to be able to tune in and watch that and then be able to go back later and play back some parts of it that they might not of understood the first time.

Yeah, absolutely, and that is a part of the system. We do make sure that we record and make all of these classes available again to the students through the student portal system that the university uses. So we don't necessarily encourage time-shifting all of your classes, but they are there for the students to review if for some reason they've missed a class or occasionally there is a widespread network outage or some kind of problem that may have prevented them from seeing the live class when it was presented, so in this case they can go to the student portal and then watch a replay of the class at their convenience. [Timestamp: 11:05]

Yeah, I think classroom capture is one of the primary tech tools that work to, at least to some degree, effectively offset the growing class sizes. The budget situation and enrollment still going up, classroom capture and the students being able to go back at their own pace and review and—that's a real technical balancing factor against growing class size.

That's actually been a very popular piece of this project when we introduced it not too long ago. And we actually started the class capture as a system to replace the mailing media. That was the origin of it, but it became very popular and took off very quickly and now is a huge demand for a replay of the live video classes after the fact, so that continues to expand. [Timestamp: 11:55]

Yeah, classroom capture and some live interaction together—that's a really powerful combination that benefits the students. So how have the students reacted to this thing so far? How has it been received? We've been doing this for a very long time, again, using different delivery mechanism and different networks over the years, but generally the students have always had a very positive reaction and get a very high approval rate, and I think something in the order of 90 percent or more indicate that they enjoy that method of delivery. They enjoy watching the classes with other students. Even though they're at the remote locations, they'll often watch together so there's still that sense of community and that sense of attending the class with other students and it's also regular. It's on a schedule somewhat like attending a live class—it's every Tuesday night as 7 p.m. or whatever it is. So the reaction has been very positive, and the reaction to making those classes available again later through the student portal has been very positive as well. [Timestamp: 13:04]

So where are you in the project right now? Is it all complete or are you still expanding it? Maybe some plans to expand even further?

Well at this point we have, I think, there are two locations left where we're still servicing the students on the original transmission network. We're waiting for broadband connection at those locations, but the system's basically complete and we're offering usually four concurrent live sessions all day from about 7:30 in the morning to 10 at night, and that pretty much fills the schedule and it gets the origination rooms going pretty much up to capacity. So at this point, I don't think we're planning to expand that any further. It's actually taking up quite a few resources now. It has been received very well and the new equipment and the management piece for the new equipment has made operating the system much easier and much more cost-effective. [Timestamp: 14:06]

Well it certainly is great when you can reach out beyond the classroom and beyond the physical confines of the campus and bring more people in. John, thanks for being here for the SVC podcast to explain the new Haivision system going to work in distance learning for the University of Maine System.

Well, you're welcome. It was a pleasure.

I hope you enjoyed the SVC podcast with John Tiner of the University of Maine System. Show notes for the podcast can be found on the website of Sound and Video Contractor magazine at Join us again next time for the SVC podcast.

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