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Videoconferencing on Alaska's north slope.

Videoconferencing is meeting the challenge of providing a varied curriculum in the nation's geographically largest and northernmost school district.

Alaska's North Slope Borough School District (NSBSD) serves 1,820 students in eight villages spanning 88,000 square miles (roughly the size of the state of Minnesota) entirely above the Arctic Circle. There are no roads connecting these communities and people must travel in small aircraft. Satellites provide the vital links for information exchange within the school district and to the outside world.

Barrow, the northernmost community in the United States, is the communication hub for the school district. You may recall Barrow from media coverage of the Gray Whale rescue in 1988. All of the major television networks made use of Alascom's satellite network to provide the world with video of this event.

The same network is used daily to link our schools with voice, data and video communications.

Through a five-year contract with Alascom, the district has leased bandwidth with upgrade provisions for 128 kb/s dedicated links to the seven outlying village schools. The three schools in Barrow are linked to the communications hub at the district's central office over a 62.5-micron multimode fiberoptic network.

The hub uses a 23 GHz microwave link to establish a T1 to the Alascom satellite earth station. The network currently supports a Banyan Vines WAN (wide area network) with over 300 PC workstations, a Johnson Controls fire and security system, and a 112 kb/s compressed video network using VideoTelecom Corp.'s PC-based multimedia conferencing systems.

"In village schools with few high school students, it is difficult to have the trained professional staff to teach all subjects," says Pat Aamodt, superintendent of the North Slope Borough School District. "Because of its size, Barrow High School can employ teachers who have training in specialized subject matter. Through videoconferencing, all of our students in the other seven villages have access to these instructors."

Compressed video was phased into the existing satellite telecourse network in August 1992 to allow true interactivity between teachers and students.

"We believe that our students will perform better if they can participate more actively with their instructors and classmates," says Martin Cary, coordinator of information and technology.

"Two-way video has also provided our curriculum developers with more course options."

The television studio used to deliver satellite courses in Algebra I and Geometry from Barrow High School serves this year as the origin for Algebra I and Algebra II on the compressed video network. A third course, "Art: Learning to See", is taught from the village of Point Hope with support from the studio.

"Teaching a class through videoconferencing is much the same as teaching in a regular classroom," says Larry Moye, mathematics instructor.

"I promote interaction. Fifty percent of my class involves discussion and the students have no trouble interacting with me."

All sites in the network are equipped with a VideoTelecom MediaMax conference system. It features a true multimedia approach to videoconferencing through the use of interactive video, audio, graphics and data.

The codecs are connected via General DataComm multiplexers to a MultiMax multipoint control unit at the central office hub. This RS-449 digital switching system can be accessed, as can the codecs, though the WAN to control the multipoint conference parameters and for performing diagnostics on all of the conference systems in the network.

The network studio, also equipped with a MediaMax codec, provides instructors with a multicamera broadcast facility for originating their classes with excellent visual support. Because the MultiMax and far-site codecs can be accessed remotely, studio personnel provide a high level of support to the entire network.

An added advantage of originating from the television studio is broadcast redundancy. If a system failure occurs at one of the distant sites, the courses can be uplinked via satellite until the site is returned to the videoconference.

Plans for increasing links from 128 to 448 kb/s are underway for this year. This increase in bandwidth will allow NSBSD to run compressed video at 384 kb/s. Additional codec hardware will change the current frame rate of 15 to a full 30 fps. The increased frame rate will allow NSBSD to distribute a locally produced educational television channel to all seven villages.

In this scenario, the studio codec will transmit regular and special event programming to village codecs, which in turn will output the programs to village cable television plants for distribution to private homes.

Acceptance of the system has been overwhelmingly positive. New applications for the technology are suggested by teachers, administrators and the community. More importantly, students of the NSBSD are provided with excellent learning opportunities in spite of the distances that separate schools on Alaska's North Slope.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Jewell, Paul
Publication:Communications News
Date:Feb 1, 1993
Previous Article:Videoconferencing integrates analog, digital on microwave network.
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