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Web conferencing: rich media on the desktop: no more jerky videos and voices--today. there's a brighter web conferencing picture.

UNTIL RECENTLY, THE WORDS "WEB CONFERencing" conjured up the image of small-framed and jerky video that was akin to bad cartoon animation. Voices would speak, but there would be no movement on screen. Video would often freeze. Viewers would have to draw on stores of patience as they helplessly waited for the picture and sound to adjust to each other.

During the past few years, a number of companies have improved web conferencing software, making it more of a viable option for online learning and other applications. The proliferation of broadband has also helped push the trend, allowing senders and receivers to stream rich media right to the desktop with fewer snags.

Web conferencing can refer to a simple online setup--an instant messaging program that allows for group discussion--or something far more sophisticated. In most cases, each participant in a web conference has a web cam to capture video, a mic to capture audio, speakers, and a software program to bundle everything together and help broadcast it on the web. New voice-over IP technologies (VoIP) are creating the possibility for the mic and the speakers to be housed in a computer, but many systems still use telephone technology and speakers attached to a computer to deal with the audio portion.

Overall, participants can view video, see slide shows, participate in posting to an interactive whiteboard, view information on a computer desktop, share files, or answer questions through audio chat. Unlike video conferencing, a forerunner in the field, web conferencing typically services many users at once. Video conferencing systems are usually geared for a limited number of defined users--sometimes two, perhaps 10--but deliver high-resolution video images.

Currently, almost half of college campuses (45 percent) have some type of digital delivery system; a category that includes both video and web conferencing, according to this year's College Technology Review, published by Market Data Retrieval. This year was the first that the survey asked about such systems, which at least will give higher ed a baseline on the use of this technology. The survey reveals that close to 30 percent of those who have such systems allow access from on and off campus. Users at 25 percent of the campuses that have web conferencing or digital delivery can access the technology from multiple campuses. That means there are a lot of people online in higher education, doing everything from streaming lectures, to pushing rich media and video clips, to instructing students in real time with slide presentations and other text material.

Web conferencing use has extended beyond the classroom, though. There are more administrative meetings and interviews happening online. Some colleges and universities, such as the University of Phoenix and the University of Akron (Ohio), have web cast commencement ceremonies.

Installing conferencing equipment was an expensive proposition only a few years ago. Costs have dropped from a minimum of $40,000 to outfit a classroom with cameras, microphones, and other equipment, to perhaps as little as $10,000 today.

Globalization Drives the Trend

Web conferencing allows people in different states or different countries to "meet" in cyberspace. The technology is not lost on higher ed's distance education administrators.

Babson College (Mass.) has been working with web conferencing technologies since the 1990s, says Tova Garcia Duby, operations and ePlatform manager. "The technology has gotten better," she says. Previous incarnations of the technology yielded poor resolution and audio that would "flip in and out."

"It sounded as if the speaker was in an airplane or underwater," Garcia Duby recalls. Often the audio was out of whack with the video. "It was like watching an old Godzilla movie where the words were being spoken but the mouths weren't moving."

Recent advancements in web conferencing have helped replicate a true classroom feeling online. Garcia Duby uses Elluminate's web conferencing program to enhance distance learning. The program allows students to share data--a key application and one of the newer ones in web conferencing. "Professor and students can share a desktop. Anything the professor does can be shown to students online." All participants can enter data on a spreadsheet, for example.

The technology has been blended into Babson's MBA program, which has a distance ed component. Garcia Duby expects new web conferencing capabilities to allow enrollment to grow to 200 in September, at least double the number of students now. Her Elluminate site license allows for 150 users online at the same time, which gives the program room to grow.

Garcia Duby uses Macromedia's Breeze software for other web conferencing applications. "We do a lot of international interviewing," she says. The technology is especially helpful to follow up with international students who have graduated and moved back home.

"We try to be on the leading edge, not the bleeding edge," says Garcia Duby. "We never install version 0 of a software. We are always waiting for version 1." Web conferencing is at that version 1 level for her. "It is less likely these days that a professor will get in there and the software will bomb on them. Over the past year it has really become part of the standard package."

The instructors are using web conferencing almost as much as the course management system, she says. In fact, professors access web conferencing applications via Blackboard, the college's course management program, thus eliminating the burden of accessing a separate system in order to use the technology.

Beyond the Classroom

Case Western Reserve University's School of Medicine in Cleveland is experimenting with a new program to more web conferencing beyond academics. "We use this for staff interviews and for student placements," explains Lev Gonick, CIO. He estimates that the university captures thousands of minutes of digital video each month to enhance its programs.

Most recently, CWRU began beta testing high-definition software from LifeSize, the same company that helped stream real-time music instruction between Northwestern University and the New World Symphony in Miami.

Gonick has conducted several conferences with the new software and notes some helpful applications. The video is captured by a wide-angle lens, eliminating the need for the camera to be directed at different participants at different times during the conversation, he observes. Virtual participants are shown on a large screen monitor, allowing those off-site to appear at "full size," far larger than the postcard-sized video image that is typical of many systems.

Johns Hopkins University (Md.) has been contracting with Sonic Foundry to use Media-site software for webcasts of medical instruction on HIV/AIDS treatments. The university expanded the agreement earlier this year, so that the Johns Hopkins Center for Clinical and Global Health Education can do additional web conferencing to international medical centers and hospitals. With the help of the rich-media technology, the university's center will broadcast lectures and educational presentations to doctors and medical personnel in Africa, India, and other locations.

"We are using the Mediasite box to stream over the web," says Alex Nason, assistant director of Johns Hopkins Interactive. One of the center's first uses of the technology under the expanded agreement was to stream lectures on sleep deprivation and other disorders to a client hospital in Lebanon. At least 85 medical professionals participated in this lecture, broadcast on a morning in late February. A camera captured a Johns Hopkins specialist, who also enhanced the remarks with PowerPoint slides. Two-way communication allowed doctors in the

Middle East to ask questions of the Johns Hopkins specialist in real time.

Mediasite compressed and recorded the presentation, allowing the health center to add it to a library of medical instructional content.

"Here I am doing two things at once," explains Nason, referring to the broadcast and the recording. And he does it without the need of an AV/IT professional. The technology is contained in a portable studio that immediately captures audio, video, and text data, such as slide shows and written material. "The tools are integrated into the software, so that someone like me who is not a video expert, nor a designer, can make good-looking presentations within a matter of minutes." The center's staff is already repurposing the medical lectures for other clients. In total, 40 to 60 such lectures have been created.

The Johns Hopkins center's rich-media technology can record at different levels, allowing for playback on different types of modem speeds. Lectures can be viewed at 56K or 128K, Nason notes. This is an important point, given that some lectures will be played at medical facilities in the Congo or Ethiopia--places that may only have dial-up, he says.

Look for even newer versions of web conferencing software to better help navigate such global differences. Distance education and other global applications will continue to push the use of web conferencing. Analysts with IDC, a consulting firm that monitors IT and technology applications, note that the need for global communication will drive the web conferencing trend. The web conferencing industry, expected to grow from $600 million in 2003 to more than $1.1 billion in 2007, has no doubt come a long way from its not-so-distant early days.

WEB CONFERENCING HELPS RESTORE A CAMPUS

Administrators at the University of New Orleans, which is part of the Louisiana State University system, were scrambling like everyone else in the days that followed Hurricane Katrina this fall. Assessing damage and salvaging data were top priorities once students and staff were safely situated. (Some of UNO's 17,200 students were evacuated to 28 different states, and a number of in-state students had the option of attending LSU campuses near their home towns.)

While UNO was luckier than other IHEs in that its computer room didn't sustain water damage, there were myriad other problems. The university did suffer wind damage. Breathed levees and the resulting flooding made the university its own "island," recalls Jim Burgard, assistant vice chancellor for University Computing and Communications. Anyone going to or from campus had to move through four to five miles of abandoned, flooded areas that had no electrical power. "No stores were operating. Every once in a while you would see a FENA trailer," he adds.

It was while dealing with these conditions that staff worked to get the university back online. After some temporary electrical equipment was installed in the area, Database Systems Manager Gina Bergens used a series of web conferences with its technology vendor Oracle to secure the university's data. One immediate goal was making payroll for the pay period that followed the storm.

Bergens was initially relocated to a town in Alabama. From there she spoke with Oracle techies, who outlined what it would take to get the university running. Once there was some power at UNO, she temporarily relocated to Baton Rouge and spent at least one hour a day diving 10 miles on a heavily trafficked highway to get to campus. The challenge was to rebuild the payroll database, a necessity since UNO officials had stored the more recent payroll and student files in a security center in the downtown area right before the storm hit. Since Katrina was far more damaging than anyone could have imagined, campus administrators had to accept that these current files would be out of reach for a while. Indeed, it took Burgard two weeks just to reach the managers of the security center.

Meanwhile, Bergens worked to access and restore older files left on campus. The initial communications with Oracle representatives were via telephone conferencing and instant messaging. In the days that followed, Bergens used Oracle's web conferencing technology to show Oracle executives in four locations--Utah, Colorado, Florida, and Canada--the exact nature of her problems. They shared a desktop and could walk Bergens through the steps needed to work with the databases on campus.

"It was invaluable in helping me get my problems fixed. We would go to a browser, get online together, and they could see what I was doing."

Within a few weeks time she was able to rebuild the payroll database using some of the older files on campus and the stored data that was eventually retrieved from the downtown center.

After addressing the initial crises, UNO communicated with students and staff via its website. The home page allowed everyone to "check in," while also providing links for students who wanted to register for the fall semester. Faculty could monitor their course load and even check payroll stubs. An abbreviated fall semester relied on Blackboard's course management system to carry 800 online courses, a higher than usual number for UNO, to keep students on track.

WHAT'S COMING NEXT?

"CONVERGENCE" IS AN OFTEN-USED WORD WHEN TALKING ABOUT AV AND IT. For the past five years pundits have been claiming that audio-visual and information technology, including the world wide web, would soon be morphing together, yielding seamless and easier-to-use systems.

Still, David Coleman, managing director of the San Francisco-based consulting group Collaborative Strategies, says the idea of convergence bears repeating when talking about web conferencing.

The three content elements that make up web conferencing--audio, video, and data--are finally converging. Audio conferencing, he notes, has been around for 20 years, while video conferencing is younger--perhaps only 10 years old. But only now is data conferencing being successfully incorporated into web conferencing technology.

"Data is the newest, but fasting-growing application," he explains. The convergence of audio, video, and data now allows a professor to lecture while opening a frame on screen and "populating" a spreadsheet with students, adding information, and doing calculations.

Just as systems will deliver more varied content, they will also come down in price, adds Coleman. "There are a lot of different [technology] models in this space. But we are finding that because there is intense competition, the cost per unit is getting lower."

Also, large technology companies are expanding their offerings. For example, Coleman predicts that Microsoft will more tightly integrate web conferencing with future versions of Office. Other companies, such as IBM and Oracle, are expected to make instant messaging more easily accessible in all applications and to link IM to web conferencing technology. IM formats, to date, have suffered from incompatible formats, he adds. That problem is being resolved.

Eventually, web conferencing will be adapted to fit portable devices, predicts Coleman. Cell phones are becoming multimedia devices that offer better resolution. In time, more video capabilities will be added. PDAs, as well, will eventually be capable web conferencing tools. He explains, "Users want to collaborate at any time, using any device. We are seeing mobile devices being used as end points for collaboration."

Resources

Accordent Technologies, www.accordent.com

Collaborative Strategies, http://collaborate.com

Elluminate, www.elluminate.com

LifeSize, www.lifesize.com

Macromedia, www.macromedia.com

Oracle, www.oracle.com

SMART Technologies' Bridgit conferencing software, www.smart-tech.com

Sonic Foundry's Mediasite, www.mediasite.com

WebEx Communications, www.webex.com
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Author:Angelo, Jean Marie
Publication:University Business
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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