<<August 11, 2000>>
Archived distributions can be retrieved by clicking on the top lines of our home page at <http://www.friends-partners.org/GLOSAS/>.
Roger Lee Boston <email@example.com>
Timo Portimojarvi <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Dear Electronic Colleagues:
(1) ATTACHMENT I is a copy of Roger Boston's excellent paper
Multimedia Instruction Across Distance at Low Bandwidths" which is an
excerpt from a book "Digital Media in Networks 1999: Prospective to
Digital World," Timo Valiharju (Ed.), Computer Center/Hypermedia
Laboratory, University of Tampere, Finland, 2000.
This is also available at the bottom of the left column of
event web site at <http://www.uta.fi/EGEDL/outline/>.
I highly commend you to read this paper.
(2) BTW, I will be attending the conferences of the International
Distance Education (ICDE) and the Brazilian Association of Distance
Education in Sao Paulo, Brazil from 8/13th and be back to NYC in the morning of 8/20th.
"Effective Multimedia Instruction
Across Distance at Low Bandwidths"
Roger L. Boston
Rockwell Chair/ Instructor
Houston Community College System
The rapid evolution of the "world's emerging network",
timed with advances in
video and speech compression and the arrival of powerful yet inexpensive CPU's
have converged to open the way for instructional delivery across distance to
become reality with considerable effectiveness at low costs and within small
bandwidths. This paper will showcase the approach taken by the Rockwell Chair
at the Houston Community College System to serve multiple courses online in a
mix combining both on-demand and synchronous delivery. Included in this paper
will be some commentary on how the internet is used in the US, on the
limitations which have been experienced when attempting to use this medium for
instruction, and on where our current momentum may be taking us in education.
This paper will discuss the activities in Houston, Texas associated
Rockwell Chair initiative to accomplish low cost delivery of instruction to
widely disbursed populations of students via electronic means. The heavy
financial constraints under which the Houston system operates has led to
considerable creativity in approach, and these techniques will be discussed in
enough detail that the reader can begin to emulate with short lead times to
success. It is hoped that readers will be interested enough to communicate
with the author, and that some will want to collaborate in designing similar
approaches at their own institutions.
Toward the end of this paper some exciting developments in
terms of declining
costs and increased bandwidths will be mentioned, and it will be shown how the
current positioning of the Houston Community College's course delivery
platform can step quickly into that exciting opportunity.
The Development of Distance Education at the Houston Community
Our current course portfolio is a mix of print-based, correspondence
style offerings, videocassette based content) which is broadcast over local
television outlets or physically checked out to the students), and computer-
mediated instruction. Instruction delivered via computer is offered via
dialup BBS systems parked on the internet as ftp sites, via distribution on
our WAN, and via web based instruction with content hosting done on
distributed web servers throughout our multi-campus system.
Our first online offering was taught by the author in the late
(Boston, 1988) and hosted on one personal computer we maintained in our Data
Processing Division offices. I worked from my home or my office using a small
laptop for connections, and in fact called in from all over the country as I
traveled about doing conference presentations and training sessions to show
others how to do this.
The online outreach was made more formal with the placement
system in the facilities of the newly created Distance Education office, and
the designation of an individual to be officially responsible for the
maintenance of this system from a technical point of view. That person
carried this as one of many duties in the Distance Education office, and over
time this technical support has expanded to consume portions of several
different people - drawing on their skills in instructional design, internet
acumen, and technical support.
We migrated through several iterations of delivery platform,
not yet a
part of the internet, but advancing to multi line, multi-computer bulletin
board systems and a corresponding growth in the registrations and the student
services' support which that growth implied.
At a still later date, we took advantage of the relatively
of our IBM mainframe and made the jump to that system primarily to take
advantage of the 16 attached phone lines. While
a measure of user friendliness was lost in transitioning to the mainframe, the
additional phone lines did help, and a tangible sense of a true cyber-community
took shape along with our physical presence in the Houston area.
By the early 1990's graphical interfaces were becoming familiar
students, and we moved up to GUI interfaces for the users, multimedia in our
downloadable content, and cross connected our multi-user BBS to the Internet
as an FTP site and Web server.
Since then things have moved very quickly. We have explored
delivery platforms including the Top Class System, WBT Systems, Black Board,
Nice Net, and the all-HTML solution I developed and will be discussing
shortly. The References section at the end of this article will point the
reader toward current versions of these platforms, and it will be well worth
your time to investigate each platform.
We are approaching a thousand students online with another
hundred in the other modes of distance instruction in a single semester and
manage to give a high quality experience to these students despite our quite
small budget and our very few full time employees. Many of our (40) campus
locations do not have even three thousand students in a single semester and
that fact has attracted serious attention from our administrators in terms of
visioning how this institution wants to position as we enter the new millenium.
Constraints Imposed by the Internet of the late 1990's:
The internet as it presently exists poses a number of challenges
students, and for us, as content providers.
The most obvious limitation is the lack of large bandwidths
video and voice at high levels of quality, and to support the exchange of
large files. This places serious constraints on the kind and quality of
"captured" screen presentations we can offer. An example of a captured screen
presentation might be the full screen recording of a five minute
videoconferencing or whiteboard session, saving the sound and motion along
with all movements of the mouse as a presentation for download and play back
at the distant location. It also limits generally the quality and length of
our multimedia content for online course offerings to off campus students not
connected to the enterprise WAN.
The presence of uneven bandwidths available to us is an even
problem. Students may be enticed to join a live audio/ video broadcast in
progress, for example, yet find after a period of time that the bandwidth has
fluctuated to such a low speed that the broadcast can no longer be supported.
Some of this fluctuation comes from the variable demand placed
Internet service providers in our area. Students log on and off the dialup
serves along with the thousands of others who are enjoying the world's
electronic network. It may be that the bottlenecks are not even local to the
Houston area, and derive from traffic bottlenecks and routing problems at some
far away point of presence, which feeds the local and regional Internet
service providers. We have had particular problems with routers in Chicago,
Illinois a thousand miles to our North slowing our services and in some
cases halting them altogether.
Over-subscription and the arrival of the 56K v.90 modem are
additional contributing factors to this congestion. An Internet provider
obtains bandwidth from a regional provider and resells this to the local
customers on the assumed basis of a certain speed modem, and of a certain
ratio for single user bandwidth to total available bandwidth. As the ISP's
have grown successful with their marketing, too many subscribers are now
competing for the original bandwidth, and their (the end users) individual
share of the total has declined. Compounding this problem is the mass
replacement of the users' 28,800 baud modems with newer 56K speed devices,
adding even greater demand on the local service providers since each user now
consumes a larger slice of the fixed bandwidth available to the ISP from their
It should be noted that the regional providers are beginning
less expense in the costs of acquiring T1 to T3 bandwidths, and the picture
will soon improve. This matter will be discussed later in the article and has
something to do with the rapid deployment of underground fiber cable, which
can greatly boost the backbone speeds from one end of our city to the other.
The bottlenecks still exist beyond the metropolitan area exchanges to the long
haul cross-country backbones, and will likely continue until the widespread
adoption of Internet II or Next Generation Internet.
Many of our students come to us with connections to the Internet
through the online services such as America Online, Prodigy, and Compuserv.
In many cases their proprietary browsers are inadequate for the experiences we
want them (our students) to have, and extra layers of complexity and
frustration are brought on by these and other details which must be addressed
in the early days of every semester.
Evolution of a Web Based Delivery Platform:
Despite these challenges, the Houston Community College system
strongly drawn to offering our courses through this new medium, and we've
taken these issues into account as our courses have been designed. Few of our
instructors provide content that taxes the bandwidths of average modems, yet
most of our online courses are attractive, and hold the student's interest
while fulfilling the syllabus as intended.
We have also stayed mindful of the reality that not every student
fast central processor, a large hard drive, and the sound cards and video
processing capabilities to do the things that the Rockwell Chair initiative
has been focused on most recently. The typical internet offering at this
institution is conservative, and intentionally designed to keep within these
Students' "Weekly Rhythm":
Students follow a weekly rhythm, wherein they connect during
part of a week to take down the weekly learning materials to their homes or
offices, and then disconnect. These materials include "lecture notes" in
written form, suggestions for outside homework and self-study, and an activity
for the week which can vary widely across courses. These activities range
from creating and compiling computer programs, to using an electronic tutorial
for economic equilibrium studies, to writing an English composition, to
running interactive simulations of a local area network. Throughout the week,
interaction between students and their instructors, and from student to
student is common as they work their way through the assignments. Students
get to know one another quickly despite having met only once - at the
orientation, and often exchange more dialogue with each other then with their
instructors. The weekly cycle is closed once homework assignments are
completed and returned via the modem to the instructors for assessment. Each
succeeding week is the same.
At one time students met on campus at approximately monthly
be present with the instructor to review before major exams. These exams are
administered by the Distance Education office, and require that an ID be
presented before admission. For my own classes it is no longer necessary to
meet in person at all, even for the orientation sessions which can now be
handled online. Students instead congregate in the multi-user virtual meeting
spaces and enjoy the same kinds of verbal exchange that once could be had only on campus.
The discussion that follows is closely tied to the delivery
use for my own classes, and which I have shared with other institutions. It
is implemented completely in HTML and thus has no up front cost to the new
user, no ongoing expense save small labors to keep the HTML current as the
pages are changed, and lends itself extremely well to providing a richly
interactive and multimedia distance learning experience.
My work has pushed the envelope of the nominal 28.8 bandwidth
to most of our online students, and my web-site, http://www.rboston.com/ is
the showcase of that work in progress.
In the content for my courses, I have used several different
capture audio. I once saved these as large .WAV files, and later compressed
them to such tiny sizes that a full 90 minutes of understandable audio could
be contained in a file no larger than a single 1.4 megabyte floppy disk. This
opened the door to pre-recording full length lectures, and the additional
property of these files (compressed with a product called "Voxware", was that
these sounds could be made to stream from a web server with nearly
instantaneous response. We improved on the Voxware and have now standardized
on the "real media" (.rm) format of the Realaudio/ Realvideo software from
Progressive Networks, with all production tools being available at reasonable
costs from http://www.realaudio.com/.
For a while we captured detailed images of the action on computer
screens, showing every motion of the mouse, and the resulting screen display
including the sound, using a product called the Lotus ScreenCam recorder,
available for free trial from the Lotus corp. at http://www.lotus.com/.
This resulted in quite large files so the presentations were kept to just
a few minutes but they have been powerfully effective. Lotus has now improved
on this product to allow it to "stream" the presentations so we expect to see
more use of these close-up presentations. This companion product is called
the Lotus "Streamcam" Recorder for the obvious reason the captured screen
movies "stream" with no download delays.
Using the "Real Encoder" product from Progressive
Networks we were able
to add "talking head" videos that streamed with no download delays. These
gave a powerful sense of the teacher's "presence" and added to the sense of
community and richness we are trying to achieve.
A recent development has been to add talking Power Point presentations
the content mix, using a development tool knows as the "Real Presenter", which
captures the recorded audio from a standard Power Point presentation and
creates of it a streaming media presentation for instant play from the web server.
We are currently experimenting with more "immersive"
content, such as
360-degree panoramic images of learning spaces on campus - "real spaces" with
embedded hotspots to call up actions when the students click them. One
example is our effort to give a sense that the distant student is there in the
room with us: as they pan around the graphic and click near the front of the
room to bring up live instructional video from the front of the very room they
Interactivity and Promoting Collaborations:
All the above activities have been designed in to the platform
dimension to the learning experience and appeal to the multiple learning
styles of text, graphics, sound and motion video.
We in addition have moved past straight person-to-person email
to include large group discussions via Listservs and the even more powerful
web-based threaded discussion forums. Taken together these three go far
toward solidifying the community feel we are encouraging of our web courses,
in effect creating more a "place" than a "web page".
The "Synchronous" Dimension:
Having added the appeals of multiple media, and the close engagement
text based asynchronous exchange, this platform includes a number of special
features intended to add the synchronous dimension.
Keyboard chat has become commonplace among Internet users,
and many of
our students were already veterans of the online services such as America
Online and Prodigy, so this was a non threatening experience for them. These
text exchanges are a powerful collaborative tool and we are encouraging our
students to meet there frequently to socialize and to help each other with the material.
We also broadcast live audio streams usually for the purposes
extending review information in events hosted on campus to the audiences at
home, saving them the trip across town. Sometimes entire classes on campus
are carried as live real audio web-cast and sometimes these events are
accompanied by prepared power point slides or content-supporting web pages for
the listeners to use in following along. We have even added regularly
updating images captured on campus to the "listening pages" to give the
additional feel of "being there".
In the past three years we have added motion video to these
because the technologies of audio and video compression have combined with the
increasing power of personal computers to make possible useful two way audio
and video at modem bandwidths. We have used software from the Summersoft
corporation (now defunct) which allowed moderated wide area video broadcasts
in which any party could originate the video broadcast. Partly because
Summersoft, Inc. is no longer in business and in part because the newer
products are better, we are now standardized on the Real Server for
broadcasting video. By limiting our students to a single plug-in (the "Real
Player G2") we have greatly simplified our platform and make it equally easy
for the students to participate.
We have used the telephone in class as a return channel, and
incoming email and live keyboard chat as back channels. One fascinating new
development for us is the use of the "8X8" Videoconferencing unit as a back
channel. This fascinating device can give frame rates as high as 20 per
second in the smaller image sizes and reasonable frame rates even at full
screen display. We have constructed a video "bridge", which allows four
outside participants to conference with us via their analog phone line and
using the H.324 standard. Under voice control their images separately appear
on the large video display in our classroom as they speak with us.
In the Fall of 1998 we added yet another resource the "Atrium
from the Vocaltec Corporation, http://www.vocaltec.com, and their flagship
product, the Vocaltec Conferencing Server. In our configuration this software
makes possible a virtual meeting "room" for 20 concurrent participants who
enjoy live multi-user audio conversation, speaking very much as if all were in
the same room.
Combined with shared whiteboards using the Net Meeting product,
at no cost from http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting, students have the ability
to exchange keyboard chat, share a marking board, and view power point slides
controlled by a distant instructor, while engaging the entire group in live
multi-party audio. In this remarkable configuration complicated applications
such as Excel Spreadsheets and machine parts drawing programs (Autocad Release
14) can be controlled by the instructor, and seen simultaneously by every
participating student, and anyone can ask a question of any other party in the
group collaborative session so long as they are connected in the audio
This is a powerful teaching and learning environment, and yet
every day in Houston at modem speed bandwidths, and at costs our students can afford.
Developments in the United States Influencing our Directions with Distance Ed:
ISDN has been around in this city for more than 20 years, but
begin to attract attention until the last three years. Some of our students
have paid the premium to have 128K bi-directional speeds in their homes, but
most have preferred to wait for the higher bandwidth offerings and they are
being rewarded this Spring as those speculations have become reality in this city.
The cable modem is here in some few parts of the city, bringing
speeds in excess of 600K for downloading well beyond the design points of
our delivery platform. Upload speeds are limited to about 60K, but students
are not the ones doing the uploading. In the Dallas, Texas area three hundred
miles to the north, the cable modems are running ten times as fast as they are
in Houston, so we watch that market closely to see where we will be in a year or two.
The newer Digital Subscriber Lines (ADSL, HDSL) service arrived
the first quarter of 1999 and bring the promise of comparable download speeds
but higher uploading speeds. Again, in other parts of the country the DSL
services are an order of magnitude faster than they are presently in this city.
We also have a growing wireless presence here, amounting to
attached to incoming television signals, which provide yet one more
alternative incoming path for high speed network access. This is a highly
asymmetrical service, but again does not affect instruction since most of the
demand by our students is on the downloading side of the service.
Last, very fast versions of Internet like networking are on
Indeed, billion-bit per second "internet" traffic flows in fiber cables 100
feet from our information services offices, and flows from the gigabit point
of presence at Texas A&M University. We believe that the needs of certain
programs in our new Health Sciences building, scheduled to open in the Fall of
this year will necessitate our partnering with Texas A&M to take advantage of
the gigabit connection speeds to support the kinds of medical imaging
collaborations our health science faculty are now discussing.
We in the Houston system are poised to take the next steps
both the quality or our services offered at a distance and the volume in terms
of numbers served.
Having been forced to operate within the narrow confines of
available to an analog telephone line, we have learned to design content for
these narrow resources, and build in to the design of the delivery platform
those experiences which turn "web page" into "meeting place".
We believe that the convergence of several important factors:
- a growing internet awareness by the student population,
- a growing computer literacy among those persons likely to take our courses,
- the rapidly declining prices of small computers with considerable performance capability,
- the arrival of a number of new approaches to insure wider bi-directional bandwidths to the end user
- faster versions of "internet" packet traffic
will allow us to bring new levels of quality and interactivity
direct to the
homes and workplaces of our students. Soon it will be possible to provide
full screen and full motion live video to each household participating in a
wide area video broadcast, and simultaneously there will be a high bandwidth
"talk back" channel at a level of quality we can't presently support.
With the services we expect to be broadly available in less
than half a
decade in our service area we expect to support growth at an exponential scale
because the physical barriers to quality synchronous encounters will be truly
at a minimum. And what excites the author is that the procedures are already
in place. We are today doing the things we want to do tomorrow, but must live
within the very narrow constraints of the bandwidth of a standard analog telephone line.
In the very near future that constraint will be relaxed and
we will have
little trouble filling these "larger pipes" with similar, but far richer
content. And we will not need to reinvent our platform. We'll need only
adapt it to the faster data rates.
Our concerns beyond this point are actually tilted more toward
student services side for insuring adequate support in terms of advertising
and marketing, registration and orientations, testing, financial aid, grade
recording and reporting, and the other success supports which must be in place
and scaled to the increased numbers of students our delivery platforms may attract.
Dealing with these matters will soon become the highest priority
move past our technical limitations and return to the human resources that in
the end will be the ultimate determinants of our success.
Boston, R. 1988, Remote Delivery of Instruction via Personal
Modems, In "The Administrator".
Ehrmann, S. 1990, Reaching Students, Reaching Resources: Using
Open the College. In Academic Computing.
Fitzgerald, J. and Dennis, A. 1999, Business Data Communications
Ford, R. 1992, Narration and Networks: Post Modernism in English
PhD diss., Rice University, Houston, Texas.
Johnson, E. and Ramos S., 1992 Network aided by Single Vendor
In IBM Higher Education.
Strain, J. 1987, The Role of the Faculty Member in Distance
American Journal of Distance Education, 61-64.
Summers, R. 1998, The Official Net Meeting Book, Microsoft
Web Course Delivery Platform Alternatives:
WBT Systems (TopClass):
Content Production Tools:
Streaming Multimedia via Real Media (.rm) Production Tools:
Streamcam and "Streamcam" Production Tools:
Multi-user Audio Conferencing:
Multi-user Whiteboard and Point to Point Audio/ Video:
H.324 Conferencing at Analog (modem) speeds
"Immersive" Imaging tools:
"Live Picture" Active Panoramas:
Showcase Web-site illustrating each of the above at work:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roger Boston is currently the Rockwell Endowed Chair Professor
at the Houston
Community College system, the fifth largest community college system in the
United States. Through the resources and incentives of his chair he has
pioneered in developing methods for delivering instruction across distance at
low costs using telecommunications. Using the methods outlined in this paper
he has moved his courses beyond streaming multimedia and asynchronous delivery
to embrace successful synchronous broadcast video and shared whiteboards at
modem speeds for widely dispersed audiences.
He has taught courses online for more than a decade and traveled
thousands of miles throughout the US and internationally, working to help
other organizations get started in distance education. He has worked with
numerous state and national agencies as policy maker, as teacher and as
consultant. He is frequently on camera as a satellite teleconference panelist
for PBS and STARLINK, and has served numerous times as the host and moderator
of internet web-casts carried by Broadcast.com and originated on his own.
One of the contributions of his chair has been to facilitate
technical support to multinational events dedicated to the spread of distance
education. He has been a principal in many of the "voyages" of the Global
LEARN Day movement and in numerous Global Lecture Hall events sponsored by
CAADE, the Consortium for the advancement of Affordable Distance Education.
He also supports the TIES organization, which is dedicated to promotion of
transatlantic educational and cultural exchange. He continues to be a
generous workshop presenter and keynote speaker for groups interested in
distance education and the technologies of low cost electronic delivery of instruction.
In April of 1998 he was in Tampere to work with principals
at the University
of Tampere to help organize a workshop designed to transfer the knowledge of
low cost conferencing and collaborative tools coupled with web delivery
platforms for rapid implementation by first time providers of distance
instruction. This workshop comprised the first day of the EGEDE
Conference August 9-12, 1999 at the University of Tampere, Finland.
List of Distribution
Roger Lee Boston
Distance Education/Technology Center
Houston Community College System
4310 Dunlavy Street
Houston, Texas 77006
Tel: +1-713-718 5224
Fax: +1-713-718 5301
(Media Culture, Media Education)
Department of Teacher Education
University of Tampere
fax. +358-3-6145 237
* Takeshi Utsumi, Ph.D., P.E., Chairman, GLOSAS/USA *
* (GLObal Systems Analysis and Simulation Association in the U.S.A.) *
* Laureate of Lord Perry Award for Excellence in Distance Education *
* Founder of CAADE *
* (Consortium for Affordable and Accessible Distance Education) *
* President Emeritus and V.P. for Technology and Coordination of *
* Global University System (GUS) *
* 43-23 Colden Street, Flushing, NY 11355-3998, U.S.A. *
* Tel: 718-939-0928; Fax: 718-939-0656 (day time only--prefer email) *
* Email: email@example.com; Tax Exempt ID: 11-2999676 *
* http://www.friends-partners.org/GLOSAS/ *
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