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Compressed video transports students 825 miles to class
Three Boeing engineers in Seattle have become the first students to routinely participate in Stanford class discussions using two- way compressed video technology.
The technology allows students and teachers at distant locations to see and talk to each other live, unlike other types of televised education, which is typically one-way video with two-way audio, or delayed use of videotape.
Stanford is among a handful of U.S. universities that are experimenting with this method of bringing the campus to the worksite and the worksite to the campus. Compressed video, which uses telephone lines for transmission of video and audio, has been used mostly by large corporations to hold video conferences among employees at different locations.
On a recent Thursday, the Boeing students presented their class project - a redesigned airplane heater valve - in mechanical engineering Prof. Philip Barkan's advanced engineering course on "Design for Manufacturability."
Lynne Thompson, one of the Boeing students, zoomed a camera in on the aircraft part sitting on a table in a Seattle videoconference room. She pointed out technical details to the Stanford-based students and professor, who watched on 12 ceiling-mounted video monitors in the theater-style classroom.
She then zoomed in on a paper chart that compared the component costs of the old heater valve and the new one. She and Boeing students Jay Carskaden and Kenneth Kirwan had redesigned the part, using techniques learned in the class, to reduce its components from 38 to 5.
The campus students, mostly young adults without as much on- the-job experience as the Boeing students, have the opportunity to see how the coursework is used in a real-world situation, Barkan said. If they wish, they also can ask their Boeing classmates questions.
Barkan's class is part of a pilot project by Boeing, Stanford Instructional Television Network (SITN) and Compression Labs Inc. of San Jose. Compression Labs has loaned SITN the compression video equipment for the year-long experiment. Other professors who have taught during the experiment are Ilan Kroo of the aeronautics/astronautics department and Brian Cantwell of mechanical engineering and aero/astro.
"It allows us to determine whether this will be a cost- effective means of offering advanced engineering courses outside of the San Francisco Bay Area," said Andy DiPaolo, assistant dean of the School of Engineering and director of SITN. Other high-technology firms with videoconference facilities have expressed interest, he said.
From Boeing's perspective, said Betty White, staff manager of Boeing Corporate Engineering and Technology, "the objective of this pilot project is to expand educational opportunities for engineers, to encourage engineers to obtain an advanced degree, and to make locations and times of instruction convenient and flexible."
Televising advanced engineering courses for students at their job sites is not new to SITN. In fact, there are almost 100 students enrolled in Barkan's course this quarter, and 71 of them do not set foot on the Stanford campus.
Many are engineers in Bay Area companies who receive the course live via microwave. SITN has provided such courses to 200 companies over 20 years, DiPaolo said. The Bay Area students receive an audio-video transmission, and can telephone to ask questions during the class. Only the Boeing students can present visual material.
Other engineers take Barkan's course by receiving SITN videotapes and paper handouts through the mail, with assistance from a teaching assistant hired by General Motors. Barkan has 45 students at two General Motors sites who take the class this way.
The three Boeing students previously took videotaped courses from Stanford and say they prefer the live version.
"It seems like you are more a part of the class," Carskaden said. "When we took it on tape, we were always a week behind."
Compressed video is not totally like being there or even the same as normal television, the students and Barkan say. Using equipment known as a codec, compressed video involves compressing the wide analog video signal and converting it into a narrow digital signal that can be sent over telephone lines. It is then reconverted to an analog video signal on the other end.
A new camera angle doesn't come into focus as quickly as on normal television, the students say. "If the professor moves too fast, it looks a little like MTV's stop-action," Carskaden said. "When he puts a paper on the overhead for us to see, the image doesn't lock into focus for a second or so, so he has to learn not to move it too fast."
There is also a slight delay in receiving the Stanford broadcast in Seattle, the students say. They realized this when they saw their images coming back to Seattle from Stanford.
While no one is likely to teach a dance class this way, the technology is cost effective for advanced engineering education, Boeing's White said. It costs the Boeing Company approximately $30 an hour to send and receive the Stanford course over telephone lines, compared to about $500 an hour for use of a satellite.
On Stanford's end, Barkan said he is satisfied with the picture quality and believes the worksite student participation makes the course more valuable to the on-campus students. "We push all the students to apply what they learn, but those who are on the job have their own problems to bring to the class."
Barkan's view is echoed by Thompson, who said she was at first reluctant to go back to school for a master's degree. The coursework she most wanted, she said, was not available locally, and she did not want to quit her job to get it.
"This is an opportunity to obtain advanced tools not available in the workplace yet, and I did not have to quit my job to take advantage of it," she said. "It has broadened my perspective and hopefully I can teach other people in my group."
There even are a few advantages to attending a class via television, the Boeing students said. They can turn off their microphones, for instance, and talk among themselves without interrupting the professor.
"We've even stopped at Taco Bell and brought our lunch to class," Thompson said, with a chuckle. "That was before we realized the professor could see us all the time on the monitor in his classroom."
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