We see lots of innovative uses of technology but one big area is in Distance Learning applications. Thorburn Associates recently completed a project for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Pharmacy that pushes the envelope for instructor-student interactions in distance learning environments. Traditionally distance learning rooms have required dedicated staff to operate the cameras, CODECs, audio, etc that allow the local and remote site to connect and operate as a single large classroom. With today’s audiovisual control systems and programmable audio DSPs (Digital Signal Processors) it is a lot easier to automate these functions and eliminate the need for dedicated staff.
Control systems allow the instructor to connect the two sites by bringing up a speed dial address book and selecting the remote sites name from the list. Once the speed dialed audio and video connection is established, the instructor who moves around the front of the room is followed automatically by a tracking camera. This system uses a small harness worn around the instructor’s neck with a belt-pack receiver. The “tracking collar” also doubles as the wireless microphone. It has sensors on the front and back so that no matter which direction the instructor turns while in the front of the room, the camera follows them.
To improve student interactions, wired table microphones are mounted between every two students on the tiered student desks. The microphones are normally muted but when its “push to talk” button is pressed, the microphone audio is fed to the both the local audio system in the room for everyone to here and to the far end through the CODEC. At the same time the control system determines which microphone was activated and commands one of the two pan/tilt/zoom student cameras to zoom in on that microphone location. The control system then puts that image on the screen locally and sends it to the far end. Immediately the students are recognized for their question and both the local and far end feel more a part of the same classroom even though the other side may be hundreds of miles away.
This use of technology has slightly higher upfront costs in equipment and control system programming but the long-term costs in reduced staff and reliable operation are significant. The most interesting aspect of these systems is how students tend to interact with each other once they are on camera. Initial designs had the far end classroom always visible on one of the two front screens as long as the sites were connected. But students complained that they were being watched too closely by everyone in class, particularly for far end sites that held only 15-20 students. For these rooms, even on a wide camera shot it was easy to see what everyone was doing. Eventually students began to shy away from the cameras and try to sit in locations as far from their view as possible. However, simple control system program changes allow the system to be reconfigured so that students are only shown on screen when they have a question and press the push to talk microphone. To keep the instructor feeling connected to the remote site the far end view of the room is still shown on the projection screen seen by the instructor which is located at the rear of the room. The advantage of these designs is once the systems are in place it becomes simply a control system programming issue to change the way they work, not a hardware or installation issue that drives up cost and reduces room availability while upgrades are in progress.
This is just one of the many ways we see new and exciting uses with smart control systems allowing greater collaboration with less staff and lower long term costs of ownership. Stay tuned there is always more to come.