Video Technology to Bring Graduate Ceremony to
Students' Friends and Families Around the World
Siddhesh Patil could barely contain his excitement. A pharmaceutical sciences major who will receive his master's degree May 21, he was saddened when he learned that his parents, Shilpa and Dinanath Patil, won't be able to make the trip to Storrs from their home in Bombay, India. Now, however, his parents will be able to participate in the big day after all.
Keith Barker, Richard Gorham and staffers in the University Center for Instructional Media and Technology (UCIMT), the computer center, and elsewhere on campus have saved the day for Patil and several hundred other graduate students, putting together a contract with RealPlayer, a portal company, and combining their information technology skills to put together the hardware and software that will allow the graduate ceremonies to be sent across the globe, in real time, in streaming video.
Patil's parents - and friends from the University of Pune, India - will, indeed, see him accept his diploma.
"I am simply ecstatic," Patil said last week. "I really wanted them to be here, to share my happiness, but they could not do it. Now, they will."
The signal goes to the Seattle, Wash., laboratories of RealPlayer, where it is encoded, digitally processed, compressed and buffered, then sent out, like any web page, to people who access the site (http://gradvideo.uconn.edu).
"It's a relatively simple process," says Gorham, director of UCIMT. "It takes an analog television signal, combines it with audio, then a computer converts the analog signal to digital, and we send it out on digital lines."
The product's test video featured footage of Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning and co-chair of the Commencement Committee; Susan Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction; and Paul Kobulnicky, vice chancellor for information services, discussing the state of the University's information technology structure and usage.
Although UConn's ability to beam the ceremonies across the globe will undoubtedly thrill hundreds of students and their families, Barker and Gorham say the streaming video sent out May 21 is merely a test, albeit a happy one. Instead, the two are helping the University gear up for the future, using the ceremony to "prove the concept" before putting streaming video to use for teaching and learning.
"This is a resource we will have to provide in the future," Barker says. "You'll see it in use not only at universities, but the commercial applications will increase rapidly as well."
Barker sees great potential in the technology to help students who face physical or mental challenges, saying the medium can provide alternative ways of learning. It can also be used for tutorials or to enhance learning in courses with large lecture classes.
The streaming video can be archived and played back at a speed suitable for each student. Once archived, sections of a professor's lecture or a laboratory experiment can be paused, rewound to go over the steps in an experiment multiple times, or fast forwarded to cut to the meat of a lecture or to a spot where a student's notes are unclear. Yet it takes up no space on a user's computer; it simply streams in and is displayed.
"What it won't be used for is just to let students sleep late," Barker says. "It will not replace conventional classroom interactions."
The learning processes, however, can be discussed at length later, say Barker and Gorham. For now, the test is the commencement exercise. And they are confident it will work. During a previous test, several hundred people from UConn - and friends and relatives from across the country as well as in Australia, Peru, and England - signed on, and all said the experience went well.
To view the video, a 56k modem or faster works best, although the program will run on a 28k modem. But even at the higher levels, there are limitations, Barker says, presenting challenges to the team preparing the graduate ceremony. Most challenging is to keep the streaming video from looking like a Charlie Chaplin movie, with choppy movements and blurred voices.
To compensate, UCIMT staff at the ceremony will use three cameras - one focused on the speaker, and the others set up to provide tightly focused, head-and-shoulders video of the about 700 students receiving master's and doctoral degrees. By keeping background movement to a minimum, he and Gorham say, the picture quality should be excellent, giving proud parents around the world a good look at their newly graduated offspring.
The agreement with RealPlayer for two hours of streaming video will cost $2,500. For the future, Gorham has already purchased software, a server and the components needed to produce UConn's own streaming video. Future programming will be done in-house.
Barker notes that the project has been a collaborative effort by staff from the computer center, UCIMT, UConnect, and others. "It will be very exciting to see the final product," he says.
Exciting not just in UConn's computer labs, but in homes across the globe.
"All my friends are excited, and my family," says Patil, the master's degree candidate. "They've already found the site, and it worked well.