Internet delivers tutorials any time, any place, anywhere
10 July 2006
Over the past academic year, UCL Engineering masters students in London, Suffolk, Pune and Mumbai have been coming together across thousands of miles for tutorials delivered live over the internet.
"It's a bit like being in a church," laughs Professor Darrell Ince when a slightly echoey voice answers a question during his revision session on security risk assessment. The screen at the front of the room reveals that the suggestion has come from a student in Mumbai. He goes on to illustrate his point, visible to students in Gower Street, Adastral Park and India via split-screen projectors. While responding, Professor Ince paces up and down, unconstrained by his tie-clip microphone, his movements and expression captured by cameras on either side of the room. In Mumbai a late student sneaks in.
"The strength of teaching at UCL is the discussion and exchange of ideas, and this is absolutely crucial at masters level," says Professor Chris Todd of UCL Electronic and Electrical Engineering, and the man behind the global classroom in front of us. "We don't just send the 100 students in India information; we bring them into the tutorial room to share in the discussions."
The 510 students on the telecommunications engineering course, designed for BT staff by a consortium of London colleges led by UCL, are full-time employees who could not take time off, or afford to attend a residential course in London. An ISDN line linked up the remote sites until 18 months ago, but the unreliable connection led Professor Todd to seek an alternative method.
The internet system - which is free as well as more stable - was developed by researcher Jason Spencer with help from Dr Tom Crummey, the department's Computer System Manager. To make it work, BT in India has to open a window in their firewall, with Spencer adjusting sound and vision centrally, his mobile and email to hand to help students on other sites tackle glitches.
"With videoconferencing, many confusions get sorted out immediately, and it gives the feeling of belonging," says student Seshadri Nagasundaram from India. "It also gives us the opportunity to connect with some of the renowned thinkers of the telecom industry," adds fellow student AC Jacob. According to Armando Tellez-Velasco, studying from London, "Most of us are used to audio-conferencing so we don't find it awkward." Tutors are also enthusiastic about the concept. Despite working for the Open University, the home of distance learning, it is the first time Darrell Ince has used this technology, which he finds "fascinating".
As for the future, it is hoped that BT will provide dedicated bandwidth to improve the images relayed, while Spencer is working on the quality of the slides and whiteboard. The students outside London dream of individual desktop access and being able to draw diagrams or write onscreen. More broadly, the technology could easily be adopted by other disciplines to enhance teaching and expand reach. "Distance learning need no longer be an isolated activity," enthuses Professor Todd, "and in the autumn, students in Kuala Lumpur will join the feast."
To find out more, contact Professor Todd on +44 (0)20 7679 3978, or use the links at the bottom of this article.