Internet used to broadcast classes for master’s students

Juliette Crane

For the first time this fall the Institute of Technology will offer live, real-time Webcast classes to graduate students.
Twenty-five computer science and electrical engineering master’s degree classes will be broadcast live over the Internet by the University Industry Television for Education program — also known as UNITE.
Each classroom will be wired with microphones and video cameras so distance learners can hear and view lectures as they are taking place.
Students simply log on to the UNITE Web site using their user name and password — just like when checking e-mail.
A small video image of the lecture appears on screen along with information about the class and an enlarged version of the professor’s lecture notes.
“The video is too small for distance learners to view the blackboard,” said Douglas Ernie, director of UNITE. The lecture notes help students keep up with the rest of the class, viewing necessary graphs and equations online while still listening to the entire lecture, he said.
UNITE began the distance learning program in 1971, offering classes via the television broadcast system. About 50 of the graduate courses are still transmitted live over the system, however, because it only covers a limited-range it cannot be used by students out of the University area.
With the live Webcasts, however, UNITE can transmit online lectures across the country.
The program is targeted at working professionals in the high-tech industry, such as 3M or IBM’s facility in Rochester, Minn., Ernie said.
Graduate students who might not have the time or opportunity to attend regular classes now have the option of viewing lectures online as they happen or one day after the class via video-on-demand.
A student can be living in Alaska or California and still take part in the lecture, Ernie said. “If students working at a company have a meeting to go to or will be out of town, they can either view the lecture from their laptop in a hotel room as it happens or via video-on-demand the next day.”
The new, live Webcast also allows distance learners to take part in class lectures.
Each classroom has its own phone. Distance learners can call professors during the lecture to ask questions and interact with other students. Every desk is also equipped with a microphone for in-class students to use so distance learners hear everything taking place in class.
The program is not only beneficial to distance learners, but to in-class students as well. Students attending classes also use the video-on-demand feature to review lectures when studying for exams, Ernie said.
There are drawbacks to viewing lectures online, however. The video image is often jerky and hard to follow depending on the speed of the viewer’s Internet connection.
The average movie runs at roughly 30 frames per second, yet even a high-speed connection allows for only 15 frames per second while slower connections might only get one frame per second, Ernie said.
Yet while the video may not always be reliable, students can count on the sound coming in clear and have the lecture notes to help them keep up with class.
The online Webcast is only available to students enrolled in the class, but students interested in the program can also log on to the UNITE Web site at www.unite.umn.edu to find out what classes the University is offering on-line and to view examples of past lectures.

Juliette Crane welcomes comments at [email protected]