CORVALLIS - A class of graduate students at Oregon State University exploring the finer points of plant-microbe interactions might be considered pretty ordinary, except for the fact that much of the debate and more than half of the instructors are thousands of miles away.
This class, apparently the first of its type in the nation, makes it clear that even the most advanced universities have just scratched the surface of how valuable the Internet and its technological partners are going to be in higher education. Using the incredibly fast new Internet2 network, called Abilene, a whole new world of easy, cost-effective interactive video and other educational options are evolving.
The technology used to produce the class - and the students themselves - will also be part of the upcoming SC99 conference on Nov. 13-19 in Portland, Ore., which will attract about 6,000 of the world's leading computer networking experts to see demonstrations of technology exactly like this.
Along with colleagues at Kansas State University and the University of Nebraska, OSU educators are giving their students a depth of instruction and student interaction that has rarely been done before. "This class has been really great," said Jenny Lorang, an OSU graduate student. "We're getting the knowledge of three instructors in one class. The video equipment allows the lecture to flow real smoothly. You don't notice that you are learning from an instructor in Kansas or Nebraska."
Tom Wolpert, associate professor of botany and plant pathology at OSU and one of three instructors, says that by tapping into experts at other institutions the overall level of instruction is significantly improved.
"The real value of this technology from the standpoint of an instructor is that it allows us to focus on our expertise," Wolpert said. "People are able to speak to their strengths. It expands the opportunity to participate in a cutting edge discussion."
OSU has for years been a state and national leader in extended education, and was among the first to create actual "TV classrooms" with all the technology available for convenient use of interactive audio or video at sites hundreds or thousands of miles away. But in the past that usually was done with crude telephone lines or costly, cumbersome satellite transmissions.
Internet2 has changed all that, experts say.
"Once you're a member of Internet2, which is uncrowded and was created specifically for the research and instructional needs of higher education, the cost is about the same whether or not you use the technology," said Thomas E. Williams, a transmission systems engineer with OSU. "To do this particular class might cost $500 an hour per site if you used satellite time, and that cost would make what we're doing impractical. But with the Internet2 we can provide world-class education at an affordable price."
The technology being used, Williams said, is of such high speed that it produces a broadcast-quality video image. For instance, one of the fiber optic cables being used works at 2.5 gigabits per second and could transmit the entire contents of a library in one hour.
This high band-width connection is uncongested, better managed and far more sophisticated than the crowded, balky, and sometimes broken Internet connections many people use on their home computers, Williams said. But only 100 or so educational institutions around the nation are set up properly to use it, he said.
"Comparing this approach to conventional Internet technology is like comparing a Yugo to a Mack truck," Williams said.
Such technology is continuing to evolve, Williams said, and OSU's leadership in this area is already making interactive education far more convenient and available around Oregon. With OSU serving as the hub, educational forums can be set up for some K-12 schools, many community colleges and other state universities, local cable TV systems and the Oregon EDNET system, he said. OSU is also the hub for the Wireless Instruction Network, or WIN, which is working to provide new classroom educational opportunities in many Willamette Valley sites, including small communities.
OSU will be exploring ways to expand use of this technology to other classes and educational settings, Williams said.
Meanwhile, Jan Leach, a bacteriologist at Kansas State University, is offering OSU students insights from her own detailed expertise about the physical barriers of fruits that helps protect them from disease. As Wolpert says, it's her area of specialty.
"I'm not sure this approach helps cut down on our workload, because you have to maintain a web site and work with more students," he said. "But the quality of the class is so much better."
An OSU graduate student, Warren Coffeen, agreed.
"Being able to listen to the different perspectives from Kansas and Nebraska has been very helpful," Coffeen said. "Each instructor has their own expertise and you can draw on that knowledge because of this class. And it's real easy to communicate with each other, the quality of the video and audio is excellent."