Distance learning moves to the head of the class
The Internet is not only changing how we communicate with friends or how we buy the latest gadget for the kitchen, it's rocking the very foundation of the nation's educational system, according to Bob Harris, director of affiliate network services at Road Runner. And, he believes cable's broadband pipe and new distance learning technology has a pivotal role to play in this educational revolution.
Harris has both a professional and personal interest in distance learning. Not only has he been tracking the distance learning market professionally for the past four or five years, he's also been using it to earn an MBA. While the market itself may not be huge when compared to the massive consumer market for such things as cable modems, distance learning offers operators a market that can have all sorts of paybacks for years to come. "In the U.S. alone," says Harris, "there are more than 140,000 schools in the K-12 range. Add on top of that, another 8,000 or 10,000 colleges and universities. Add on top of that, a couple thousand or more hospitals and medical centers. All of that constitutes the (core) distance learning market. That doesn't even include what's potentially there in the corporate market.
"Then, you have to look at some of the drivers for this (distance learning) market. Obviously, there are the substandard achievement levels that are being attained by some schools. That's one driver.
"Corporations, on the other hand, have an ongoing need to continually educate, or retrain their workforce. That's because we're moving away from the old industrial age where you got into a job and you often worked it to death, literally. Now, we have knowledge workers. And knowledge workers are constantly learning and retraining."
However, says Harris, with the advent of the Internet and "access to a gazillion bits of information" on the Web, teachers and instructors, especially those in distance learning, can no longer stand behind a lectern and spoon-feed a lesson plan to a classroom of students in front of them or 200 miles away.
"What happens now with access to the Internet," explains Harris, "is students literally have access to a world of information. They can find virtually anything they want on the Internet. So, in this day and age, the teacher is going to have to change roles from being a robotic espouser of knowledge, to being a facilitator in finding knowledge and serving as a mentor in that search. In other words, the teacher has to be able to facilitate finding information and helping the students discern what information is applicable, valid and even ethical."
The cable industry, notes Harris, is perfectly positioned to provide the tools teachers need to make that transformation. "Cable television is uniquely poised (for this market). Obviously, they have the broadband network. They have video service delivery. So, not only can they deliver high-speed data access into the schools, they can also deliver the video content, like the Discovery Channel, The History Channel and The Learning Channel, which are very popular within the schools."An IP path to the classroom
One of the companies exploiting cable's high-speed data access capabilities in the distance learning market is Broadband Networks Inc. (BNI), which is headquartered in State College, Pa. (www.bnisolutions.com). Bob Beaury, BNI's president and CEO, says his company's technological approach to distance learning has changed dramatically. In the not-too-distant past, says Beaury, a common two-track distance learning approach involved "two separate networks that just happened to reside on the same fiber optic cable. You'd have an analog, private cable TV video network for the classic interactive video conferencing. And then in the other window of light, you would have this high-speed, digital, Ethernet data network." Today, he says, with the company's new PowerPlay platform, it's "building applications and software that allow one high-speed digital data network that also delivers the interactive, full-motion video application, all within one window of light, all with one set of transmission equipment, and all within one set of standards-based protocols."
This distance learning capability, notes Beaury, is more than the simple sum of its parts. "It's worthwhile for people to understand," says Beaury, "that it is not just interactive video conferencing anymore. It's also, and primarily, the establishment of a high-speed wide area networking (WAN) capability that's shared by all the schools (or businesses) on a network. Participants do this for two reasons. One is, they do it just to establish a high-speed intranet between themselves. They also do it so they can aggregate their buying power and get access to the Internet as a consortium."
The PowerPlay platform is a digital multimedia system designed to provide high-quality interactive video, audio and data collaboration. Users can have scheduled or on-demand multimedia conferencing between any combination of desktop WorkStations, mobile RollAbout projection units or dedicated ConferenceRooms. The PowerPlay platform consists of three major components: WAN networking, media interface units and conferencing software.
The company recently developed a turnkey, revenue sharing plan that can be adapted to individual cable systems. At its most basic level, says Beaury, "the operator's responsibility is typically nothing more than to provide a connectorized, tested fiber plant. BNI does everything else-all the electronics, all the installation, all of the monitoring of that network once it's installed, plus the training of the customers. We've done this because, frankly, cable operators have an incredibly full plate right now, and they can't devote too many people to putting networks together for schools and some of these other customers."
The company recently announced such an agreement with Time Warner Cable that calls for BNI to supply and support interactive data and video systems for specific projects. The first such project will be a 10-year revenue sharing agreement for the Spring Branch Independent School District outside of Houston, Texas which will involve developing a distance learning network connecting 45 sites.
One of BNI's most ambitious and successful distance learning projects is in place in the vast open spaces of rural Nebraska. As first reported in CED (October 1997, page 68), Galaxy Cablevision and BNI joined forces to create a distance learning network that initially connected 25 sites over a 120-square mile area in the southeastern quadrant of the Cornhusker State. In June of last year, BNI and Galaxy entered into phase two of the project, which involved the expansion of the distance learning network to an additional 30 K-12 and higher education sites. The network offers live, full-motion video conferencing, four-digit fax service, high-speed data and links to "NEBSAT," an educational satellite service.But, that's only the beginning
"Currently," says Jack Dixon, vice president of network services for Galaxy, "we're at about 1,200 miles of dedicated fiber infrastructure. We're providing service to about 70 sites that include high schools, educational service units and colleges. We're also in the process of installing a new network of about 16 hospitals called the Heartland Health Alliance. They're going to start with a distance learning platform, a 100 Mbps data service, as well as some telemedicine applications. Their school of nursing in Omaha is going to provide distance learning curriculum on nursing to a lot of rural hospitals out here in Nebraska. We're quite excited about it."
Dixon says his company has taken an active role in the operation and maintenance of the system. Galaxy has also been able to bring some of its cable expertise to bear. "It's been kind of a neat experience for us," says Dixon. "We've been able to overlay a lot of the typical cable TV customer service techniques into network operations. The basic difference is that you've got a customer here that's paying you $1,500 to $2,000 a month, versus a customer that's paying you $30 to $35 a month. "You've got to be very quick in your service (responses). You've got to have customer service reps that are educated differently. They've got to be able to take care of some of the common network and classroom problems that occur from time to time. So, we've developed our own network operations center. That's because we feel, in the long run, that cable operators have to step up to this new technology. We can't farm it out. We have to take responsibility for our networks, our fiber and our service. So, we do full maintenance on all of our classrooms."
While no one has ever claimed that distance learning is a killer revenue stream, when done properly, it does have its benefits. As Harris points out, "One of the key reasons organizations like operators, vendors and telcos get into distance learning networks is because it's very, very good press for them."
Dixon says there can even be a financial payback as well. "Most of the models we're putting together now after the initial construction was done are based on a 27- to 30-month payback. And typically what this means is clustering many schools into a model and not just one or two at a time. We're in about 45 communities out here. And in probably 20 of those communities we don't even provide cable television service, and that may open the doors for some unique opportunities in the future."That's where the bandwidth grows
Another key segment in the distance learning market is municipal, regional or state government organizations. ADC Telecommunications Inc. (http://www.adc.com) is currently in the process of reconfiguring one of the largest distance learning networks in the country. The Iowa Commun-ications Network (ICN) went operational in 1994 utilizing more than 3,000 miles of fiber optic cable. "The ICN," says Harold "Tommy" Thompson, ICN chief operating officer, "was created to equalize educational opportunities-to offer every child in the state the chance to take the courses that would prepare him or her for high school and college, and for adults to take college courses on a local level." When it began, it had 130 classrooms on line, with the capability to expand services to up to 500 video classrooms. However, by April 1999, more than 660 classrooms were on line and capacity on the Sonet/ TDM (Time Division Multiplexed) based system was running out fast. The star-on-star topology was reaching critical mass, and the state went looking for a solution.
ADC's MPEG-2/ATM solution got the nod. The upgrade will involve as many as 270 interactive distance learning video classrooms over the next 12 months and as many as 800 video classrooms when the entire five-ring Sonet network upgrade is complete. The upgrade solution includes integrating two ADC products. The company's AccessPoint product is a universal media access system designed to send high-quality multimedia signals over ATM and other switched broadband networks. Its Cellworx Service Transport Node is an ATM Virtual Path transport element that provides carriers with bandwidth-efficient multi-service delivery. Like other solutions, ADC's distance learning platform is more than just hardware, says Michael Coden, vice president of marketing for ADC's Digital Transport Group. "Operators have to be able to provide a total system capability," says Coden, "including the software to manage it. For example, in Iowa, we're providing a complete software scheduling package that allows the teachers to schedule the classes and the connections between the teacher's classroom and the student's classrooms. There's also billing software which bills the costs back to the schools."
And, once the distance learning door is open, notes Coden, there are a host of opportunities operators can take advantage of. "In a multimedia environment like Iowa," says Coden, "once you've got a line into a customer's site to provide one service, you can use it provide additional services. For example, once you have interactive video in a school, you can start providing telephone service, you can provide data services for their internal networking and e-mail system, as well as a connection to the Internet. You become their ISP. It opens the door to a whole package of services, of which interactive video is just one part."What's an operator to do?
Galaxy's Dixon says it's an educational process where operators and educators have to learn about each other, the technology that's available and the financial resources that can make it happen. "The first thing you've got to do," says Dixon, "is get out and spark interest in your communities and local school districts. If you're already building fiber infrastructure and you want to find a neat way to offset some of your costs, then I suggest you go out and meet with your schools and see what type of interest they've got. See what type of distance learning, if any, they've got in place.
"The need is there. You know, if you're operating in rural America like we do, schools out here are consolidating. They're looking for ways to utilize teachers better. For example, we've found teaching foreign languages across the network is extremely popular. We're teaching Japanese out of Omaha to kids out in western Nebraska that have never had the opportunity to take such a course. Advanced mathematics is the same. You can't always get a calculus teacher out in rural Nebraska. But, we've got great ones in Omaha and Lincoln. Tapping these educational resources, whether they're across town or across the state, is important to school districts, no matter what their size.
"You also have to educate teachers and administrators on how they can get funding for these services. Universal Service or E-Rate funds can help school districts pay for these services on an ongoing basis. (See page 36.) That's money that can go directly to operators who are helping their schools get connected."
It looks like a whole lot of people need to take a crash course in distance learning, because it's obvious that those who do their homework can cash in on a long-term revenue stream that has all kinds of dividends down the road.