Volume 8, Number 8: May 31, 2002
by Tammy Kempfert,
Soon after most Americans first heard of the Information Superhighway, the academic community embarked on a new excursion aboard a high-speed network backbone called Abilene.
Named for the 1860's railhead that initiated westward expansion, Abilene is intended to provide innovative teachers and researchers passage to yet unoccupied technological terrain. It was created by major research institutions for the Internet2 project and came about as a response to an increasingly jammed World Wide Web. (View a map of the Abilene Network Backbone.) The clogged commodity Internet had delayed developments in leading-edge applications, like quality streaming audio and video, networked virtual reality, and remote instrumentation.
Enter UCAID, the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development. Originally consisting of a handful of major research universities, UCAID now lists more than 190 participating members (including UW-Milwaukee and UW-Madison) who work with government and industry to support the development and use of breakthrough technologies. (For a recent list of Consortium members, see http://www.ucaid.edu/ucaid/html/membership.html.) Pioneers in the UW System have already begun exploring the potential of Internet2 for bandwidth-intensive education and research projects.
At UW-Madison, an early application of Internet2 technology involved music professor Ron Radano's "Blues Legacies" class. Radano's class periodically met at a local music club, where students conferenced with a variety of experts using a range of technical tools. Kathy Christoph serves both as Assistant Vice Chancellor for Learning Technology and as Director of Learning Technology and Distance Education at UW-Madison. She and Assistant Vice Chancellor Peyton Smith came up with the idea of transporting Chicago blues to the off-campus club Luther's Blues. Via H.323 videoconferencing, Radano's class was linked to a site at the University of Chicago, from which harmonica player and blues teacher Billy Branch performed. The class also had the opportunity to interview Branch.
Christoph and a team of DoIT technicians helped Radano and his class prepare for the event. "Initially, we held a teleconference with a textbook author, to help the professor as well as the students situate themselves [at Luther's]. Later on, there was a session with a reference librarian on locating blues resources via the Web," she said. Another activity had students preparing and asking questions of a Philadelphia Inquirer music critic by teleconference. According to Radano, that worked better than the videoconference, probably because most students feel at ease with the telephone. Both Radano and Christoph said that, were they to attempt such a videoconference again, they would take more time to familiarize students with video.
Even so, Radano feels the videoconference at Luther's Blues was worthwhile: "My course deals with history, criticism, and analysis, and learning those things requires the use of chalkboard, desks, proper listening equipment but holding the class at Luther's put a spotlight on performance. Bringing the performer to the class in that way, that was really valuable."
The collaborative, media-rich effort also brought about some unforeseen, though positive, results. Radano, who in the past used little technology in his classes, has become an advocate for educational technology, and continues to explore ways of using it effectively in his teaching. Also, Christoph believes the class enabled the music club, Luther's Blues, to feel more a part of the campus community. This is important because Luther's has played a role in UW-Madison's efforts at preventing student alcohol abuse. (Photos and video of the class can be found at http://126.96.36.199/itblues/.)
Recently, UCAID created an additional category of participation, "sponsored education groups," allowing colleges, public schools, museums, and libraries access to Internet2. UW System institutions can hook up via WiscNet, Wisconsin's statewide education network service. Providing the educational community with broad access to Abilene's fat data pipes will allow researchers to collaborate in ways never before possible.
Steve Senger, Professor of Computer Science at UW-La Crosse, was approved for connectivity to Internet2 two years ago and configured last year. He has been working on several projects in partnership with Stanford Medical School, which resulted from his initial (pre-Internet2) success on the National Library of Medicine's Visible Human Project. Visible Human provides complete, three-dimensional digital images of normal male and female bodies for instructional purposes. Now, Senger is helping to bring advanced Visible Human technology to student's pockets with the Wireless Visible Human Browser. This handheld computer will allow users to study images of a digital human cadaver; they will be able to rotate and zoom in on arbitary cross-sections from three possible orientations of the head and trunk.
Collaborating in real time, Senger and his partners have also developed touch-sensitive, or haptics, devices. "One application was a proof of concept to see whether or not you could physically collaborate over a network. We ran it between here and a group in Australia, and it worked much better than anybody anticipated the round trip latency was around a quarter of a second," he said. The device simulates a "handshake" over the Internet, in which movement on one end is reflected on the other side. Among its many uses, haptics applications hold great potential for medical instruction. A surgeon in another state, for example, might soon be able to guide the hand of a medical student in Wisconsin. (See a QuickTime video about Steve Senger's projects at UW-La Crosse's Towers of Excellence site.)
Faculty, academic staff, and students at UW-Stevens Point are also taking advantage of Abilene's fast video signal to conference with their sister university in Magdeburg, Germany. The Dual Degree Program of UWSP and Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg had attempted to use videoconferencing in the past, but their efforts were hampered by poor quality video and slow signals. Thanks to Internet2 and some new, state-of-the-art video equipment, German classes in Stevens Point might soon experience guest lectures and other cultural activities transmitted from Magdeburg.
Andrea Deau of WiscNet has been involved in discussions surrounding Internet2's K20 Initiative. She is considering ways to encourage public schools and other educational organizations to hop aboard the Internet2 effort. (WiscNet reports on its Web site that its members currently include the State of Wisconsin, most colleges and universities, more than 75 percent of the state's K12 school districts, most library systems, many local and municipal governments, and several nonprofit organizations.) "Internet2 functions as a testbed," she said, "and [as with the commodity Internet] the general public might not see its effects for years Right now, we're focusing on seed ideas, ideas that seed people's thinking."
The author N. Scott Momaday once reportedly said that the American West "is a place that has to be seen to be believed, and it may have to be believed in order to be seen." Internet2 administrators hope that Abilene's potential will similarly spark the imaginations of the nation's scholars. Considering the efforts already underway in Wisconsin, the future of UW Internet2 participation promises to be quite a trip.
For more information about Internet2, visit the consortium Web site at http://www.internet2.edu/.