A Story From MIT-E: Twenty-Five Years of Videoconferencing Enabled Education

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Twenty-five years ago I got my first taste of videoconferencing. I remember the experience well. I had just taken a new job as the new technical director for the Missouri Interactive Telecommunication-Education (MIT-E) network. I knew that it was an educational consortium that sought to use two-way video to empower rural schools to share classes with teachers and students in different schools, but honestly, I had never seen a videoconference in person.

On my first day at work, I walked in to the interactive television, or I-TV, classroom at Central Methodist College and was introduced to Virginia Holland, a teacher at Pilot Grove high school. Virginia appeared on the screen in front of me and I was dumbfounded to be talking with her in real-time.  That experience was memorable for several reasons. Not only was it the first time I had experienced a videoconference (remember this was pre-internet/cell phones) but it was the first time I had been the focus of Ms. Holland’s attention. She was a boisterous, dynamic, and entertaining teacher who was commanding me to address her technical problems with the network about three seconds into the conversation, regardless of the fact that I was only about four seconds in to my new job.

That day was a turning point in my life. The rest of my professional career would involve working in the videoconferencing field in one capacity or another. Today, things have gone full circle and I am often the instructor in a two-way videoconferencing session with remote students. Although I’d like to think that I’m a little bit easier on the technical staff!

The creation of the MIT-E network was also a turning point in the lives of thousands of students throughout Mid-Missouri, who were now able to access dual credit and college classes that were previously unavailable to them due to distance constraints.

The network was ahead of its time in terms of technology. In 1992 – 1993, they went live with a continuous presence videoconferencing system based on T-1 lines and large NEC codecs using the H.320 protocol (using H.261 for compression if I remember right). The system was “always on” in that students in all remote classrooms in a particular course could be heard at all times. No muting and talking to your friends. This is the most problematic aspect of the systems as the echo cancellation technology at the time was crude. So crude that at the beginning of each class, the teacher would “train” the system which meant that each room was filled with white noise so that each echo cancellation unit (also made by NEC), could calibrate itself for the room environment. Of course, everyone had to be silent during this process.

The result of all this effort was a system that closely mimicked the interaction between students and teachers in a traditional classroom, greatly opening the world of possibilities for students who would normally not do well in a correspondence or instruction by satellite course, which had very limited interaction with the remote site instructor or fellow students. Teachers were trained extensively on how to build relationships with the remote site students such that the group quickly came together as one class.

If you want a glimpse into what the network was like when it first started out, this video explains the reasoning, and a little bit of the design principles of the MIT-E network.

The MIT-E Network, circa 1992

The Network was also featured in a local PBS documentary, in which looked at the “Schools of the Future”

The classrooms and network has been upgraded many times over the years, and an additional 12 schools have joined the network. Many of these schools have multiple classrooms. Over 36 codecs are deployed throughout the participating schools this year.

What is amazing about this network is that it continues today providing high-quality instruction throughout the mid-Missouri area with very little compromise or change to its original ideals of providing a high level of interaction between distant students and faculty. I think that one of the key reasons for its success is that the MIT-E network never sought to replace teachers, and made it very clear to its members that this was not a cost-cutting mechanism, but rather a way to enrich their curriculum with courses that could not otherwise be accessed by such small school districts.

Many other distance-learning networks that were started as a way to save money have long since disappeared.

I recently asked Scott Kasmann, the current MIT-E Technology Director, a few questions about the MIT-E Network and it’s future.

What is the network used for? What additional uses besides regular classroom programming? How has the programming/classes for MIT-E changed over the years? 

The network is mainly used to share dual credit (college) courses for high school students, mostly in rural Missouri school districts.  Many of the schools only have a few students eligible to take a particular class.  Rather than each district hiring an instructor for 3-5 students, member schools pool their resources to share teachers across multiple districts.  Over the past 25 years we have had thousands of students earn college credit as high school juniors and seniors, with some graduating high school and beginning college with enough hours to classify as sophomores.

Besides regularly scheduled classes, our consortium uses the equipment for virtual field trips, where students connect to content providers (museums, content experts, etc.) for presentations on topics that are not available locally.  We also use the equipment for meetings, professional development opportunities, and community presentations.  These connections reduce travel time, missed class time, lower expenses (for travel, bus drivers, off campus supervision) and increase the range of speakers available to students, faculty, and the communities served by our consortium.  Many speakers would not travel to a small rural school, but will connect from their location to interact with people in the district.

When MIT-E began, each school was expected to teach a class along with receiving courses.  Some were advanced high school classes, while others were offered for college credit.  Over time the schedule has shifted to primarily dual credit offerings taught by college instructors.  Course credit is granted from multiple institutions, but most of our course credit comes from Central Methodist University, one of the members of the consortium.  Dual credit courses include public speaking, algebra, statistics, trigonometry, psychology, sociology, English, American history, and personal finance.  High school and college level foreign language is also a popular offering, since it is cost prohibitive to permanently hire an instructor for a class or two at each district.

What has been the biggest change in the past 25 years in terms of features/technology? 

The biggest change in endpoint technology has been the integration of the components into hardware bundles, and now to web-based platforms like Zoom, GoToMeeting, and WebEx.  Early on, separate vendors provided audio, video, codecs, and bandwidth management pieces.  It was up to the integrator to get all of those racks of equipment to work together.  Now, you open a box with camera, codec, mics, and set it up in 30 minutes.  Software updates are performed remotely and are based around industry standards.  Software codecs use the available camera and mic at the endpoint and handle almost all the audio/video processing and network configuration internally.

Multipoint bridging has evolved from telephone company switches [a tellabs DACS and then an Avaya/Lucent switch]to virtual bridges.  We first had to program connections manually for the telephone switches. Now we can schedule connections or dial out to multiple sites as needed.

To what would you attribute the success of the MITE network? 

The biggest reason the MIT-E Network has been successful is the willingness of member districts to work together toward the common goal of providing classes for their advanced students.

  • Member schools agree on a common bell schedule, key so students can attend ITV classes at consistent times with their instructor and peers.

  • Schools work together to manage enrollment and adjust schedules to allow students to take specific classes at the times they are offered.

  • Share operating expenses equally across the consortium.  Without the continued support from each district the network would not be as effective as we currently are.

  • MIT-E’s conferencing endpoints are standardized around a couple of integrated solutions.  The interfaces are consistent, intuitive, and easy for a non-technical person to operate.

  • Central Methodist University is a key member for MIT-E.  They provide most of the instruction for the consortium’s offerings.  They actively work with students to ensure credit earned transfers to other universities if a student knows where they plan to enroll.

What are the future plans for MITE? 

The consortium is looking to expand its membership to schools wanting to be part of a co-operative distance learning environment.  In our last major upgrade, we transitioned to a different endpoint provider.  I think our next upgrade may involve a software codec rather than a hardware based model.  Mobility is not as big of an issue for us since our students are in the same location each day for their classes.  In cases where students are not able to attend, we offer streaming and recording to a video server for viewing later.

What is your advice to other schools who want to have similar programs, or have tried unsuccessfully in the past? 

Videoconferencing is not designed to replace teachers in classrooms.  Videoconferencing delivery offers an advantage over online classes for 16, 17, and 18 year olds.  I firmly believe that high school students are more successful when they have live interaction with their peers and instructors.  That is very difficult to achieve in an asynchronous, online experience.

If a school wants to start a program the district will have greater odds for success if they identify a need they are trying to meet by adding ITV classes.  If they are able to work with another district(s) to share resources (and expenses) there will be a greater chance for long term success of the program than “cherry picking” a few classes as needed.  A multi-year commitment to the program will allow students and staff to become comfortable in the environment and with the people they are connecting with.  The “group mentality” and shared budget MIT-E commits to allows us to negotiate better hardware pricing and leverage our group’s membership when working with bridging providers and content providers.  The shared risk and group’s unified voice in purchasing and negotiations provides a stronger voice than the members doing the same things on their own.

For more information about the MITE network, visit their site at http://mitenetwork.org

 

About The Author

J Scott Christianson is a successful instructor and business owner with more than 23 years of experience in networking, videoconferencing technology, and project management. A Project Management Professional (PMP), Scott has worked on more than 400 videoconferencing projects. He currently serves as an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Trulaske College of Business at the University of Missouri and remains actively involved in videoconferencing technology and applications. The opinions expressed in Scott's commentary are his own, and are not representative of Let’s Do Video or the University of Missouri.

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