How telepresence and Internet 2 changed Boston schools

Harvard, Cisco hook up Boston schools to Internet 2 connections

Thanks to the advent of videoconferencing set up by Internet 2 connectivity, schools are now utilizing video services that help students learn more interactively.

When you were growing up, you probably remember most educational videos as z-grade productions like the Simpsons' famous "Amendment-To-Be" film.

But due to to the advent of videoconferencing set up by Internet 2 connectivity, schools are now utilizing video services that actually help students learn. Many Boston-area schools have started using such technology this year thanks to the combined efforts of Harvard, Cisco and BBN Technologies, all of whom worked to bring Internet 2 to Boston and Cambridge schools this past year.

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The Internet 2 network has been used by research and academic institutions over the past decade to gain access to high-speed data connectivity whose bandwidth far surpasses commercial Internet connections. As some academic institutions have found that they have leftover bandwidth to throw around on their Internet 2 connections, they have decided to branch their connections out to local schools to help them take advantage of the high-speed network.

Leo Donnelly, the senior technical analyst with Harvard's University Information Systems, says that hooking Boston-area schools up with Internet 2 wasn't too difficult since most schools already had fiber connections running through them. With fiber already in place, Donnelly says that all it took were some switches donated by BBN to get Cambridge schools hooked up.

"Most cities and communities have some type of fiber in the ground," he says. "With a lot of communities it doesn't cross city boundaries but with Cambridge we're able to interconnect, whether it's with school systems or public safety. They're beginning to cross those boundaries."

In addition to Internet 2 connectivity, both the John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science and the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School received donated Cisco TelePresence equipment to help them utilize Internet 2 to get high-definition live video streams beamed directly into classrooms. The O'Bryant School has set up its Cisco TelePresence system in a small auditorium that has microphones installed throughout that can pick up where students are talking and can shift the system's cameras on them so that people on the other side of the video call can see who is speaking to them.

Steve Sullivan, the headmaster at the O'Bryant School, says that having the Cisco equipment on hand will help bring students more in-depth learning experiences that will let them watch events live and interact with the people participating in them.

"In the case of a medical science class you'll be able to dial into Harvard Medical School, and maybe someone there is giving a lecture on how to perform a certain procedure," he says. "Or it might be that you give a book report and then are able to call up the professor at Stanford who wrote it to talk with him about it."

Mike LaHaye, the director of technology services at Internet 2, says that one of the key challenges for schools will be coordinating times when both their students and educators in other schools will be available to chat. To that end, Internet 2 has created a service directory where teachers can log in to look for scheduled lectures and virtual field trips that they can dial into. Examples from the directory include a video conference for pre-med students to help them virtually explore the immune system and a collaborative project for elementary school children designed to help them learn about U.S. geography.

"In a lot of cases we're giving kids access to resources they wouldn't normally have in a rural district," says LaHaye, who  grew up in a rural area. "Being able to go to a museum or to see a performance live would have been a huge addition to my education, but it's not something that was available locally."

Donnelly says that teachers will soon have much more video content to choose from since high-definition videoconferencing technology is becoming more ubiquitous throughout the country. Cisco is selling its at-home telepresence system for $600, and the next generation of Apple iPads is expected to have a front-facing camera that will support high-definition videoconferencing technology. Once more people adopt this technology, Donnelly says, videoconferences in classrooms will become much more of a regular occurrence than what we see today.

"The next generation of the iPad will have a camera built into it so it essentially becomes a video phone," he says. "You're going to see this type of technology explode in school systems."

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