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ConferenceXP Proves Its Mettle
By Rob Knies
December 22, 2005 12:00 AM PT

Distance learning. Transcontinental, collaborative instruction. Real-time distributed education. Connecting remote students and teachers. Musicians from disparate locations performing together via the Internet.

These are just a few of the sorts of advances being made possible by ConferenceXP, a shared-source research platform from Microsoft Research that capitalizes on high-bandwidth networks and wireless environments to provide simple, flexible, and extensible conferencing and collaboration.

The ConferenceXP project explores how to make distance learning and collaboration a rich, compelling experience by assuming the availability of emerging and enabling technologies such as high-bandwidth networks, wireless devices, Tablet PCs, and advanced features in Windows XP.

The project has gained significant momentum in recent months. Most recently, in Australia, ConferenceXP won the Enabling Technology Award during the 2005 Northern Territory Information and Communications Technology Awards.

The Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training modified ConferenceXP to work over satellite links for its School of the Air and is planning an extensive deployment to connect remote primary- and secondary-school students and teachers.

“This is evidence,” said Chris Moffatt, senior program manager for Microsoft Research’s External Research & Programs group, “that the technology is being used in innovative, compelling scenarios.”

M & S Consultants modified the ConferenceXP software to create the Remote Education and Conferencing Tool (REACT), enabling it to be relayed via satellite to remote locations, thereby providing students in such areas improved access to enhanced educational resources.

“We successfully tendered REACT in the recent [Northern Territory Department of Employment, Education and Training] tender request for software to deliver interactive distance learning to its School of the Air students [for the next three years],” said Suzanne Wilson, director of M & S Consultants. “We have just returned from trips to the Katherine and Alice Springs Schools of the Air, where we have already installed their new studios. We will complete a third school early in the new year, with everything fully deployed to schools and remote students in time for the new school year, which starts in February in Australia.”

Such deployments, Moffatt said, demonstrate the value of ConferenceXP.

“We’ve been working for a long time with a number of universities and partners,” he said. “This is a direct example of the technology being adopted by a broader community and demonstrates that the technology is mature.”

The ConferenceXP project, which began in 2002, provides infrastructure that supports three primary scenarios: real-time research collaboration, wireless-enabled classrooms, and highly interactive distributed learning environments. The project enables researchers and developers to develop collaborative tools and applications without having to build them from scratch.

The Australian success is just one of a number of compelling applications and deployments achieved recently though the use of ConferenceXP. Some others:

CLASSROOM PRESENTER

The University of Washington has created Classroom Presenter, an advanced presentation system for distance learning, education, and lecture environments. Classroom Presenter, a distributed presentation system for the Tablet PC, is designed to provide instructors with increased flexibility in delivering a PowerPoint presentation and to facilitate audience interaction.

As a distributed system, synchronized versions of a presentation are shared across instructor, public, and student computers, and the Tablet PC enables high-quality ink annotations that can be sent from student to instructor for review or public display. Professors can use the Tablet PC ink to highlight text, draw an illustration, or solve an example problem.

Classroom Presenter also includes enhanced features for interactive feedback, such as enabling students to send feedback to a professor about the pace of a class and to submit responses to questions in real time.

“Classroom Presenter has been used in a wide range of computer-science courses at [the University of Washington] and other universities,” said Richard Anderson, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, in a Campus Technology magazine article entitled “Beyond PowerPoint: Building a New Classroom Presenter.” “Both instructors and students have been very positive about the system. [One instructor commented], ‘Being able to diagram and spontaneously work examples instead of having to use a pre-scripted PowerPoint slide deck felt like teaching a real class.’ ”

Classroom Presenter 2.0 was released recently, and the University of Washington continues to research ways to use the technology to enhance education and improve learning outcomes.

TRANSCONTINENTAL COLLABORATION

The Isenberg School of Management at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is using ConferenceXP to support a cross-cultural, collaborative course in trustworthy computing—Introduction to Business Information Systems—with the National University of Ireland, Galway.

The course’s creator, Gino Sorcinelli, Isenberg School director of computer resources, coordinated videoconferencing and other technologies, enabling student teams from both universities to work together on shared research projects.

“Each student team focused on a different company,” Sorcinelli said in an article on the Isenberg School Web site. “Most of them—Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Verizon, for example—were in the IT or communications fields. The student teams used [a dedicated online-course] portal to assemble and analyze historical and strategic information about the companies. Each team decided as a group which historical events, financial indicators, and company strategies to include in their analytical summaries and PowerPoint presentations. During their videoconferences, the students also employed Tablet PCs, which allowed them to instantly transfer and electronically annotate work in progress.”

The value of the collaboration was clear to Brian Donnellan, lecturer and the course’s director at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

“Recent meetings with our industry advisory board, which includes representatives from leading IT firms like Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Dell, and Microsoft, have emphasized that many of our students will graduate into a work environment that employs globally distributed teams,” Donnellan said. “After graduating, our former students will step right into virtual global team meetings where they’ll need to align communication and decision-making. We want them to establish a comfort level as students so they can hit the ground running as professionals.”

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst also is using Classroom Presenter to enhance two undergraduate courses, enabling students equipped with a Tablet PC to collaborate wirelessly in real time.

The joint effort between the university and Microsoft Research led to the university being named the first Microsoft IT Showcase School, a program that recognizes institutions of higher learning that demonstrate leadership in IT education and helps them share their knowledge and experience.

MULTI-CAMPUS GRADUATE STUDIES

In 2004 and 2005, the University of Washington, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, San Diego, and Microsoft Research collaborated to explore the impact of ConferenceXP on real-time distributed education by teaching computer-science graduate courses collaboratively. The 2004 offering, “Information Technology and Public Policy,” was followed in 2005 by “Homeland Security.” About 80 graduate students—from computer science, public policy, and other fields—three faculty members, and 10 guest lecturers participated in each course. Participants found the approach offered enormous advantages over traditional lectures by including diverse faculty and students and by offering an ability to attract phenomenal guest speakers regardless of geography.

“A distributed classroom offers enormous advantages,” said Ed Lazowska, a professor of computer science at the University of Washington and the course’s principal instructor, in an article on the University of California, San Diego Web site. “This course … was far richer than any one institution could have provided on its own.”

The use of ConferenceXP to present the course achieved a level of scalability and interactivity that made the experiment work.

“A single peer can join a ConferenceXP session without affecting the remaining clients,” said Bryan Barnett, lead program manager for Microsoft Research’s External Research & Programs group. “Each client machine communicates directly with each of the other three. It’s no longer a hub-and-spoke model.”

That doesn’t mean the technology has been perfected, though.

“We’re pushing the envelope,” Barnett said. “IP multicast is not widely supported by universities connected to Internet2. It also requires a great deal of care at each site to help ensure that the best equipment is available and that the technology is working properly in order for the feed coming from the classroom to be consistent and dependable.”

Still, the possibilities are evident.

“Without prejudging the results of these early adopters,” Barnett said, “we do appear to be approaching the point where this type of distance learning becomes feasible.”

OMNIMUSIC

The Imagine Cup is a technology competition open to all students with a passion for programming or a mind for movies. The winning entry in the Software Design category for 2005 was a Russian team’s application called omniMusic that extends ConferenceXP to create a community-oriented environment for distributed live musical performance and teaching. It enables people in different cities to connect musical instruments and video cameras to computers, find other musicians, organize virtual music bands, and play together over a broadband Internet connection with high-quality sound, as if they were in the same room.

A modified version of ConferenceXP serves as part of the managed layer of the technology, in between the hardware/operating system and the network stack.

To demonstrate the technology, the winning team—consisting of Nikolay Surin and Stanislav Vonog from the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and Ruslan Gilfanov and Alexander Popov from Moscow State University—performed a live distributed concert in Yokohama, Japan. Guitarists Surin and Vonog were in one room, along with Gilfanov at a mixing console, a PC, and a Webcam, while keyboardist Popov synced up from a separate room.

“The development of mobile communications and the Internet is leading us to a world where boundaries between musicians in different studios and cities simply do not exist,” said Andrey Smirnov, founding director of the Theremin Center of electro-acoustic music at the Moscow State Conservatory, “and people are able to create and play music together without any limitations.”

For Moffatt, omniMusic provided confirmation that ConferenceXP is delivering value and demonstrating its mettle.

“We had no involvement and no idea they were using ConferenceXP,” he said. “It’s encouraging to see people being able to use it without handholding from us.

“The range of innovative applications being developed that use ConferenceXP proves the need for this technology,” he added. “It validates why we felt we had to invest in it.”