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broadband) and web-based learning Tutoring in small groups at remote locations is also an important part of the training methodology; r it assumes more responsibility than the usual classroom course, and is therefore applicable only when participants are highly motivated
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The respective technology instruments are videoconferencing or, using a more recent term, media conferencing systems for virtual classrooms and web technologies and audio/video streaming, for web-based learning, respectively In both cases, transmission of multimedia presentations is an integral part of the technology, and thus of the learning environment Videoconferencing is a relatively old technology and has been around for more than two decades, using expensive broadband satellite technologies and terrestrial dedicated connections at the beginning The development of video compression technologies and, most importantly, the worldwide penetration of ISDN, starting in the early 1990s, paved the way for widespread usage of videoconferencing in several areas, including education Today, videoconferencing is a mature technology, but it still means what it meant two decades ago: transmission of video and voice, in compressed form, over digital telecommunication links, such as leased line, ISDN or over an IP network, and the presentation of voice and video in a synchronized way to the user The distinctive feature of videoconferencing, as compared with television, is the use of narrowband connections Even an xDSL link, commonly referred to as broadband is considered to be narrowband, meaning it is low-speed relative to the bandwidth of analog television, measured in megahertz, not to mention digital television, where the data rate is of the order of tens of Mbps Due to sophisticated compression techniques, videoconferencing provides a suitable video quality for most distance learning and telemedicine applications when using two or three ISDN lines (256 or 384 kbps), or, over a corresponding bandwidth of an IP connection As the newer name media conferencing suggests, the video and voice communication is combined with data applications in an integrated way, exactly as we use these media at real working meetings, conferences and in classrooms Now let us have a closer look at the components of videoconferencing systems Users are sitting in front of end systems or end points that traditionally fall into three categories: conference room systems, compact systems and desktop systems
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r Conference room systems, as the name suggests, are suitable for large groups, even for large
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lecture halls They have large screens, often even two screens that offer various possibilities for viewing moving videos and other media documents, and high-quality sound systems r Compact systems know almost everything that a large conference room system does, however, with some compromises regarding quality to ensure portability A compact system is a kind of set-top box that is usually put on top of a TV set r The third category, desktop systems, are based on PC workstations Once equipped with special purpose hardware to take care of the video/voice compression, desktop systems today are nothing more than a good multimedia PC with software for controlling the audio/video communication and collaboration between the parties, the latter being the most important application of desktop systems
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For multisite conferencing, a special piece of equipment called a conference server, or bridge, is needed, that can be either owned and operated by one of the participants, or rented as a service from a service provider This special equipment is responsible for handling the video, audio and data content in multiparty calls It switches between the sources using different modes In voice-activated mode, as the name suggests, the louder speaker s site becomes the source of video as well This corresponds to one of the real meeting situations which can work well with a small number of disciplined participants For a larger number of sites and in more formal meetings, the chair-controlled mode is preferred when a chairperson is giving the oor to the next speaker In a learning environment, the chair-controlled mode is used A convenient feature is the ability to show to the viewers not only the active site, but all the sites, or a part of the sites, simultaneously on a screen divided into four, six or eight elds This feature is called continuous presence by some videoconferencing vendors The videoconferencing market has been stable, growing only slightly during the last couple of years It seems that two major changes are underway which will facilitate the penetration of videoconferencing, in particular in the education eld:
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r the move from switched networks (from ISDN) to IP-based networks; r the shift from appliance-type end points to multimedia workstations and systems based on
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them Note that another trend in the near future will be the penetration of videoconferencing into the mobile world, as the emerging 3G systems will provide an adequate platform for that Most of today s equipment also works on emerging telecom networks based on the Internet protocol The public Internet, which is cheap and available everywhere, is usually not (yet) well-suited to videoconferencing, as it does not provide suf cient bandwidth, causes large delays and its behavior is unpredictable Private IP networks, such as corporate/institutional intranets, on the other hand, are usually well-designed and properly managed, and thus provide good quality Since a company owns the network, its costs are permanent and easy to forecast and control for budget management purposes Telecom companies offer similar quality over their virtual private networks The cost structure of the IP-VPN services is more dif cult, so one has to study them carefully in order to plan properly Requirements for the delivery network include delay, packet loss and bandwidth Delay should not be more than 200 ms, meaning end-to-end, including network delay Delay variation, or jitter, should be in the range of 20 to 50 ms, while packet loss should not exceed 1 % The required bandwidth depends on the frame rate and size, and the overhead speci c to the network has to be added to the connection bandwidth For example: a 768 kbps connection consumes close to 1 Mbps bandwidth, as about 20 % overhead has to be added to account for the network communication overhead Note that current equipment supports data rates starting from 128 kbps this corresponds to one ISDN BRI to as high as 2 Mbps of connection bandwidth The main characteristics, interfaces and protocols of videoconferencing systems have been standardized to ensure interoperability of different systems, regardless of their manufacturer, design and geographical location For IP-based videoconferencing, the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) standard is H323, which is often called an umbrella standard, since it includes interface and protocol standards, conversion between IP-based and ISDN systems (a so-called gateway functionality), and multipoint conferencing
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