Vol 10. Issue 7 / March 1, 2010

Long-Distance Operator

By Eric Sauter

The distance learning system set up between the La Jolla and Jupiter campuses of The Scripps Research Institute makes the miles between them seem much shorter.

Most distance learning systems are designed to extend educational opportunities outside the campus," said Cary Thomas, the Scripps Research senior vice president behind the new system. "Ours is a distance learning system on steroids. What we're doing is making a connection between opposite ends of the country and we designed it so that the experience at the remote end is as lifelike as possible. We have live microphones in the classroom, smart boards, and multi-screen capability so students can see the professor as they speak, and when they ask a question the professor can see them."

So far, the current system, which was installed last year, has been used most frequently to deliver scientific lectures from La Jolla to graduate students on the Scripps Florida campus, although it has also been used to broadcast lectures from Florida to California and to disseminate Human Resources training presentations.

"The system provides an instantaneous link between campuses, so it lets us do things we couldn't do on our own," said William Roush, chemistry professor and executive director of Medicinal Chemistry and associate dean of graduate studies at Scripps Florida. "There has been lots of progress and improvements. Overall, it's quite impressive."

Jamie R. Williamson, dean of graduate and postdoctoral studies for the Kellogg School of Science and Technology, added, "The distance learning setup we now have in place is a state-of-the-art multimodal audiovisual system. The challenge we now face is human, in that we need to bring the entire faculty up to speed on the awesome capabilities in place. The days of the chalkboard lecture are numbered."

The Harry Potter Factor

The system, built by the California-based communications firm Polycom, uses the Internet as its technology platform. A dedicated data line supports it, so that users don't have to share signals with other Internet traffic. In addition, the La Jolla campus has Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) capabilities, which allows for the simultaneous digital transmission of voice, video, data, and other network services via the telephone network; this can be used to connect to remote sites that do not have Internet connectivity.

The system's classroom technology includes "smart board" features, high-resolution monitors and cameras, live microphones and speakers throughout the classrooms for active audience participation, plus a feature to digitally capture presentations, record them, and play them back in a variety of formats at any time.

So, when you're in a classroom in Jupiter watching, say, a Power Point presentation in La Jolla, you see the same exact presentation as the California students. In addition, viewing screens have picture-in-picture capability that allows viewers to see a live video stream of whoever is giving the lecture; the La Jolla side sees the Florida audience.

"We have drop down microphones in our classrooms so anybody can ask a question," Roush said. "We're also set up so faculty can make presentations through an overhead projector –you can put anything down on the surface and an electronic image is generated and instantaneously transmitted."

Roush points out that the smart boards –interactive whiteboards –are about as close to magic as you can get within the walls of a scientific organization.

"I think of this as our Harry Potter screen, words magically appearing on the wall," he said. "Smart boards are essentially a computer screen, so that an instructor can use it like a blackboard. Whatever the instructor writes appears in real time on the screen in the classroom on the other coast."

Second Nature for the iTunes Generation

All of this comes as no big deal to the graduate students, Roush noted. "Its second nature for them," he said.

The system is set up in a manner similar to iTunes University network, so all the lectures are captured. That means that if the graduate students didn't quite get part of a lecture, they can go back and look at it anytime they want. The students don't have to use the iTunes software, though. The system is set up so the students can download any lecture to their computer through a secure log in as you would any kind of digital content.

If there's a hardware or signal problem, the Information Technology Department on both coasts jumps in to keep the system running. Matt Barnas and Scott Hurd in La Jolla and Preston Smith in Florida deserve particular credit for their responsiveness to new ideas to improve the system, Roush noted.

"Is using the video system exactly like being in a room with a lecturer?" Roush asked rhetorically. "Of course not. But it has turned out to be remarkably effective. It allows us to leverage the human resources on both campus and it does that quite beautifully."

On the La Jolla campus, the systems are located in the Skaggs Institute for Chemical Biology building's Committee Lecture Hall and the Beckman building's Keck Amphitheater. For assistance using the systems on the La Jolla campus, please contact Scott Hurd in IT Services via e-mail at shurd@scripps.edu. On the Florida campus, the video conferencing systems are located in Classrooms B158 and B159, Seminar Room A116, and the Fink Auditorium. For assistance or reservation requests on the Florida campus, please contact Preston Smith at psmith@scripps.edu or (561) 228-3558.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu










"[The distance learning system] allows us to leverage the human resources on both campuses and it does that quite beautifully."

— William Roush