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Distance Learning Aids Shift in Education, Training

Technology makes it easier than ever

Polycom RealPresence interactive meeting room installation

Advanced distance learning today crosses continents in the blink of an eye, offering multi-lingual classes to a new breed of students who prefer fingertip instructional technology over hours spent marooned at small desks in poorly ventilated brick-and-mortar classrooms.

Not too long ago, taking a distance-education class meant slamming a VHS tape into a home recorder, or worse, sending your test answers to a distant college professor via U.S. snail mail. Not so today. Better video quality and the ability to stream video have produced a massive shift in distance education.

Distance learning goes by many names these days, including e-learning, blended learning, online learning or video tele-training. Whatever it is called, it still means hooking up students at a location that is distinct and separate from the instructor. Legacy video systems have given way to web-based solutions as the technology has improved.

The increasing popularity of distance learning—whether it’s corporate or federal government training—is being driven by its adoption in higher education. The proportion of academic leaders who report that online learning is critical to their institution’s long term strategy has grown from 48.8 percent in 2002 to 70.8 percent this year.

About 7.1 million students are enrolled in distance learning courses this year. This includes programs offered as a normal part of an institution’s programs, as well as Massive Open Online Courses typically offered for free to those outside of the institution’s student body.

FGDLA Board of Directors (from left to right): Randy Palubiak, treasurer; Philip J.-L. Westfall, Ph.D., chairman; Jolly Holden, Ph.D., executive director; Alex Autry, president; and Russ Colbert, corporate vice president

“The main driver for distance learning in the higher education market is accessibility and increasing enrollment, which is why online learning is driving that initiative,” said Jolly Holden, executive director of the Federal Government Distance Learning Association (FGDLA). “While in the corporate training market, decreasing training costs (by using technology) is the primary driver.

“And for the federal government, the use of technology is the primary driver to increase throughput and reduce the cost per student,” he said.


For example, the Air Technology Network delivers instructional broadcasting for the U.S. Air Force’s distance learning programs and other DOD users of interactive television. ATN reaches 282 classrooms across 76 Air Force bases within the U.S. and 10 locations in Europe, with education and training programs broadcast from a hub at Wright-Patterson AFB. ATN links user schools through Polycom-equipped broadcast centers.

Headquartered in San Jose, Calif., Polycom has been offering distance learning solutions for years, said Russ Colbert, company director of government solutions and market development. The Polycom RealPresence Group Series software engine is the centerpiece of the company’s distance learning innovation package, he said.

For example, the EagleEye Producer uses facial-tracking to instantly recognize everyone in the room and frame them all properly for greater impact, even as participants enter, leave or stand. Plus it counts and records the number of participants in each meeting or class.

The package’s EagleEye Director automatically zooms in on the person speaking, transmitting facial expressions and body language for higher impact and more productive video collaboration. At the conference training level, each room can display online its own calendar from Microsoft Outlook, simplifying connections for users.

“Features are important,” Colbert said. “If it’s too complex, no one will use it. Cameras have to focus and zoom and conduct analytics without intervention by a person. If the instructor is speaking in Spanish, the content can be displayed in English subtitles.”

For example, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization relies on Polycom solutions for multi-language collaborations. Carried by secure military communications channels, NATO uses Polycom’s technology during situations ranging from diplomatic relations to humanitarian crisis intervention.


Polycom products have also been warmly embraced on a smaller scale. Central Arizona College recently adopted Polycom’s Video Content Management solutions to record, manage and stream lectures. Students can watch a class lecture they have missed or use it to review course materials. When teachers invite guest speakers to their classes, those lectures can be captured and played back at a later time for another group of students.

Educators are faced with the challenge of presenting daily class work to a generation accustomed to direct access at the swipe of a finger of tap of a key.

“What really works is that I can re-create the experience that students are having in the classroom,” said Keith Eubanks, a professor of English at CAC. “We can connect tablets into the interactive TV system, so students actually share what’s on their screens.”

Adapting to today’s learning environment is a critical element of the Polycom strategy, Colbert said.

“In the past, the student was very subservient to the instructor,” he said. “In today’s world, the student is more a customer because they have choices.”


RUSHWORKS has been providing solutions for educational institutions for 15 years, which includes the VDESK and REMO integrated pan-tilt-zoom production systems that use a touch-screen interface to eliminate the need for camera operators, said Rush Beesley, president of the Texas-based company. The systems are designed specifically for use by a single producer, recording multi-camera meetings such as events and worship services. 

The company recently launched the new TalkingPoints Presentation Recording & Streaming System. The new system can be used for recording and streaming live presentations using one or more PTZ cameras. It uses picture-in-picture technology to aggregate the slide show, presenter, panelists and audience into discreet windows within an HD 16:9 formatted output and captured file, Beesley said.

Screenshot of RUSHWORKS TalkingPoints

“TalkingPoints uses a combination of traditional video camera and switching technology in concert with digital processing capability,” Beesley said. “The result is a simple but impactful screen aggregation of all the elements of a live presentation that engage the viewer/participant in every aspect of the presentation dynamics.”

Multiple cameras are the gold standard. One close shot of the presenter, another on the audience and a third on slideshow graphics makes a seamless presentation that is easy to follow, he said.

“The icing on the cake is the ability for the presenter camera to track the motion of the presenter when he/she walks away from the lectern,” Beesley said. “All this multi-camera coverage is accomplished using no camera operators.”

The solution is also cost-effective.

“Capturing all the elements of a presentation has traditionally required a multi-person camera crew shooting with at least two manned cameras. The day rates are significant and usually prohibitive for most events,” Beesley said. “TalkingPoints eliminates these barriers to cost-effective production, with a result that provides significantly enhanced visual impact.”


Electronic giant Panasonic just released a pair of new cameras that can make distance learning even better, said John Rhodes, product manager for pro video system cameras and switchers at Panasonic System Communications Company.

The AW-HE40 and the AW-HE130 integrated full HD pan-tilt-zoom cameras provide direct-from-camera, production-quality audio/video streaming (RTP/RTSP/RTCP) up to 1080/60p 24 Mbps, Rhodes said. The new cameras can be linked to a college’s IP network and the instructor can conduct classes from anywhere on campus where there is a network connection.

“This adds a lot of flexibility both on location and off campus,” Rhodes said. “What you can do is plug the camera into infrastructure and be in touch with anyone. The built-in audio input and PoE+ (power over LAN cable) enables a revolutionary ‘single-cable’ remote production application.”

The HE40 can function as a USB super-webcam for videoconferencing and collaboration—with a 30x zoom lens, preset functions, as well as simultaneous IP and USB streaming. With the latest upgrade, it also provides production-quality in-camera HD MPEG-4 video and audio recording to a microSD card at up to 28 Mbps, which can be used for web-controlled back-up and archiving, replayed and streamed, or sent as a file via FTP.

MORE INFO Panasonic:

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“This is a very rapidly evolving segment, and there are many exciting developments in this area,” Rhodes said. “Distance learning and training are converging with lecture/event capture to create more flexible and powerful solutions.”


The magic of any distance learning system is getting all the telepresence elements—tracking cameras for instructors, student cameras, touch-to-talk microphones for remote students, video whiteboards, high-definition document cameras and fully integrated computers—to work together. Vaddio, a Minnesota-based company, makes robotic camera technology as well as a suite of unified communication and collaboration peripherals for distance learning classrooms.

With Vaddio’s AutoTrak, the instructor wears a lanyard beltpack that emits infrared light that is received by an IR pan-tilt-zoom camera. Video is then sent from the IR PTZ camera to the tracking camera, which results in a smooth, accurate panning motion that follows an instructor. The system eliminates the need for a staff person to operate a camera.

Vaddio’s AV Bridge provides integrators the ability to include soft codecs such as Skype, Cisco Jabber and Microsoft Lync into their traditional AV designs. The AV Bridge provides the digital USB gateway to allow the integration of professional audio and video equipment into any PC software application, said Hailey Klein, the company’s marketing communications manager.

“Informational technology is revolutionizing the products we see in the modern day classroom.” Klein said. “What once was hardware is now moving to the cloud creating the BYOD (bring your own device) phenomenon. By taking existing AV equipment and controlling it through a device, users can use whatever application they want to collaborate.”

Vaddio’s collaboration tool is the AV Bridge Matrix Pro, she said. This product simplifies USB systems for lecture capture rooms by providing plug-and-play and cloud connection capabilities for many different applications, such as unified communications and video conferencing, audio conferencing and lecture capture, she said.


Audio is an indispensable ingredient in any distance learning environment, and Phoenix Audio Technologies (based in Irvine, Calif.) provides high-quality audio devices for a wide variety of uses within education facilities—from distance and blended learning to virtual field trips, said

Laura Miller, company sales and marketing administrator.

The Phoenix Audio Quattro3 USB is a conference speakerphone that has an exceptionally large pickup and broadcasting range, yet is small in size and discrete in design. The Quattro3 uses multiple microphones, a specially designed speaker and has built-in digital signal processing to maintain sound quality.

The Quattro3 MT304 model connects to any computer and allows users the option to daisy-chain Quattro3 units via one power source without the need of another interface. The company’s Smart Spider is a conference speakerphone that comes with a 2.5mm to 3.5mm cable adaptor to allow users to link to almost any smartphone or tablet device. It includes an easy-to-use interactive interface.

Another provider of audio conferencing system is Revolabs, which has a variety of solutions for small-to-large room conferencing. The company’s FLX UC 500 USB conference phone has four built-in microphones for 360-degree coverage and integrated echo cancellation to provide for clear communications. Revolabs boasts that the FLX UC 500 has surprisingly rich sound and can be used for playback of sound sources as well as function as a conferencing system.


Distance learning has seen a dramatic increase over the last decade and all indicators point to continued growth.

“Distance learning is not going away,” Polycom’s Colbert said. “It’s going to become even more main stream, where we are going to be able to learn when and where we need it. It’s going to get faster and easier and have more accessibility.”