Death of Distance…

Early this morning I emailed Christian Long at think:lab (he’s a thought leader in School 2.0 and design for the future schools and cutting edge education) since I had sort of an “Aha!” and I knew he’d instantly understand the possibilities.

Schools constantly scramble for money. Access to thought leaders is challenging for the big Districts…let alone ones in rural schools. Same thing with respect to kids in other countries and this is acute in developing ones especially.

Connecting up kids with the best and brightest, the thought leaders, the astronauts and Senators, or even people from different disciplines whom educators would like to expose their kids to, spending huge bucks on satellite downlinks, lots of gear and technicians to set it all up simply isn’t possible in today’s current school funding situation.

But a few hundred dollars is possible and a missed opportunity if not acted upon.

When I first read Frances Cairncross’ book Death of Distance back in the late 1990’s, her premise that geography and distance would dissolve was a prescient perspective at the time. Not only has it dissolved, but the tools (like Skype and the Internet itself along with all the solutions leaping onto the scene) are accelerating the rate at which distance is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The experiential impact of having Malcolm Cohan talking over Skype from Australia to Minneapolis (see Sydney to Minneapolis on Skype Video) was a wakeup call to me about the power of Internet-centric communications and how *I* have taken it for granted in some ways…but it caused me to have a knowing that I had to help others understand what’s possible right this minute.

Though what I’m about to describe has implications for businesses of all sizes as well as non-profit organizations desiring to have interactive venues with key people, I’m especially keen on what this can mean to schools and specifically K-12 education.  Educators could begin to tap into the knowledge and brain trust that exists globally without budgeting for big infrastructure or the expense of flying someone to their location. They could even connect with other educators — perhaps a professor steeped in knowledge of a topic *or* even another classroom on the other side of the world — for laughingly low costs.

Many classrooms I’ve been in over the last couple of years have surprised me with the availability of in-classroom projectors pointed at screens. These are connected to an in-classroom PC which, in turn, is connected to the LAN and thus the Internet. The only thing missing is Skype on that PC, a webcam and microphone along with a reliable Internet connection (I’m minimizing this a bit as you’ll see below).

But it’s not just in-classroom uses where this could be of use. Auditoriums in schools are more elaborate with significant audio and video infrastructure, and adding this capability to project a live speaker on-screen — and enable live interaction with them via microphones set up in the auditorium — would be trivial for anyone with even modest technical skills.

Here’s the pitch and setup with some thoughts on what it takes to make this successful:

a) Skype is ubiquitous. There are other analogous solutions (iChat comes to mind), but I’ve found that many people have climbed the learning curve on Skype so I’ve found training time is lower and there are more people available to help one another. Webcams are increasingly being built-in to monitors and laptops — but even if a purchase is required they’re ~$150 — so this is not much of a barrier.

b) Bandwidth has (and is) continuing to increase.

c) Schools need to tap into an increasingly global array of thought leaders, approaches, knowledge sets and perspectives that no one school or District could possibly tap into in any other way. Too much is happening too fast globally — and in parallel — to NOT take advantage of this low cost and relatively easy technology.

d) It’s fun. I’ve watched the reactions from my son and his friends when I connected my home office computer and set it to “auto answer” “with video automatically open” and then logged on from another location. We watched our neighbors walking into our cul-de-sac and they thought this was pretty cool. When I connect to Mom at the office or someone else via Skype video, they’re even MORE delighted and it shows on their faces.

TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS: Just like some preparation is necessary before you paint your house (powerwashing it first; scraping; caulking; all ensure that the paint will adhere and it will last), some strategic technical considerations exist:

1) Skype is a peer-to-peer technology that requires computers hooked to the Internet with public IP addresses as they become “super nodes” that pass voice traffic packets from node-to-node. It’s what makes the system fast, it scales well, and the quality is high (about double that of a phone call when used just for voice).

2) It’s this same strength that can also cause latency in the packets arriving to the PC on a LAN but there are ways to manage traffic. This management of packet traffic is key because if one classroom is holding a Skype video conference while several others are moving significant traffic across the LAN in the school building, loss and dropouts could be a real issue.

This could also be a problem if the school building itself has minimal bandwidth since there simply might not be enough of it for a Skype conference, especially as all of us increasingly rely on the Internet and computers for more and more of our work, education and life.

3) Districts are hyper-concerned about security, so firewalls and proxy servers abound. Some have expressed security concerns, but this paper (PDF) and presentation (PDF) from 2004 lays out several key elements to Skype such as it uses 256 bit AES encryption (very strong) so it doesn’t seem to me much of an issue. Still, Skype is a closed, proprietary code base and we have to take their word on how tight their security really is.

Skype settings — especially in classroom computers — would need to be set so that the webcam can’t be set to turn on automatically, the sound levels are preset and running correctly, and the contacts in Skype are managed (and that “Skype Me” is off so the world can’t call in!).

4) There are ways to make the experience of connecting a classroom with a thought leader more meaningful, with less noise and more intimate interactions if a few simple steps are taken:

a) Decent audio. Good speakers are already in-classroom in many locations, but if not a good pair can be had for well under $100. An omnidirectional microphone can be had for a couple of hundred or most webcams have mikes built-in (though they’re crappy) so even a handheld cheap Shure — connected to the PC — would be available for ~$50

b) Good video. Webcams are geared for one-to-one interaction with each person’s face a foot from the camera. Solutions abound for higher quality webcams, CCTV products and some come with wide angle lenses that start at $75 and can rise to thousands of dollars.

5) HERE’S THE MOST IMPORTANT THING: The experience has to be fun and meaningful for BOTH the kids and the speaker. For that truly great interaction between the speaker and the kids to occur, the teacher needs to be a good and welcoming host. Talking to the speaker and the kids, repeating kids questions if necessary, and interacting with the speaker as though they’re actually present in the classroom is the key.

Your speaker can’t be effective if she or he is flying blind. They have to be able to easily see and hear the people with whom they’re interacting. A tiny webcam or microphone far from the kids doesn’t allow the speaker to have a very good experience.

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Anyone over the age of 30 remembers the days of snoozing in horrible filmstrip sessions or movies playing in some darkened room. How I would’ve loved to watch a video of, say, the scientist Ray Kurzweil and then have him live interacting with us in the classroom while he’s at his office outside Boston.

With solutions like uStream, Stickam (*not* recommended for schools!) and live “lifecasting” uses like Justin.tv (also not good for the classroom), a continual array visual communications products and services — incredibly cheap and fun to use — are going to revolutionize the ability for schools to connect with experiences, people, knowledge, information and make human connections in ways never before possible in human history.

Since our kids will be living and working in a world where distance is irrelevant and human connections can be made, nurtured and enjoyed globally, wouldn’t it be a good idea to start expanding their minds right now?

 

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About Steve Borsch

Strategist. Learner. Idea Guy. Salesman. Connector of Dots. Friend. Husband & Dad. CEO. Janitor. More here.

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