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Distance Learning Via Satellite: Celestial Curriculum

By | September 10, 2001

      By James Careless

      Distance learning via satellite: these days, it’s everywhere. In fact, as the following case studies show, distance learning via satellite is being widely embraced by all sectors of the U.S. economy from schools to space agencies, real estate to road machines.

      Remote Controlled Astronomy

      By itself, distance education is a striking application. However, a recent NASA project highlighted just how impressive distance education can be, by allowing students in Japan and the United States to remotely control a 24-inch reflector telescope at Pasadena’s Mt. Wilson Observatory.

      Just one aspect of the “Trans-Pacific High Data Rate Satellite Communications Experiments,” the Remote Astronomy (RA) demonstration was organized by the Japan-U.S. Science Technology and Space Cooperation Project, NASA, Intelsat, Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, Teleglobe Inc. (of Canada), Crossroads High School in Santa Monica, CA, and the Mt. Wilson Institute, plus a host of industry and government partners. Its goal: to link sites in the United States, Japan, and Canada using two high data rate satellites (Intelsat and NTT’s Nstar A, Intelsat earth stations in Kashima, Japan, and Lake Cowichan, Canada, and available high-speed fiber optic networks on both sides of the Pacific. With top speeds of 155 Mbps–although limits on parts of the system kept it optimally at 45 Mbps–the RA demonstration was robust enough to make two-way distance education a reality in all respects.

      Here’s how it worked: the two-way audio and video were provided using HS.323 CUseeMe videoconferencing software; the same program that’s widely used across the Internet. Meanwhile, the software for aiming the telescope–by remote control–was an off-the-shelf product called “The Sky.” “The Sky” also provides an image display window, to show what’s actually being seen by the telescope via a CCD (charge coupled device) camera.

      “Using ‘The Sky,’ the students were able to type in a target’s name, and then watch the crosshairs track across the sky as the telescope moved to those coordinates,” says Patrick Shopbell, the RA course instructor and an astronomer with the California Institute of Technology. “Once the telescope was in place, the students activated the camera, which recorded an exposure. When the image was complete, our server simply duplicated it to all of the sites transparently. We didn’t have to do Web downloads or anything else manually.”

      The students, who were at various high schools in Tokyo and Maryland, saw the telescope’s images in an onscreen window. Meanwhile, video feeds of themselves, the other classroom, and Shopbell were also relayed to a second computer screen in small video windows.

      Despite some latency delays–“only noticeable during conversations,” says Eddie Hsu, a senior member of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory–the RA demonstration went off without a hitch.

      The students thoroughly enjoyed manipulating a 24-inch telescope, which is more than twice the size of the best ones usually available to amateurs.

      Meanwhile, Shopbell was amazed by how well the two groups–although new to each other and separated by an ocean–got along. “It wasn’t just a matter of them asking me questions,” he recalls. “What evolved was clearly a three-way discussion, with the students talking to each other as they waited for the exposures to finish.”

      So is there a future for remote-controlled astronomy? Most definitely, yes. Beyond the fact that RA gives students access to sophisticated equipment, it also takes advantage of time zones to let students use telescopes on the other side of the planet, during peak night-time viewing periods. “I think that’s quite powerful,” says Shopbell. That’s an understatement, to be sure.

      Real Estate Network Is Hot Property

      When it comes to real estate, RE/MAX is making the grade. One reason why is the RE/MAX Satellite Network, better known as “RSN.”

      Available at 1,400 sites in North America, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii, RSN is RE/MAX’s private business TV network. Its heart and soul is distance education: keeping RE/MAX’s agents at the top of their form, and the top of the real estate industry’s profitmakers.

      To do this, “we broadcast four to six hours of distance education a day, every day of the week,” says Mike Ryan, RSN’s vice president. “The content is pretty much business communications, training, plus live broadcasts with our numerous officials and panelists.”

      Actually, this is a modest description of RSN’s lineup. A glance through the real estate network’s glossy “Program Guide” gives a better sense of what’s being offered via satellite.

      For instance, “motivational humorist” Tim Gard has a recurring 90 minute course called “Comic Vision–You’ll Have Humor on Call.” It teaches RE/MAX brokers how to use humor to ease stress while boosting productivity: in others words, how to laugh all the way to the bank.

      Meanwhile, “The Shadow Series,” which is modeled on CBS’s “48 Hours,” invites viewers to “join RSN for an impromptu, unscripted glimpse into a top RE/MAX associate’s day at work.” To accomplish this, RSN sends an ENG crew to each subject’s hometown, then brings the tape back to RE/MAX’s Denver headquarters for production and uplinking.

      As for live courses? “We do one-way broadcasts,” says Ryan. “However, we do supply all our sites with 800 number access, so that our students can call in with questions.”

      All told, RSN’s distance education lineup is breathtakingly ambitious. To support it, the company maintains a full production facility in Denver, plus mobile ENG crews that roam the continent. On the satellite side, RSN relies on Loral Cyberstar to provide its system backbone. Specifically, RSN’s programming is uplinked to Telstar 5, using a one meter antenna and a Divicomm encoder. The signal is then received at its 1,400 sites, each of which has its own 1-meter VSAT antenna and Visionetics receivers. “Telstar 5 has a tremendous footprint,” says Mike Ryan, “and Cyberstar provides service and network maintenance.”

      One point worth noting: RSN’s distance learning really rates as education. In fact, the courses it offers let agents upgrade their professional accreditations. The numbers tell the story: since 1995 over 7,000 RE/MAX agents have earned designation or continuing education credits through RSN–all in the comfort and convenience of their own offices, close to the phone and car when new business calls.

      “Satellite-delivered distance education has made a real difference to RE/MAX,” concludes Ryan. “It gives us an incredible competitive advantage as far as recruiting and retaining our associates. As well, when it comes to hours of programming dedicated to professional designation? No one else even comes close to the amount we do.”

      Internet Reaches Rural California

      When most people think of California, they think of the south and its crowded cities, like Los Angeles and San Diego. As a result, they wouldn’t expect Californian students to have trouble accessing the Internet. After all, the state is home to Silicon Valley!

      That’s true: however, northern California isn’t southern California. In fact, much of it is rural and remote, with only a barebones telephone infrastructure at best.

      Which brings us to the Lassen County Board of Education. Its task is to serve 5,000 students in 10 school districts in the north.

      Clearly these students don’t have the same level of courses and resources as their southern counterparts. Yet, when competing for college placements, they have to go head-to- head.

      One tool that helps create a level playing field is the Internet, according to Robert Pace, Lassen County’s assistant superintendent of educational services. “Those kids who do have Internet access can travel online to the Smithsonian or the White House to do research, or join chat groups anywhere in the world to get extra help,” he explains.

      The trouble is “our kids didn’t have access to the Internet,” he says. “This means urban students had an unfair advantage over them when it came to entrance exams.”

      Enter Helius, a provider of Internet satellite solutions and provider of satellite bandwidth. Lassen County chose Helius to provide its most remote schools with high-speed Internet downlinks, at an impressive 374 kbps. The return path is carried over regular telephone modems, at 56 kbps. (Other schools, which are close to DSL telephone lines, are getting access through that route.)

      “In each case, the school being served by satellite is next to one of our offices,” says Pace. “We downlink the signal at the office, then pass the Internet signals through wired LANs to each of our classrooms. There, our students can access the world from their PCs. As well, our staff can use the system for e-mail, and to move educational materials back and forth.

      “Finally, since most of the material we receive from the state comes via e-mail, we now don’t miss a thing,” he adds. “Before, we were left out of the loop much of the time.”

      For Pace, Internet via satellite ensures that his students have the same chances as everybody else. “In the past, our students were behind when it came to the college placement race,” he says. “Now things have changed: by getting the Internet, they have a chance to compete with the big city.”

      Online In Quaint Quebec

      When it comes to high-speed Internet access to remote locations, nothing beats satellites. That’s why Quebec’s La Société GRICS relies on DirecPC’s one-way service to connect remote provincial schools to the Internet. Founded 25 years ago to help Quebec schools cope with their technology needs, La Société GRICS has grown into a service provider to both governmental and industry clients worldwide.

      When it came to high-speed Internet access, satellite was the only way to answer the problem, says Pierre Marcotte, a systems analyst with La Société GRICS. “These are schools far from the big cities, which can’t access high-speed Internet service any other way,” he explains. “As well, some of our school boards also don’t have any form of high-speed terrestrial access. For them, as well as for us, satellite is an ideal solution.”

      Initially, La Société GRICS received its service through a Canadian supplier. However, it soon found that Quebec schools could strike a more affordable deal with the U.S. company Helius.

      La Société GRICS and Helius had been working together since 1998. Under that partnership, Helius provides DirecPC software support for the Quebec supplier. Hence, it was just one more step for Helius to add Internet access as well. As a result, La Société GRICS was able to maintain its 400 kbps download speed (with 56 kbps telephone return path) at a price it could afford.

      How could Helius pull this off? “Because they’re a U.S.-based company, they have a U.S. address,” says Marcotte. “This means, as our partner, they can give us access to the U.S. service and its prices, while remaining entirely within Canadian law.” Granted, the schools did have to pay a few hundred dollars to install U.S. DirecPC-compatible cards. But beyond this, they stayed online without additional cost.

      Today, Quebec’s northern and remote schools are still surfing the high-speed Web, thanks to Helius and La Société GRICS. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” says Marcotte.

      Satellites Drive Harley-Davidson University

      When it comes to brand names, few inspire as much respect as Harley-Davidson (H-D) motorcycles. So when it comes to dealer education, few companies take it as seriously as H- D.

      Hence the existence of “Harley Davidson University.” Based at H-D’s headquarters in Milwaukee, WI, “Harley-Davidson University” produces a wide range of sales and training programs for H-D’s 630 U.S. dealers. The goal is not just to keep dealers apprised of the latest product and service information, but also to keep them imbued with the Harley- Davidson spirit. The importance of this spirit can’t be underestimated: as one company’s slogan notes, “It’s one thing to have people buy your products. It’s another for them to tattoo your name on their bodies.”

      Initially, “Harley-Davidson University” and its in-house “Harleywood” production unit sent out training materials on videotape and paper. The trouble is, “it’s very easy for dealers to overlook something in the mail, especially when it seems to be another pack of paper from headquarters,” says Dale Cone, H-D’s manager of in-dealership training. “Videotapes would capture their attention a little better, but the duplication and mailing alone took a big bite out of the budget.”

      Enter Loral Cyberstar. Back in 1998, it struck a deal with H-D to provide one-way video/audio transmissions via satellite across America. Throw in telephone return paths, and suddenly H-D has a real-time distance learning network at its disposal.

      “Our first broadcast was the introduction of the new TwinCam 88,” says Cone. “Although dealers didn’t yet have dishes at their locations, Cyberstar worked with us to set up reception sites throughout the country for dealers. When they saw the quality and possibilities for H-D TV, we had a tremendous surge of dealers signing up right away.”

      Today, over 75 percent of H-D’s independent dealers are signed up for H-D TV. On average they get to see at least one broadcast per month, ranging from product and servicing information to H-D fashion shows and special events.

      Meanwhile, the use of telephone return paths allows live Q&A sessions between headquarters and its H-D dealers. “We present information through a live panel discussion for example, and if there’s a concern from the field, it can be called in and addressed once, rather than 600 separate times,” says Cone. “The savings and improvement in dealer relations is extraordinary.”

      All told, distance education via satellite is paying big benefits for America’s premier motorcycle maker. As Cone says, “We’re able to deliver more–and more effective– training and communication than we ever have before.”

      Distance Education Paying Off

      As the above examples prove, distance education via satellite is paying off for business and public institutions alike. In fact, during the current economic downturn, it’s the unbeatable, undeniable value of this form of education–and its cost-effectiveness–that offers the satellite industry real hope for the days ahead.

      James Careless is a contributing writer to Via Satellite.

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