Webcast enriches class, may cause network problems

For the last month, students in Religion 301, “Psychology of Religion,” have been attending class, taking notes and, in some cases, turning up the volume on their computer speakers.

Cluett Professor of the Humanities Mark C. Taylor has been teaching his class while simultaneously broadcasting it over the Internet, making it possible for alumni to participate in the class from their homes and offices.

Taylor said he hopes to expand this new approach to learning at Williams through the establishment of a “Cyber-College.” Specifically, the Alumni Development Office and the Office of Information Technology would work with Taylor to set up a system whereby four or five Williams classes would be broadcast on the Internet each semester.

Response to Taylor’s course has been positive on campus but tempered among alumni. Of 3800 alumni e-mailed about the class, almost 200 have registered for the course, enabling them to share their thoughts through the on-line discussion forum and attend a virtual class by watching a live video feed.

But current limitations of the Internet and computer hardware make the experiences of various users widely different.

The video of the class is displayed in a two-inch by one-inch frame on computer monitors for the remote alumni. Video and audio clips are made and archived each session so users with slower Internet connections may still listen in, during class or at later times when the network is less stressed.

However, some remote users have still encountered problems.

“The technical barriers make. . .the experience extremely difficult – if not impossible,” said Bob Graffagnino ’68.

Class assistants Suela Nako ’00 and Reed Townsend ’00 handle technical issues along with John Kim ’96. Kim, who came up with the idea to webcast the class, said bandwidth issues would become irrelevant with advances in Internet networking.

For now, though, the number of users remains low, with the number of users declining over the past couple of weeks. From September 20 to September 27 only 22 users tuned in to the live broadcast. The next week 19 connected. While 41 people attempted to view the most popular archived class the first week, the number dropped to 28 the following week.

However, staff at the OIT suggest that the low number of users isn’t necessarily negative. Specifically, since each video stream takes up 30 kilobytes a second, were the number of users to increase to 50, the class would effectively block all campus access to the Internet.

“The potential for this technology to consume bandwidth. . .is great,” said Scott Fuller, the network and systems administrator. But he added “the same can be said for just about every other service on the network.”

Fuller explained that to prevent this blockage from occurring, a second connection to the Internet is being brought on-line this semester with a different provider. He said although this won’t increase Internet access time for the average Williams student, it should provide a fail-safe if too many alumni try to access the campus network.

While users off-campus have encountered difficulties, those students attending class in person have responded positively.

“I think it’s probably my most difficult, but also my most interesting and rewarding class,” said Mariya Hodge ’00.

She noted that the archived classes enable students who missed class to easily catch up without borrowing notes and that the on-line forum is another asset of the class.

The on-line forum is the locus where both alumni and students may contribute their thoughts about the class. It consists of a webpage listing student comments according to their subjects.

Many students have found the forum to be a valuable asset, enabling them to share ideas about the readings with alumni.

“[The alumni’s] comments are very insightful and valuable, but also sort of intimidating,” Hodge said.

But students who fall behind in the reading, whether alumni or Williams students have found it difficult to participate in the forum.

“In truth, I was never very good at keeping up with the readings when I was in school 30 years ago either,” said Graffagnino.

Those alumni who don’t have a strong background in philosophy have found the experience frustrating at times, but don’t attribute it to the technology.

The technology behind the forum and the video archive has been around for years, but it is only recently that it has been utilized at Williams.

“There’s a strong interest to broadcast music programs and other campus events,” said Chief Technology Officer Perry Hanson. “If it’s easy to produce classes then more may join in such productions.”

The college radio station, the music department and the Record have all broadcast events using the same technology as Taylor’s class.