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A Publication Featuring The Information Services Technology of Maine State Government

 

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Advanced Telecommunications for Maine
The Other ATM

By Karen Knox

ATM? Isn't that the place you get cash from a machine? Nope. ATM stands for asynchronous transfer mode, a broad band fiber-optic networking system that transmits voice, video, and data. This powerful, high speed switching technology allows simultaneous transmission of all types of digital traffic and does not require separate networks to carry voice, data, and video. This means that there is real time communication (audio and video) happening between various sites in Maine. Imagine being in a classroom in Presque Isle and interacting with students in Portland, Orono, and Augusta.

Wow, but what prompted the use of ATM in Maine schools? There is a lot of history involved in this and there are several pieces that play a role in the ATM program. Back in 1995, the Maine Goals 2000 Technology Task Force delivered its findings and recommendations, which included the vision that: "All children are empowered through the use of technology to increase their capacity to become proficient in the skills of reading, writing, mathematics, and higher-order thinking skills to ensure future success in life in the 21st century. By creating a technology-rich environment, Maine will provide a community of lifelong learners with the skills necessary to succeed in a future characterized by constant change."

Moving ahead in time to May 1997, Maine's Learning Results were adopted by the State Legislature. This document identifies the knowledge and skills essential for Maine students. The Learning Results express what students should know and be able to do at various checkpoints during their education. The Learning Results help to focus discussion and develop consensus on common goals for Maine education. In fact, the Learning Results challenge communities, schools and teachers to work together in implementing effective instructional strategies to achieve high academic standards and expectations for all students

During this time, Maine schools and libraries were being interconnected via MSLN (Maine Schools and Libraries Network) with the University of Maine System providing Internet service connectivity and network operations support. Most MSLN connections are using 56 KB lines, but the ATM pilot sites are utilizing 10 MB lines. In December 1996, NYNEX (now Bell Atlantic) was contracted through the competitive bid process, to build an ATM network in Maine. Bell Atlantic now has more ATM switches in Maine than in any of its other regions!

Early in 1997 sites for the ATM Project Pilot were selected. The sites are Governor Baxter School for the Deaf (Falmouth), Gorham High School, Hall-Dale High School (Farmingdale), University of Maine (College of Education, Orono), and Presque Isle High School. The Department of Education and the Maine State Library are pilot sites in Augusta. The pilot has proven to be successful, due, in part, to the collaboration between Bell Atlantic, Newbridge (network and bridge installation), Star Vision (audio and video interface), the Department of Education, the University of Maine, the pilot school districts, and the State of Maine Bureau of Information Services (BIS).

A crucial piece to the success of the ATM program came in November 1995. Maine voters approved a bond to raise $15 million to purchase the classroom equipment necessary (e.g., cameras, switches, microphones, monitors) to support the implementation of ATM in Maine high schools and vocational centers and regions. The bond allows for 170 sites to be created in eligible schools and in libraries.

A Request for Proposal (RFP) has recently been released to select a qualified bidder(s) who will be responsible for providing an ATM-based distance learning solution for the schools and libraries of Maine. This includes the provisioning and installation of equipment, aiding the schools in appropriate classroom design, integrating with existing network service providers, training teachers and technical support people, providing functional and technical support and ensuring the success of effective use of the equipment to support distance learning among other uses.

So what is it like using this new technology? This first thing that you will notice is that there are cameras, microphones, and video monitors in the ATM classroom. Because this is fully interactive, the cameras can be moved so that people at other locations can see who is talking. The instructor often controls the cameras so that he or she can see all participants in all locations. Cameras can also be controlled by each location participating. Document cameras are used to allow overheads, slides, and other materials to be viewed at all locations. Each of the sites also has a PC based application that allows electronic messages to be sent among the sites and viewed on classroom monitors.

How's the quality compare to TV? The video standard that is used is by the ATM Project is MPEG2, which gives broadcast quality video. An issue encountered was ensuring that there were no video problems. Students are used to high quality video and are particularly aware of any video transmission problems. Audio is an area that has been more problematic than anticipated during the pilot. While the audio is CD quality, the classrooms are not designed to be studios. Most locations have hard floors, concrete walls, and are not equipped with acoustical tiles. Students are also very alert to pick up on lip-synch errors.

What can this Distance Learning technology be used for in Maine? One use is for schools to cooperate and share resources with one another. For instance, if a school needs to offer a calculus course but doesn't have an instructor, an instructor from another school could teach the course from their location using the technology. Teachers also benefit from the ATM technology. The University of Maine has begun to offer courses for teachers to take as part of a Masters program or for professional development. This allows a teacher to fully participate in a class, without having to potentially travel several hundred miles each week. Another use is to allow people to participate fully in meetings and conferences from various locations throughout the state.

Isn't this technology difficult to use? Not really. Instructors will need to become comfortable with the new technology, and, with a little practice, they will have it mastered. Each session is controlled by a session controller that automates the process. Even camera movements can be predetermined and programmed into the session controller.

As you might have guessed, the students have found this new technology to be easy to understand. In fact during the setup and testing for the pilot, a movie was being broadcast over the network. Students in a classroom noticed a camera moving and decided to investigate. They quickly figured out what the system was, how to manipulate the cameras, use the PC to send a message and ended up watching the movie

Some of the pilot sites have experimented with desktop video using the "CUSeeMe" technology. While this technology doesn't give the same level of quality as the ATM video, the manufacturers are very interested in working with Maine in its development. In fact, Maine is one of the few places in the country that this new technology can be tested because of the high speed, 10 MB lines being used.

So far the ATM Project has proven to be a useful part of the Maine education system and has a bright future. Maine is certainly positioned at the front of the pack with this new technology and is being watched by other states. For more information on the ATM Project, check out the web page at http://www.maine.gov/education/atm.htm. You'll find several links that provide much more detail on the uses of ATM, the history of the project here in Maine, RFP information, and contact names for each site and the pilot team.