Scotland scores first with virtual conference

April 14, 2000

Peter Helms's bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired. Aberdeen University's professor of child health ignores a young mother as she struggles into his clinic with a baby and pushchair, refuses to make eye contact with her and brusquely interrupts her answers.

This is not Professor Helms's normal approach. The damning video clip is part of a multimedia teaching package for medical students that sets out bad and good practice in clinical situations.

The material, designed through a collaboration between Scotland's medical schools and nursing colleges, can be accessed via the web. Scotland's four high-bandwidth metropolitan area networks (MANs) enable the material to be used across the country, avoiding the CD-Rom, of which new versions have to be circulated.

Professor Helms last week took part in a demonstration of how Scottish higher education maintains its technological lead. In perhaps the first event of its kind in the world, academics in seven universities used the Scottish MANs videoconference network to showcase their work to Digital Scotland, the Scottish Parliament's task force to promote digital technology across all sectors of Scottish life. The SMVCN was also linked to a desktop system at Glasgow University and the UK Education and Research Networking Association studio in Oxfordshire.

The MANs network is based on asynchronous transfer mode technology running at a speed of 155Mbps, and the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council has funded the SMVCN to operate over this. The bandwidth used by each studio is 15 Mbps, rising to 40 Mbps. Universities outside Scotland must use ISDN technology, with an ISDN2 conference involving a bill for two simultaneous telephone calls for each site, while an ISDN6 conference costs six simultaneous calls.

Each Scottish higher education institution has at least one videoconference room, communicating entirely over the network, with free telephone calls. The rooms can be booked by any member of staff and are free at point of use. The sound and images are near-broadcast quality, and the rooms have the extra advantage of providing "mixed audio" with delegates from all online sites able to talk at once. By contrast, there is a noticeable pause when ISDN conferences switch between speakers at different sites and short interjections hold up the pace of meetings.

The 24 Scottish sites also have a separate internet connection with a PC linked to a projector and screen. At the Digital Scotland event, speakers took turns to control the Microsoft NetMeeting session and shared slide presentations and web pages, with each site able to see the presenter and material simultaneously.

"We've come to appreciate the tremendous educational potential this offers," said Iain MacLaren of Paisley University's physics department, who leads a collaborative Shefc project to develop and test web-based teaching materials.

Shefc is funding a programme to transform the innovative into standard practice. But increased usage of the SMVCN poses problems such as network overload.

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