February 2008

Open Webcasting -ICTP

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Online classroom lectures involve a lot of technological challenges yet provide fabulous learning and interaction experiences for remote users

Introduction

Lectures given in a classroom can be more complex in form than relatively simpler seminar presentations. They usually include the simultaneous use of a standard chalkboard, projected transparencies plus the display of PowerPoint (PPT) or Keynote presentations with the use of some pointers. All such features need to be considered when publishing these lectures online in order to recreate a learning experience that creates the closest possible classroom reality for remote audience without excluding any bit of information. This is still a technological challenge.

To produce such type of synchronised recordings, both the audience and their available computer/networking facilities need to be considered. For the production and delivery of open webcasting, it is necessary to adopt low-bandwidth compliant applications that keep the video and audio quality as high as possible and keep the size of all synchronised files (video, audio, slides) as small as possible. Also relevant to consider, is to automate as much as possible the recordings production and to reduce any manual post-processing and editing. The latter becomes especially relevant when carrying out massive recordings in different rooms across a large campus.

Enhance your audience 

One concrete possibility to achieve a realistic 'virtual presence' in traditional classroom lectures is given by our recording system by named- 'Enhance your Audience' (EyA). This is an automated recording system in use at ICTP-Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy (www.ictp.it) to record mathematics and physics lectures, and international conferences and workshops. The automated EyA is an innovative system developed to archive and share scientific webcastings carried out using either digital (PPT, PDF, etc.) presentations or the old and more traditional chalkboard lectures without any human intervention. Video and audio are recorded in slots of one hour on a 'producer' computer with a webcam and USB microphone fixed on the wall. High quality photos (seven megapixels or higher) are taken every 15 seconds with a digital camera (controlled via software) and immediately downloaded from the camera to the computer via USB. Images are compared together to drop duplicates in order to decrease the space needed for storage and download of the recordings. By automatically synchronising the images with the audio/video recordings, the viewer can zoom in regions of a large screen, podium or chalkboard to visualise a presentation more effectively. EyA recordings also offer the benefit of seeing the physical gestures, body languages (of the people present before the camera) and the like which are inherent in classroom lectures.

Digitisation of course content

September 2007 onwards, all lectures given within the ICTP Diploma Course of the ICTP are being automatically recorded using the new automated EyA system. The access to this digital material is made freely available on the web (www.ictp.tv) to the public i.e., students at our Miramare Campus and beyond. The 'ICTP Diploma Course On-Line' project aims to enhance ICTP's mandate of transferring knowledge to scientists from developing countries. It is our hope that these public recordings will also be useful for lecturers beginning their teaching careers in science around the world.

It is possible to follow the open synchronised recordings (in Flash and/or QuickTime formats) from any computer connected to Internet and to download the compressed zip files within an hour of recordings or to watch it using any web browser, including those available on public cybercaf

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