I had attended a faculty demonstration on videoconferencing at DePaul University where I teach, and a few weeks later read an article about the United Nations conducting videoconferences. "I have an idea: we can hold discussions between our students and United Nations ambassadors and officials via videoconferencing." University officials liked my suggestion, so I contacted Ahmad Kamal, former Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations, who chairs the UN Working Group on Informatics. He was enthusiastic.
It was 24 October 1997 and I was walking up Michigan Avenue with Ambassador Kamal; actually, we were rushing to an important luncheon. Susanne Dumbleton, Dean of the School for New Learning, hosted the Chicago luncheon, which was attended by, among others, David Levin, Director of the Office of Distance Learning, Barry Keilman, JD, College of Law, and several faculty members. We had agreed that the Ambassador would bring together UN experts to speak with DePaul University students via videoconferencing.
The logistics of connecting our equipment with that of the United Nations was easy, but what would we talk about? How long should a videoconference discussion last? How much time should be allotted to the UN experts and for students' questions? Would the speakers address the exact issues the professor wants? Would the information have academic value? Which students would benefit the most, and how would they react? Would professors give up their teaching time to speak with UN officials?
We decided to try videoconferencing on an experimental basis. Professor Keilman volunteered and proposed setting up the first discussions in his 1998 winter course on international environmental law, which were held in a classroom at our downtown Chicago campus. Videoconferencing has three aspects: planning, equipment and discussion. The Office of Distance Learning staff plans each videoconference, a technician from Classroom Technologies handles the equipment, and the professor and students focus on the discussion.
Our classroom contains the Tandberg videoconference system, which is a fully integrated classroom solution. There are two large television monitors in the front and two in the back of the room, with cameras in between. Two ceiling-mounted speakers and microphones distribute sound and pick up everyone's voice. The podium contains a touch-screen control panel, speakers, microphones, document camera, computer monitor, videotape deck and a standard telephone. The control panel allows the technician to move the camera around, zoom in and switch from the front to the back room camera, and display material on the document camera or from a computer monitor. Each unit contains a codec (coder-decoder) that takes, digitizes and compresses an analog video signal so it can be transmitted over phone lines. The receiving codec uncompresses and changes back the signal, displaying a picture and voice on television. Because digital video and sound streams are so large, they cannot be compressed to travel over a single phone li ne, so we use ISDN phone lines that rely on a public digital phone network. The codec combines ISDN lines into what is called channels and can handle from two- to twelve-channel calls. A six-channel call transmits 384 kilobits per second and gives very good quality at a reasonable price. For a successful discussion to take place, technicians at both ends need to make sure that their equipment is compatible and conduct a test connection at least a week before the actual videoconference.
On 2 February 1998, DePaul University technician Charles Mitchell dialled the United Nations codec, and the UN panel and students were on television in Chicago and at UN Headquarters in New York. Ambassador Kamal, Ambassador George Saliba of Malta, Mark Grey of Australia, Nahel Elmiry of the UN Ocean Affairs and Law of the Sea Division, and James Sniffen of the UN Environment Programme spoke on the topic "Regulating Marine Pollution" with insight and humour, while nervous students asked questions. …