Dawson City, Toronto art schools team up for distance learning

A few hundred kilometres south of the Arctic Circle, the gold rush town of Dawson City’s wealth of natural beauty and long summer days have drawn a colony of artists. That community spawned the Dawson City Art Society, which took a dilapidated Odd Fellows Hall and, with the help of volunteers, governments and NGOs, created the Klondike Institute of Art and Culture (KIAC) School of Visual Art, a school to deliver the first year of a Bachelor of Arts program.

But with two studio teachers – one imported from Montreal, the other from Toronto – the school didn’t have the resources to teach an art history class for the 22 students.

Charles Stankievich, the Montrealer who teaches new media and oversees the curriculum and pedagogy at KIAC, has the credentials to teach the class, “but I’m already overworked,” he says.

Almost 4,500 kilometres away in Toronto, the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) had the resources, and the means to deliver them via videoconferencing.

“We’ve been looking to partner with some other organizations on an educational level, and while we do have reciprocal agreements with a number of different institutions all over the globe, this one came to fruition very quickly and very fortunately,” says Andrew McAllister, manager of OCAD’s digital studios.

KIAC already had an educational partnership with OCAD, along with Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver. Since a nearby Yukon College campus was delivering classes through videoconferencing, it was natural for KIAC to consider it. KIAC had been in discussions with Emily Carr, but they weren’t panning out.

“When (KIAC) approached OCAD, we were like, ‘Wow, what fortuitous timing, we really want to jump all over this,'” McAllister says.

KIAC had the fastest business line available to them in Dawson – about 400Kbps download, and 150 upload – installed. “We did that for a few different reasons, rather than logging into the government’s or Yukon College’s. One of them is just a speed thing. We’re a school that’s just getting established and our infrastructure is still being built, the building’s still being finished,” says Stankievich.

But it’s also partly about access and censorship. “We’re an art department so we wanted to be able to do different things and not have to deal so much with censorship. It’s an issue of the actual content of the course,” says Stankievich.

Two channels of content are sent to KIAC. One contains the instructor’s presentation, which is projected on a wall. The other stream is live video of the teacher, which plays on a television in the studio classroom.

“We have a designated static IP address that we use for our wireless network,” he says. “Then we have a different IP we use just for videoconferencing. So each time we have a new video session, we just switch our Internet over to a static IP address just for the video so it goes to a certain port. And then I turn on a projector and a TV and the Tandberg unit that we’re using.

“I use it in a studio, so everything’s on a cart. I just roll the cart out and project it onto the screen.”

Back in Toronto, OCAD is also using a mobile cart for the transmission. “It’s actually quite beautiful,” McAllister says. “It’s like a massive plasma cart with a 42-inch LCD on it with standards-based video conferencing. It’s got a Tandberg Edge 85 (Precision HD camera and microphone unit) on it. It has upscaling DVD playback on it and DVD recording.

“The faculty member is at the same time lecturing the OCAD students. Just off to (the instructor’s) left, in the line of sight, there’s this 42-inch LCD display with the KIAC students on it.” Only one stream comes back to Toronto, since there’s no presentation to be sent.

It’s one of two implementations at OCAD. Another unit is fixed in a studio, with three 50-inch monitors. Only one is used for standards-based videoconferencing. The other two enter the picture when using AccessGrid, a suite of collaboration technologies “with videoconferencing on the side,” says McAllister.

“It’s quite an excellent piece of technology,” he says. “But its limitation is that not a lot of people have it implemented, because it’s not the easiest thing. It’s not as shake ‘n’ bake as standards-based videoconferencing. So you always have to back it up with standards-based videoconferencing.”

Both schools are Tandberg shops when it comes to videoconferencing.

“We did an evaluation of Polycom,” says McAllister. “We had a Sony unit here, an older one. We weren’t hugely impressed with it. But Polycom were very responsive. They’re a great company and they have some great people working for them. But in the end, we chose to go with Tandberg.”

One reason: The firewall traversal is much more straightforward. Tandberg’s Gatekeeper is inside the firewall, while Border Controller sits outside. The technology tunnels safely through the firewall. It also secures the endpoint at KIAC.

“We had some problems initially connecting to KIAC and quality issues and we solved them partially by them peering to our border controller.”

Polycom was a little more expensive and the firewall traversal was more complex. In addition, the school was aware that IBM – which built OCAD’s network infrastructure in 2004 under Ontario’s Superbuild program – had been doing a lot of Tandberg installations.

Education is one of the Top 3 drivers of videoconferencing, says Boris Koechlin, president of Tandberg Canada. And it’s used across many different disciplines.

“It generally has the same theme as OCAD, where you have a density of skillsets in a major urban centre, like an Edmonton or a Toronto, and the colleges in remote areas looking to access those skills, that curriculum, that richness,” Koechlin says. “Video is increasingly becoming the medium to do this, and not only in the arts, but quite often on the purely technical side.”

The Northern Alberta Institute of Technology, for example, teaches plumbing and welding by videoconference.

“It’s driven by real-world economics,” says Koechlin. “There’s not enough skilled labour in Alberta. The big oil companies approached NAIT and said, ‘We need to partner with someone to turn general labourers into certified plumbers for us, and we need to do it in the far north.'”

Where a school is on the adoption curve for voice over IP is a good early indicator of how well prepared it is for this technology. “If it’s headed down that path with any number of vendors, the likelihood that they have the right raw elements in place for us to work with is high,” Koechlin says.

“If they haven’t taken that path, then we do often find ourselves having a little more spadework to do to get the right network elements in place to provide a quality experience.” Colleges and universities they’ve engaged are usually ready. In the K-12 space, “there are good examples of good architecture out there,” but the boards are still working to improve the underlying networking elements to be ready.

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