MBONE: Multicasting Tomorrow's Internet

The MBONE and Education

One of the great ironies of this century is that television was originally seen to be an exclusively educational medium. Indeed, we've now educated ourselves in the vagaries of Beverly Hills lifestyles, how to fight bad guys without losing our cowboy hats, and all kinds of other life-enhancing details, but television hasn't exactly fulfilled its educational promise. And yet, at its best, TV can be (and has been) supremely educational. The shock of the Kennedy assassinations, the glory of the moon landings, the horror of Vietnam, the terror of Tiananmen Square, the tragedy of the Challenger shuttle explosion, the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union have all provided great, educational TV experiences. As far as educational programming goes, however, the provisions have been sporadic and deal only with popular education.

Most education, of course, isn't popular. It is challenging, demanding, often boring, and sometimes almost exclusively solitary. Broadcast the moon walk on TV and you'd get an audience; broadcast the physics conferences and lab experiments that led to the building of the Eagle, and you'd have almost no viewers. Sesame Street may be popular with young children, but once they mature past the early years, education is work, not play, and TV doesn't seem to go well with work.

The MBONE, on the other hand, will. Because it was designed as a medium for broadcasting to very specific audiences rather than mass audiences, the MBONE can be used for educational purposes. The next section examine three possibilities for using MBONE for educational purposes: distance education, special projects, and conferences. All three areas are vital components to the field of education, and the MBONE provides applications for each one.

Distance education

Videoconferencing already has a place in distance education, which is defined here as taking courses without being on campus. But most distance education remains based in the older style of listening to audio tapes and reading lecture notes, then working by yourself to get through the course. Many people receive degrees through distance education, but almost all comment that they would have liked the interaction of being on campus. The fact that most students on campus don't actually participate in lectures or classes doesn't matter; distance students feel isolated from the group, and the MBONE potentially can help eliminate part of this feeling.

Ideally, an MBONE-based distance education course would be combined with an on-campus class. The instructor would conduct an interaction-based session (as opposed to a straight lecture, which could be handled just as easily with videotape), and would accept questions and discussion from MBONE-connected students as well as in-class students. Sessions of this type need not last longer than 45 minutes to be effective, as long as they are well-organized. Whereas on-campus classes can meander to a certain degree, an MBONE-connected session must not (at least for now) waste any time. The organization and protocol of the session must be established and adhered to by the instructor, the on-campus students, and the distance students alike.

The potential for a greatly enriched learning experience for distance students is partially in place, but large barriers to it still remain. Because this technology is so expensive, the only viable possibility is to have distance students meet at assigned locations that have workstations with MBONE connections in place. This fact creates a built-in discriminating factor against truly isolated students in favor of those students in the larger population areas, but those who want to use the MBONE this way will have to work around the problem. In spite of its flaws, however, the idea remains a powerful one.

Special projects

The prototype for special educational projects on the Internet is surely NASA's JASON Project (http://seawifs.gsfc.nasa.gov/scripts/JASON.html). Introduced by Dr. Robert Ballard, the same person who found the sunken Titanic, the JASON Project is an annual, two-week expedition to a remote part of the world that is broadcast/multicast in real-time to "a network of educational, research, and cultural institutions in the United States, Canada, Bermuda, and the United Kingdom." One of the technologies in use is the MBONE.

The 1995 expedition, Island Earth, examined the volcanoes of Hawaii. Basically, the MBONE let students from around the world view the event and participate in it in real time. The pedagogical value of such a multicast is clear, and you can just imagine the vast range of activities that would benefit from such a setup. With sufficient funding, MBONE multicasts could form the basis of a kind of collaborative learning we have not yet experienced.

The key to the success of such a venture is planning and organization. Teachers and students must be prepared to be a part of such a session, the equipment must be readied and tested, and parents must be informed. In other words, the project must be as fully developed as any other classroom project. But when you consider the MBONE's potential for enabling students to reach beyond the classroom and learn alongside students from around the world, the amount of preparation seems worthwhile. There are problems with this format, of course -- skeptical teachers, underfunded schools, less-than-caring students, parents who don't believe in technologically assisted learning -- but these problems are the same ones encounter with many education situations. The point is that the MBONE can provide the basis for special learning projects, and that it is already doing so.


Scholarship and research rely on the publication of results. Formal publication takes place in journals or technical reports, which remain paper-based for the most part, but initial publication often takes place at academic or research conferences. The problem with conferences is that you have to travel to them, and with the funding cuts that universities and research institutes are experiencing, travel has become difficult for many researchers and impossible for some.

Another problem exists in deciding which conferences to attend. Even with unlimited travel funding, taking in all applicable conferences would be impossible; as a result, important research relevant to your particular area may be missed or overlooked until it is too late.

Papers delivered at a conference are sometimes published in a book called "Proceedings." But you cannot engage in a question-and-answer session with a book of proceedings, and the talks that rely on visual or audio demonstrations become rather lifeless in the book format. Reading the proceedings is not as easy a task either, whereas if you're attending a conference, you're more likely to listen simply because you're there.

An important initial role of the MBONE will be to help disseminate research information through conferences. Conference sessions (including keynote addresses) could be multicast live along the lines of a full videoconference. Viewers could sign up for the sessions, pay the conference fee, and have the resources to participate fully, using speech, whiteboards, and other tools. The major difference here is that the MBONE eliminates the associated travel and accommodation cost. An added benefit could be an increased desire by users to participate and learn.

In fact, conferences are already being conducted across the MBONE to some extent. One example is the Workshop on Computer Based Tools to Assist in Air Quality Modeling (http://www.iceis.mcnc.org/conference/state-workshop-3-22-95/index.html), conducted on March 22, 1995. As Figure 7-8 shows, the conference was available via the MBONE, and the participants were encouraged to communicate with others at the conference through the MBONE as well. Another example is the IEEE Infocom '95 conference. This conference offered MBONE sessions for non-traveling participants. The following is an excerpt from the conference instructions for MBONE users:

MBONE communications are multi-way. During question periods, we will solicit 
questions from remote participants, and try to interleave them with
questions from the local audience. Please wait to ask your question until the
chair explicitly asks for questions from MBONE/Internet listeners. The
person sitting in front of the workstation which is doing the MBONE
transmission, whom we call the ``MBONE moderator,'' will act as your
stand-in in the conference hall, and collaborate with the chair to handle
incoming questions smoothly. To avoid everyone politely waiting for
everybody else, please jot a short note (like simply your name) on the
current whiteboard page. The MBONE moderator will then explicitly ask
you to proceed with your question by announcing your name and location.
At that point, you should start speaking, beginning your question by
stating your name, affiliation, and geographical location. If your audio
sounds badly broken up, it may be best to simply type the question on the
whiteboard rather than trying to use the microphone.

Figure 8
Figure 7-8: The MBONE information page from the 1995 Air Quality workshop.

In reality, these instructions differ little from the standard conference protocol. You wait your turn, you are acknowledged, and you ask your question. Because you can put your question on the whiteboard, however, you may have an even greater chance of being answered than a member of the physical audience would. The point is that conferences can be conducted over the MBONE, and that some conferences have already used this format with success.

Table of Contents | Previous Section | Next Section