When celebrated conductor Michael Tilson Thomas halted his orchestra's rehearsal in Miami to welcome recent Peabody Conservatory alumnus Daniel Ratchev to the podium, a shower of applause rang out in Baltimore.
Chaos theory at play? Not quite. The conductor and his young protege were actually the guests of honor in a live, fully interactive Webcast that put Peabody students and Thomas' New World Symphony, two groups separated by a thousand miles, virtually in the same room.
The event, held last month, brought Peabody professor Gustav Meier's conducting class to Homewood to use the new Hodson Hall's distance learning room, a state-of-the-art space that can beam the world to Johns Hopkins in the blink of an eye, using new audio, video and Internet2 technology.
Call it the next generation of video conferencing, and, according to JHU administration, it's a revolutionary technology that promises to be both a boon to the Hopkins education experience and a bridge between university divisions near and far.
For the Peabody students, the live Webcast provided a unique opportunity to observe a master conductor's rehearsal/coaching session and then ask him questions based on what they had seen and heard. Thomas is the artistic director of the New World Symphony, a national training orchestra for the most gifted graduates of America's conservatories. Ratchev, who received his master's in music from Peabody, is the orchestra's first conducting intern.
Paula Burger, vice provost for academic affairs and international programs, says Hodson Hall's distance learning room is a glimpse into higher education's future.
"There is probably no university that stands more to benefit from effective use of sophisticated videoconferencing capability than Johns Hopkins, given our international dimensions and decentralization," says Burger, who also chairs the Commission on Undergraduate Education. "With our geographically dispersed campuses around the Baltimore and Washington area, one can imagine great advantages to students who can share courses or learning experiences. One thinks, for example, of the ability of Homewood students to participate in programs at SAIS and vice versa. And, perhaps even more exciting is the potential to link our overseas campuses to programs here."
SAIS students could audit a course in Chinese from the Hopkins Nanjing Center, she says, or students enrolled at the Bologna Center in Italy could participate in a seminar discussion on European politics going on in Washington or Baltimore.
"Years ago, this seemed like a dream, but it is now entirely possible to integrate such experiences into our regular academic offerings," she says.
The Peabody linkup with Tilson Thomas' rehearsal/coaching session was the second live Webcast connection between the school and the New World Symphony. In September, a classical guitar class observed Peabody's own Manuel Barrueco at a dress rehearsal in Florida for the world premiere of a guitar concerto by Robert Sierra.
On both occasions, the students were able to observe and, more important, interact with individuals who were broadcast live and in crystal-clear color on two 60-by-80-inch rear-projection screens.
How does the system work? In the remote location, pan-tilt and zoom cameras track the subjects and voices being recorded, guided either manually or automatically by sound detection. In Hodson Hall, similar cameras and microphones capture the sights and sounds in the distance learning room. Both locations have viewing screens positioned strategically at several points so that everyone can see each other. The two groups can look at and talk to one another without any perceptible delay.
The "video magic," according to Graham Bouton of Hopkins ITS, who manages the distance learning room, is made possible by the Internet2 connection that broadcasts the signal between locations. Internet2 was developed by a consortium of more than 200 universities, including Johns Hopkins, that work in partnership with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies. The less than five-year-old Internet2 has a much higher bandwidth than its predecessor, according to Bouton, and is not used for commercial purposes.
"Basically, there is much less traffic congestion along Internet2," says Bouton, a technology services manager. "The Peabody hookup would have been problematic, if not impossible, to do along the more traditional Internet."
Bouton says that the video conferencing ability of the Hodson Hall space far surpasses that with which most people are familiar. For one, each of the desks has several built-in microphones that, when activated by a speaker, cause a camera to zoom in on him or her.
"With standard video conferencing, occasionally you have jerky or drop frames here and there, and the speech may not be coordinated with the video," he says. "But in our case, here at Homewood, we are able to duplicate broadcast-quality video and CD-quality sound. It's really amazing stuff."
Eileen Soskin, associate dean for academic affairs at Peabody, was the driving force behind the two collaborations between the New World Symphony and Johns Hopkins. Soskin, who attended both events, says her jaw nearly dropped the first time she witnessed the technology at work.
"It was phenomenal," she says. "Not only is the event captured in real time, but you have these large screens that can give you different views. On one you can watch as if you were sitting in the orchestra, while on the other you can see as if you were sitting in the audience. In some ways it's better than being there live as the cameras can zoom in on, say, a guitarist's fingers as he plays. We've never been able to duplicate this sort of experience in other media prior to this. I've become distance learning's No. 1 fan, and I think the Hodson Hall space is going to become an incredibly popular tool once the word gets out."
"Distance learning offers academic enrichment but also serves some practical purposes: cutting down on travel and therefore making better use of faculty's and students' time, allowing flexibility in classroom use, etc.," she says. "It's not a panacea, but it is a very useful supplement to academic programs and one that offers tremendous creative potential.
Jim Zeller, associate provost for budgets and planning, says the distance learning room was actually a somewhat last-minute addition to Hodson Hall, as it was not included in the original design.
Realizing that the university's existing distance learning facilities were both outdated and underutilized, Zeller helped lead an effort to put into Hodson Hall a space that "took full advantage of modern distance learning technology."
"We wanted a facility that would help faculty and students develop new technologies and new education experiences, a space that would enhance our current educational programs," Zeller says. "This is not to be confused with distance learning in the University of Phoenix model, where you export knowledge for profit. This technology is intended to be used primarily internally, to add a new dimension to what Hopkins already offers its population."
To date, Peabody has been the only division to use the Hodson Hall space for distance learning events. However, Bouton says that many faculty members at the Homewood schools have expressed interest in using it, and he has already begun to book up blocks of time for next semester.
Zeller says plans are in the works to develop a sister facility in Washington sometime next year, and he foresees a day in the near future when there is a "network" of distance learning rooms throughout the Hopkins enterprise.
"This is a wonderful tool to share knowledge across Hopkins divisions and bring us all closer together," he says. "I predict that once individuals see the usefulness of this application, they'll want it, and that will help determine where we place future facilities. Right now we are just looking for a few pioneers to step forward."