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MusicGrid: Video Collaboration in Action
Hassan Masum, 27 May 05

MusicGrid screen shotReaching out via voice has changed the world, through landlines, cell phones, and now Skype and cousins. What effects will broadband video have?

We've talked before about telemedicine and the Participatory Panopticon. Now an article on Canada's MusicGrid project, co-written by yours truly, explores a real-life case study involving hundreds of geographically-distributed students, teachers, and musicians - all collaborating over broadband video networks:

The technical requirements for widespread deployment of broadband video over the Internet are rapidly being met. But a harder challenge remains: how can video–based technologies promote collaboration and learning?"

We present a case study: the MusicGrid Project. Running from 2002 to 2004 with partners in several Canadian and international locations, this modestly funded initiative ran over one hundred successful multi–site education and performance sessions...

MusicGrid used broadband video collaboration tools to enable education, collaboration, and performance at sites located across Canada and internationally. The article explains our goals:

Students are enthusiastic once they see the relevance of a project, making a good pilot group for collaboration in society at large. Thus, we believe the MusicGrid project has lessons of a general nature for understanding how effective collaboration can happen through a less than perfect channel.

The human dimension is another key driver for development of broadband video education and collaboration. In Canada, as in many circumpolar nations, remote communities are located hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from the nearest sizable population center. Off the grid for communications, they risk being "off the map" for opportunities as well — a situation replicated in smaller communities around the world.

...Using technology to assist underserved communities promises to enhance opportunities for schooling, continuing education, cultural opportunities, trade, and intellectual life. The experience of these communities can be applied worldwide. As the great shift from rural to urban living continues, creating alternatives to moving to large urban areas can make a more distributed lifestyle and human geography viable.

With good equipment, dedicated bandwidth, and proper setup, we're at the stage now where a few thousand dollars plus bandwidth gives quite a compelling video-mediated experience. Active user communities and online resources are available, such as the case studies and setup details at TWICE and the Videoconferencing Cookbook. (Webcam / PC solutions, while not in the same league as specialized hardware solutions like Polycom and Isabel units, are now satisfactory for informal connections if you have good end-to-end bandwidth - iChat AV and Polycom PVX are some of many possibilities to consider.)

Once the "technical communication layer" is taken care of, there is still the "human communication layer", which is even more important in video than in physical meetings due to the narrower channel. I've heard of and seen a number of videoconferences which, while fine technically, were perceived as boring or a waste of time by the users - well, a boring meeting remains a boring meeting, whether run in real space, via videoconference, or via 3D holographic systems of the future. But with socially intelligent and enthusiastic participants, the medium just fades away.

So, what was MusicGrid actually like? What better way to convey the experience than through the voices of the participants?

"I find that it has opened up tremendous opportunities to all of our students that we have seen here because every culture they are linked to, they find out something unique. To be speaking to students from the Inuit culture the way they are, presented through MusicGrid, has been tremendous. It opens up the world to these students. We live on an island, and it tends to be isolated as islands tend to be, and you don't have access like you do in Toronto. So just getting into your car and listening to a class here and there or wherever, is so important. MusicGrid, then, has opened up the world to these kids and you can really tell it has had a tremendous impact."

"There was one time where there were four screens, a choir, a fiddle player and a bass player. But what struck me was that the fiddle player was being accompanied by a bass player in another region of Canada, and students were jigging. It was amazing to me how the virtual ensemble was going on and covering mass regions in Canada. And really there wasn't too much of a delay. It was incredible."

"This project has moved beyond the technology in that it has already shown that the potential exists and it actually resulted in some very significant learning. My feeling is that we are moving in the right direction — more as technology fades into the background. Because the technology is by no means the end, it's only a means by which to teach; we need to do what we can to make the technology completely disappear."

"It's still amazing to me that we can all meet, despite our geographical distances, and chat about what we think and our experiences. It's easy to feel the connection between the sites and to see how we've all been working together to implement the technology."

"Anytime you have students from one part of the world talking with others in a whole other place, good things are going to happen, I think. How can they not? Music is a great place to start, but as I saw with the space event, it's not really limited to that. I think there's a lot more we could do."

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Hi, Hassan. I'm a computer columnist with CBC Radio Canada and am interested in following up with you on this. What an interesting project!

Thanks for the heads-up in WorldChanging. This one was a cool little nugget to find.


Posted by: Sue Braiden on 28 May 05



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