Bert Dempsey's voice crackled over the speaker and his digitized image flickered and shriveled on a large video monitor. "I'm sorry, I've lost audio," the Univeristy of North Carolina professor told a group of students at the University of Virginia who had gathered Thursday afternoon for a long distance lecture - and a window into the future.
Using computers, tiny video cameras and software they designed, UVa students and computer science professor Jorg Liebeherr were testing an idea that is still a novelty but might not be for long - interactive classes held over the Internet worldwide computer network.
"We can bring him here for free, rather than inviting a seminar speaker and paying a whole lot of money getting him here," Liebeherr said. Liebeherr's "Grounds-wide Teletutoring System," the name he gave his still-developmental software, incorporates video, audio and a computer "chalkboard" to simulate a live educational experience on the Internet.
The software would have a variety if educational and business uses, Liebeherr said. In the fall for instance, he and his teaching assistants will use the system to hold electronic "office hours" with students at remote locations. Two computer giants, Microsoft and Hewlett Packard, are helping him with the software's design. The system currently has one major advantage over a satellite hookups - the only cost to the public would be a local telephone call to an Internet provider, in this case the two universities.
"In theory, anyone who has access to the Internet can intercept these conferences," Liebeherr said. Aside from privacy concerns, Liebeherr and about a dozen graduate and undergraduate computer -science students found out Thursday that interacting within the university and with people hundreds if miles away poses problems.
Dempsey, who teaches at UNC's School of Library and Information Science, gave a lecture - appropriately enough - on the difficulty of sending video and audio over over-crowded telephone lines. Speaking into a video camera at UNC, his voice occasionally broke up, his bearded and bespectacled face contorted and the connection appeared lost for brief periods.
Responding to a reporter's question during the session, Dempsey said the software still has its bugs, but he felt comfortable with it. "I felt fairly connected with the classroom in Virginia," Dempsey said. "I wanted them to see the problems that we face," Liebeherr said of his students. He said the main difficulty is that telephone lines connecting the two universities don't have the capacity to handle all Internet traffic at once, which means audio and video signals travel at less-than-instantaneous speed.
Liebeherr said the video and audio quality would improve once demand for the Internet increases and the telephone companies increase the capacity of their lines. They also probably will start charging users a fee for long distance uses, he predicted.
One of his students said the new software should not do away with the tried and true method of having students and teachers in the same classroom.
"I don't think this can supplant a teacher, but it's certainly an enhancement, " said Mike Esler, a 19-year old junior from Chicago helping design the system "I think you lose something when the teacher and students don't interact." The Daily Progress, Charlottesville, VA March 8, 1996