In today’s guest blog post, Warren Sheaffer from St. Paul College in Minnesota reports on a new MiRTLE (Mixed-Reality Teaching and Learning Environment) installation in a high school in Minneapolis. This was made possible by a collaboration with his colleague and Virtual Learning Labs business partner, Michael Gardner from the University of Essex, who attended the event remotely via Open Wonderland.
MiRTLE Grand Opening
South High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota
By Warren Sheaffer
On October 19th, at a well-attended grand opening, South High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota brought the first MiRTLE facility online in K-12 education.
MiRTLE, a Mixed Reality Teaching and Learning Environment, is an environment where people gather in both the physical and the virtual world. In this case, it is the combination of a physical classroom at South High School in Minneapolis, and the virtual Wonderland South High School classroom where people from remote locations are projected onto the walls of the live classroom.
A series of opening remarks were made by the district, the principal, the director of career and technical education for Minneapolis Public Schools, and the President of St. Paul College. In addition, guest speakers from Boston and Great Britain welcomed South High School to the world of immersive education and were present at the event as avatars in the Wonderland world projected on the screen. Michael Gardner, the researcher who developed the MiRTLE technology at the University of Essex, welcomed the students, faculty, and administrators to a new world of distance education delivery.
“It was great to see MiRTLE expanding beyond the realms of higher education with this installation,” Gardner said after the event. “We are now starting to see real examples of MiRTLE being used across the spectrum of education, from K-12 through to higher education and training. Our aim now is to make the use of MiRTLE as seamless as possible. It should be as simple to use for the teacher as the overhead projector currently is. In Virtual Learning Labs we are currently working on a ‘single box’ managed installation which has zero setup from the point of view of the teacher. It can be turned “off” and “on” as needed. This allows the teacher to focus on teaching with the students being co-located and online in the virtual environment all at the same time.”
Aaron Walsh from Boston College and Director of the Immersive Education Initiative also remotely welcomed all participants to this new platform and encouraged the participation of the educators in the Minneapolis public school district to participate in the implementation and development of immersive educational technology.
Minneapolis Public Schools has a long history of excellence in innovation and the use of information technology to support primary education. St. Paul College has had a long involvement with immersive education and plans to work collaboratively with Minneapolis Public Schools in the implementation and further development of the platform as an alternate vehicle to deliver curriculum between both the college and college-ready students in the school district.
Classroom Setup and Technology
Here is how the live classroom is set up:
The instructor’s workstation, a Macintosh desktop machine, is running a VNC server (VNC is a technology for sharing a remote desktop, and can be used in Wonderland using the VNC Viewer module). This workstation is projected onto a whiteboard in the front of the room and is used to display presentations.
Avatars of remote students or guest speakers appear nearly life-size on the projected surface in the back of the classroom. The computer driving this projection and running the Wonderland client is a Mac Pro workstation with dual Nvidia graphics adapters.
With this setup, the instructor is able to see and interact with a mix of students who are present in the real world and the virtual world simultaneously. While delivering the lecture, the instructor sees the students in the virtual world as if they were sitting behind the students in the live classroom.
Audio communication between the lecturer and the remote participants logged in to the virtual world is made possible via the Wonderland voice bridge. The voices of people in the classroom are picked up with a Solo echo-canceling microphone which does a good job of covering the whole room. In the local space, the remote voices are piped into the room using the classroom audio system.
The virtual world participants “see” into the live classroom via a ceiling-mounted Axis 212 IP video camera that provides a video stream of the lecture to the virtual world participants. This wide-angle camera provides a view that encompasses the entire room.
The Wonderland servers are hosted at the Computer Science Data Center at St. Paul College. There are two Sun 4150 class servers, each with 8GB of RAM, 2 quad core Intel processors, and dual 320GB mirrored SCSCI drives at 10,000 RPM. Each server is running the most recent versions of Solaris 10 and Open Wonderland. Right now the servers are operating separately, but we are experimenting with an extension configuration which will utilize them both simultaneously.
Since this is a relatively new technology, applied for the first time in a primary education setting, we all look forward to learning more about how to implement and maintain such facilities so that this information can be shared with the general community.
Many thanks to all who participated in this event. Both St. Paul College and the Minneapolis public schools look forward to working with the Open Wonderland and immersive education communities as we learn together.
To learn more about the MiRTLE project, please feel free to read our technical report: MiRTLE: A Mixed Reality Teaching & Learning Environment, published May, 2009, by Bernard Horan, Micheal Gardner and John Scott.