China's Clever Classroom

At Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, all eyes are on Professor Yuanchun Shi. But it’s not the computer scientist’s lecture that’s so riveting-it’s how she’s giving it. One wall of her “smart classroom” displays photos of students at other universities across China who have logged in. Shi poses a question and calls on a remote student by shining a laser pointer on his photo. “Go ahead,” the teacher says. The student’s picture switches to live video and audio as he answers. Shi writes on a digital whiteboard that transmits her handwriting to the students’ computers, complementing audio and visual feeds from cameras and microphones.

Shi’s smart classroom is one of the most advanced in the world. Wide-scale testing is under way, and commercialization is planned, initially within China.

Until now, most smart classrooms for distance learning have required teachers to use desktop computers to run their classes. But this version allows Shi to lecture and interact with remote students more naturally, using speech, gestures, and handwriting. “They are certainly doing some interesting things that other people have done before in isolation but not together in an all-in-one package,” says Jason Brotherton, an expert in computer-enhanced education at University College London who is developing his own distance-learning classroom.

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Shi’s classroom relies on some technological wizardry. In the back of the room, behind a curtain, is a rack of seven computers. Computer-vision algorithms coordinate eight video cameras that track the teacher’s movements, switching views as she points to a page in a textbook or writes on the whiteboard. The computers recognize the positions of her arms and zoom in on particular gestures. The system also tracks the trajectory of the laser pointer and responds to simple spoken commands. Remote students’ desktop computers are equipped with video cameras, microphones, and communication software to allow them to send and receive multimedia data.

Last summer, 180 students took part in a computer science course at Tsinghua, one of the country’s top technical schools, from their dorm rooms. And since last winter, hundreds of students in a half-dozen cities in China have joined the class. Now, working with Beijing MoVision Technologies, a multimedia telecom firm, Shi plans to commercialize the system’s software within a year. Her first customer: Tsinghua’s Continuing Education School, which could grant remote access to as many as 20,000 students.

LEADERS IN COMPUTER-ENHANCED EDUCATION
Researcher
Project
Gregory Abowd, Georgia Institute of Technology
(Atlanta, GA)
Multimedia technologies for recording and enhancing classroom lectures
Ron Baecker, University of Toronto
(Toronto, Ontario)
Web-based interactive audio and videoconferencing for universities
Jason Brotherton, University College London
(London, England)
Experimental classroom for enhanced distance learning
Yuanchun Shi, Tsinghua University
(Beijing, China)
Smart classroom for interactive distance learning
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