Monday, December 19, 2011

Revolutionary developments in on-line education - the role of R&E networks

[In the past couple of days there was a number of interesting announcements in the world of on-line education.
The first was the announcement by Nature of the release of a new Biology “Textbook” that will only available on tablets like the iPad.   The other announcement is from MIT where they now plan to offer credits for the “MITx” Open  Courseware.  Automatic systems will and guide the student through the program. . Other technologies that could come into play here include automatic transcription, online tutors, and crowdsourced grading. Officials have gone to great pains to state that this will not be the equivalent of getting a degree from MIT, but nevertheless it will expand the breadth of individuals who can claim an educational association with the MIT brand.

In addition to these developments many schools around the world are looking to replace traditional textbooks with tablets such as the iPad. This is not intended for distance education, but to enhance the learning experience in the classroom.  Schools in California, Wales, and universities like Case Western are already starting to experiment with using such devices in the classroom.  If the tablette in the classroom becomes popular, it will place enormous pressure on R&E networks.  Imagine hundreds of tablets in the schools trying to access the Internet at the same time!  This is going to a whole different challenge then connecting up a few computers in a special laboratory or purpose built classroom.    Most elementary schools have poor wireline connectivity and virtually no wireless access at all.  Many colleges and even universities are in not much better shape.

Some network engineers fear that the biggest growth in data traffic will not only be from eScience but from thousands of schools which have given tablets to very student.  As more and more textbooks are designed to be available only on tablets, we will soon reach a critical tipping point.

R&E networks need to start thinking of innovative solutions to address this potential new data torrent, of which 100% will be wireless.  The SURFnet pilot with KPN to deploy an enterprise centric integrated LTE/Wifi connect on campuses connected to the SURFnet is a good example.

Slowly there is a growing realization that wireless data is going to require a completely different architecture than telcos have traditionally deployed for voice. It is déjà vu all over again. In the early days of the Internet, the telcos and the big equipment manufacturers tried to build data solutions around voice network architectures- and ultimately failed.  Once again R&E networks can lead the way and deploy wireless data networks, as SURFnet is doing, that are designed first and foremost to carry Internet traffic.

Techniques like RF over glass, local caching, enterprise centric architectures, integrated Wifi/LTE, WDM-PON, RPON, 5G green networking, will need to be investigated, tested and deployed.  Most schools will not have the wherewithal to manage these types of networks, so remote management will also be essential.

Here is a good pointer on how R&E optical networks can integrate with LTE/WiFi towers located at schools and universities. Radio- optical network backhauling

A small Quebec startup, Aeponyx, has also been active in this space. In Quebec, many municipalities own the telecom conduit, and as result this has allowed the creation of what are called “condominium” dark fiber suppliers. They are building very innovation “green” wireless technologies that all allow integrated LTE/Wifi delivered over optical networks using WDM-PON and a technology concept developed at CANARIE called Reverse Passive Optical Networking – RPON.  The company is currently in financing mode, so I cannot reveal details of their technology.  But if you have been following my blog, you will get a sense of where they are headed.  For more information

Mr. François D. Ménard, CTO and Co-Founder
Contact Info: +1 819 609-1394
Web site:

Finally community Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) like those deployed by UNINETT in Norway, Karen in New Zealand and BCnet in British Columbia will be also essential. When students take their tablets home they will want to have the same throughput and experience with their education material as they have had a school. Unfortunately most commercial last mile providers have poor connectivity and often “trombone” their traffic to distant exchange points.  A local IXP will help reduce latency and congestion. -- BSA

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