Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Synchronous versus Asynchronous

When I was eight or nine years old, I got to see the James Bond car with the ejector seat at the New York Worlds Fair, which in Flushing Meadows was only about a half hour from my house in Bayside Hills. Here was literally the embodiment of high tech and its amazing capabilities. Goldfinger was definitely my favorite movie at the time and James Bond my biggest hero. Yet even then and even for that particular movie I remember some older folks saying ---- the book was better.

More recently, in the last five or ten years, I've read some page turning novels and also seen the films, John Grisham's The Firm and Carl Sagan's Contact. While both were entertaining, I have no doubt in my mind that the book was better. I'm sure more people saw the movies and clearly the movies were "more efficient" in that I got to view them in a couple of hours, while the book probably took the better part of a weekend. But the books certainly were more captivating, allowed my imagination to be at play more, and for reasons I don't quite understand had better plots especially near the end. The movies, for whatever reasons, didn't stay true to the books and had different endings.

It is worth noting that when reducing both types of media to bits and bytes, the movies are much higher bandwidth. It is also worth nothing that the movies represent a much bigger production effort, with a large number of people getting credits. The books, on the other hand, have the author and an editor or two as the creative input. That's it.

All of this is preface for the following observation. Over the last couple of years on campus we've witnessed a change in bandwith to the residence. Broadband is now the norm. Dialup has not gone away completely, but broadband is the expectation. When I travel now, I expect the hotel room to have a network connection (perhaps wireless). A few years ago, I always was prepared with the local Earthlink number and doing dialup. I'm sure dialup will persist for some time to come. But broadband will become the norm even in remote areas.

When I talk about this internally in my organization, the issue is about whether broadband is good enough or do we need something even better to ensure (invariably this is the use that is mentioned) that video conferencing has good performance. The motion in the video looks natural, there is essentially no latency. Certainly with current CPUs, the rendering of video that is on the local computer is quite impressive. We are at or near TV quality and increasingly large pictures can be shown. So why not deliver this same quality over the network?

The issue I'm trying to get at is this. Now that we can be pretty assured that the bandwidth will be there should we expect a revolution in teaching, learning, and online collaboration. Will the ability to communicate rich content deliver what we want? I brought up the book versus movie analogy at the beginning for a reason. I think it is relevant here and I think the argument is that we should be very wary of claims about the benefits of rich content.

Here are some examples. Our help desk has had screen sharing software so that users could show their particular issues to the help desk personnel to aid in the diagnosis and the solution of the problem. Has the screen sharing software been utilizied? No, it has not. I'm not sure why, but the triage and diagnostics happen with more basic tools. Ask any of my CIC colleagues about H.323 video conferencing and how much they use it. After that being the craze three or four years ago, now we use telephone and email. Here, that is nothing more than the reliability issue. Now consider something else. We have a variety of courses in Chemistry, Computer Science, other Engineering classes, and elsewhere that video record the lecture. If you look at those after the fact the production quality, to put it bluntly, is lousy. Those videos are certainly not compelling to watch. Perhaps they have value as a study aid for a student who attended the lecture, but they are clearly not a good substitute for coming to class initially.

And here is one other thought. Most of our instructors know how to write reasonably well. They've been well trained that way and their profession places a premium on "good writing." Once you go into multimedia production --- most instructors have no expertise in that. Sometime ago the rage was to recommend teams where instructional designers, web programmers and the instructors collaborated on producing really good course materials. In principle that sounds fine. In practice, there are two issues. First, who plays the analog of the "director" for making a movie? If there were such a person what knowledge would he or she have to bring to the table? Second, because nobody has the full expertise does anyone know what a good product is in this area? In the absence of a style to imitate, there is a lot of invention required and that requirement, in turn, blocks the creative process. Lower bandwith asynchronous approaches are much simpler. The simplicitly is a strength in releasing creative potential.

That is the tension. The problem as I see it is that within an IT organization where the network is clearly the primo service, the one where the focus and cash resources are concentrated, can there be effective advocacy for lower bandwidth ways? I hope so, but I've been around long enough to have my doubts.

No comments: