Distance education in a Texas school district is about to enter a new frontier, as students soon will see their teachers three-dimensionally instead of on a flat television screen.

The Birdville School District reportedly is the first in the country to use a Teleporter, which projects a 3-D image that is so lifelike students say they feel as if they’re in the same room as the teacher.

“You have the presence of the person in the room. You’re not looking up at a screen—you’re looking at a person,” said Phil Barnett, vice president of Teleportec Inc., the Richardson, Texas, company that makes the Teleporter unit. “You can truly have eye contact.”

The Birdville School District bought the Teleporter from Teleportec and installed it at Richland High School in August.

Toby Howard, the district’s director of technology and manager of information systems, agrees that the projection really is lifelike. “If you’re in a receiving site and you have someone visit your class through this technology, you have the sense that you’re actually having a conversation with a real person,” Howard said.

In fact, as soon as district officials first saw the technology, they were sure it would enhance their current distance-education programs.

“It will offer something to our students that traditional distance-learning settings don’t offer,” Howard said. “It’s the excitement that’s generated from feeling there’s someone in the classroom, rather than interacting with a flat-screen TV.”

Although distance education is not the ideal teaching environment, it allows school districts to make the most of limited resources. Teachers can teach specialized subjects—such as foreign languages or Advanced Placement classes—to students in other locations, effectively doubling the number of teachers available at two schools.

Typically, distance-education students watch their teacher on a TV or computer monitor. Communicating is awkward and stilted, according to Art Lacy, director of educational learning services at Teleportec.

Using the Teleporter in a school setting creates a more natural learning environment, Lacy said. “When classroom teachers see this, in seconds they get it—the impact that this could have on classroom teaching,” he said.

High school Latin teacher Sandra Carney uses the Teleporter to teach three different Latin classes at the same time.

Only Richland High School students see their teacher as a 3-D illusion; the other two classrooms watch her on TV monitors. The Teleporter isn’t being used to its full advantage in those two classrooms because Richland is the only site with the technology at this time.

In the Richland classroom, Carney teaches the class from behind her desk, located in a corner of the room. One-way glass attached to her desk blocks the roomful of students from seeing her. Instead, they focus their attention on her illusion at the front of the room.

She appears to be standing behind a podium lecturing the class. In reality, however, Carney is seated in the corner lecturing at her desk.

The Teleporter unit at her desk records Carney and projects the image in real time to the front of the class, and over the internet to the other two classrooms.

“The image of the teacher is generally projected off a black background,” Lacy said. The black background creates a more robust picture that is faster for the computer network to refresh, he said.

Each of the classrooms has a camera that records the students, so Carney can observe the classes, and microphones placed throughout the classroom pick up sound.

Carney remotely controls the movement of the cameras, which are located at eye level, to zoom in on a student or pan around the class. This effect helps create the feeling of eye contact.

“You know it’s like TV, but the image looks right at you and talks right to you,” Howard said.

When Carney gets up from her desk during the lesson, cameras from the old distance-education system take over, and the 3-D illusion is interrupted until Carney goes back to her desk.

The podium where the illusion is projected looks like a large TelePrompTer. It has a large piece of glass in front and the image is projected onto the glass, resulting in a 3-D image.

“It’s a bit of an optical illusion, I’m told. It’s not truly a 3-D image, it just looks that way,” Howard said.

Schools don’t have to rebuild their networks to operate the Teleporter. It requires 768 kilobits per second of bandwidth, or roughly half a T-1 line, to function.

“The technology is so user-friendly that the teachers don’t have to be techies,” Lacy said.

Schools can choose between three models: an illusion at a desk, conference table, or lectern. But the technology doesn’t come cheap.

“Our model is currently $4,000 a month for unlimited usage,” Barnett said, or schools can buy the complete installation for $50,000 up front and a monthly service fee of $1,000. Birdville officials say the cost is justified by the enthusiasm of their distance-education students.

The images can be saved and replayed, a useful feature for teachers who teach the same lesson at various schools.

For example, Barnett said, a teacher can record a 15-minute lecture and show it to the first school, followed by a 15-minute live question-and-answer period. While the first question-and-answer period is going on, the taped lecture could be played at a second school, and so on. In an hour and 15 minutes, one teacher could do the same half-hour lesson at four different schools.

Because Birdville reportedly is the first district in the United States to buy a Teleporter, educators and company officials haven’t explored the technology’s full potential yet.

“There’s a limit on the kind of return we get on it today,” Howard said. “Once you get two, you can talk to each other.”

Before the Teleporter can have a greater impact on what’s possible, more schools will have to invest in the technology.

“It’s kind of like having a color TV in 1953. We have a color TV, but they aren’t many other schools that do,” Howard said. “We were fortunate to see the technology early.”

Links:

Teleportec Inc.

http://www.teleportec.com

Birdville Independent School District

http://www.birdville.k12.tx.us