Louise Goldsbury reports on Fantastic Corporation's high-speed downloads which are aiding disabled students.
Madhur, 20, wanted to become an accountant until an accident left her without the use of her hands. Using voice activation software through a distance learning course offered by Queen Elizabeth's Training College, she now has an NVQ Level 3 qualification in accountancy.
The Fantastic Corporation is helping to deliver this interactive course into the homes of people who cannot attend the Leatherhead campus. These include disabled people who have suffered injury or illness and find it difficult to leave their houses. "Distance learning is reaching more people, reskilling them so they can get back to work and off incapacity benefits," says principal Robert Beckinsale. "Accountancy is particularly suitable as we can send everything to a pupil's PC cheaply and effectively."
Students are equipped with a satellite dish, a multimedia computer (donated by Leonard Cheshire Homes) and a Digital Video Broadcast card. They work on two modules each week, which are automatically evaluated and emailed to the pupil and tutor. Many other disabled students require advanced software and communication methods, such as blind people who use touch-screens and receive feedback through sound.
Learning materials in mainstream education, too, are growing in size and complexity. These can include full-screen video, 3D graphics, audio and messaging services, software updates and file transfers. Also, colleges and universities often need to send out large files containing entire books or training content. Sending this data, if possible at all, can take too long or cost too much.
Fantastic Corporation's KnowledgeCaster provides high bandwidth infrastructure to distribute any type of multimedia content via satellite using broadband transmission technology. "The Internet is not the panacea it's cracked up to be - it's too slow. But bandwidth is like a pipe - the bigger it is, the more you can get down it," say Fantastic's Dr Glenn Wylie. "This method allows you to control the size of your bandwidth on demand, in broadcast quality" Broadband is much faster than a dial-up Internet connection (up to 4Mb per second), enabling information to be much more quickly and cheaply downloaded to pupils. Satellite technology brings the cost down to pound;3 per Mb, regardless of the number of sites receiving it, and there are no individual connection or line rental charges. For example, sending an average 1.4MB document to any number of people would cost pound;4.50 by satellite. Emailing the same file by 56K modem to, say, 120 pupils, would cost pound;16; by post, pound;60 (excluding packaging and printing costs).
Transmitting large multimedia files by satellite is also much cheaper and faster than ISDN. To send a 35MB file by satellite would take two seconds and cost pound;105; by ISDN, at 128K, the same file would cost pound;656, plus line rental charges, the company claims. "Email couldn't handle such a big a file, plus you'd need all the telephone lines connected to their modems and someone would have to pay the telephone bills," says Wylie.
KnowledgeCaster's multicasting system uses Internet Protocol (IP) addressing techniques to enable you to deliver data to selected people or groups at specified times. "You put your content into our software, which distributes the data to the user or user groups that you select. Files can be sent or stored for scheduled delivery by instructing the BT tower when to send them," explains Wylie. "As a result, your school or college becomes the broadcaster."
KnowledgeCaster is a joint venture with BT and Eutelsat. The system can be fitted to a PC running Windows 9598NT with an Internet browser. People in your user group receiving data would need a 45cm satellite dish (pound;20-pound;50) and a DVB card (pound;120), which also receives satellite television and increases Internet connection speeds. The Editorial Centre costs pound;60,000 but is available to educational institutions for pound;15,000.
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