Thanks to Internet2's first educational, international videoconferences, Penn students gain 'high-tech pen pals'

April 01, 2001

Philadelphia - Like so many other things in our society, the time-honored tradition of the faraway pen pal is about to be radically transformed by the Internet age.

Business students at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Grenoble in France will participate later this week in a pioneering videoconference held via Internet2, the high-speed, high-bandwidth web of the future. The online session linking students in Philadelphia and Grenoble in a cross-cultural discussion of the viability of a fast-food franchise in the French city will take place from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. (EDT), Friday, April 6.

Believed to be the first integration of Internet2-based international conferencing into university coursework, the session is a milestone for the heavy-duty successor to today's Internet. It also helps pave the way for future conferences to use Internet technology - not travel - to bring together speakers, panels and audiences around the world.

The videoconference is the culmination of a joint project undertaken this semester by business students in Penn's Wharton School and their peers at the Ecole Superieure des Affaires in Grenoble. Students at both institutions have been considering whether, in light of its successful expansion in Asia, the KFC Corporation should open a franchise in Grenoble. At the April 6 session - eagerly awaited by KFC - the 20 American and French students will share their recommendations, including their views on the legal, financial and cultural issues raised by the case.

The conference will be the third and final session linking Penn and Grenoble this semester. A faculty videoconference occurred Feb. 26, and the students had their first online conference Feb. 28. The quality and speed of both transmissions has approximated that of a live television broadcast.

At Penn, the project has been a highly collaborative one, involving Wharton's Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management and International Studies, the Department of Romance Languages in the School of Arts and Sciences, the distance learning program in the College of General Studies, the Office of Information Systems and Computing Networking & Telecommunications and the Penn Law School's multimedia center.

Language professors have embraced the effort as a way to advance language education in business settings, while business professors say the interaction informs students of the importance of cultural sensitivities and differ-ences in multinational transactions. Both groups say Internet2 allows students the closest thing to immersion without setting foot outside the U.S. and hope to expand this pilot project to introduce students to their peers in other nations.

"We're essentially giving these students high-tech pen pals," said James J. O'Donnell, Penn's vice provost for information systems and computing. "In the long term, we hope this technology will make distance disappear as a limiting factor for students."

O'Donnell said the possibilities for collaborative, multinational efforts involving Internet2 are limited only by the imagination of educators; Penn's division of Information Systems and Computing is actively seeking faculty members in all disciplines interested in using technology to reach out to all the world's resources. The time required to set up such sessions, now weeks or months, should decrease as the technology matures.

While most online applications use only a tiny fraction of Internet2's massive bandwidth, seamless international videoconferencing like that now taking place at Penn is one of the few that requires moving far greater quantities of data than today's Internet can handle. The current-generation Internet used in homes and offices every day permits rudimentary videoconferencing, but both audio and visual quality are much choppier than what's allowed by Internet2.
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Penn is a founding member of the Internet2 consortium of schools and universities working to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies, accelerating the creation of tomorrow's Internet. With a 155-megabyte connection to Internet2 supporting bandwidth-intense applications such as the National Digital Mammography Archive and the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, Penn was a participant in the world's first totally virtual conference event last October.

Penn is also home to the Metro Area GigaPoP in Philadelphia, one of several dozen gigapops, or regional portals to Internet2, scattered across the U.S. With Penn's backing, the Metro Area GigaPoP has linked other Philadelphia-area institutions to Internet2, including Lehigh University, and is seeking additional partners.

NOTE: The April 6 session is open to reporters and editors. For more details, please contact Jennifer MacDougall in Penn Information Systems and Computing at 215-898-0341.

University of Pennsylvania

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