Learning At Lightspeed
By: Gerry Butters 
Issue: December 1999
Next-generation optical networking technology will alter the landscape of the 21st-century university.

Imagine attending an art history lecture in Rome, touring an archeological dig in Cairo, and participating in a physics lab in Beijing all on the same day. Optical networking technology, which uses tiny light particles (or photons) to instantly transmit mind-boggling amounts of information, will help make this possible in a truly realistic way and it is less than a generation away.

Photons will be as important to the 21st century as electrons have been to the 20th century, driving an unprecedented communications revolution. The world's most powerful broadband networks will be all optical delivering vast amounts of information at the speed of light. Universities that harness the power of optical networking will develop exciting and innovative ways to create and share knowledge across campuses, time zones, and cultures.

Fast-forward to the year 2025, and imagine that you are enrolled at BroadBand University (BBU). Tapping into the power of leading-edge optical technology, BBU is "fibered" to meet the needs of its faculty, students, administrators, and alumni located all around the globe. BBU's communications network, which is powered by thousands of wavelengths (or colors) of light, dynamically connects the university's "quantum" computers. These optical-powered computers are so efficient and advanced a mere $1,000 buys you the power of a human brain. Now members of the BBU community enjoy near-limitless communications and information immersion.

Global optical classroom

Remember the late 1990s, when long-distance calls cost a nickel per minute, and carriers charged for bandwidth? Over the past few decades, advances in optical networking have driven down the marginal cost of transmitting information to close to zero, while pushing network capacity toward infinity. Free of the constraints of bandwidth costs, BBU can now price its services according to the value it provides its global student body and not according to minutes of use.

At BBU, every student has his or her own personal wavelength (or optical communications channel) as well as wireless devices that directly interface to that wavelength. With the ability to instantly transmit and receive vast amounts of information over long distances, these personal wavelengths have helped BBU open its doors to those facing economic, health, or other limitations.

BBU also has been able to open the doors of the world to students on its campus. BBU's history students routinely spend a day at Nuremberg in Germany or Normandy Beach in France, and its jazz students play alongside New Orleans legends all without leaving BBU's classrooms. This is because at BBU, they've taken distance learning to a new level. They call it "The Global Optical Classroom."

In the mid- to late 1990s, distance learning became a popular way to work toward a degree. The original concept of distance learning was limited to participating in chat rooms, exchanging emails, and viewing video streams that looked more like ponds due to network congestion. However, in the year 2025, when optical data networks can transmit seemingly infinite amounts of data in milliseconds, dynamic multimedia applications and sensory-simulation tools enable students to completely immerse themselves in remote locations around the world.

Let's look at a typical classroom experience in the life of John, a third-year archeology student at BBU. John wakes in the morning, sets his wearable, wireless communicator for immersive mode, and instantly joins his professor and classmates at an ancient burial ground in Cairo. John doesn't just watch a live tour being given on his television. Instead, his hologram enables him to stand among his classmates and actually participate in the expedition. His professor hands him a piece of Egyptian pottery that was found among the ruins. Using state-of-the-art "sensory loop feedback" gloves, John is able to feel the texture of the hardened clay and turn the artifact around to view every detail. During the class, John chats with students from around the world, including an Egyptian woman who shares her firsthand knowledge of Cairo's environment and culture.

Back to the present

Is this science fiction? I don't think so. The concept of BroadBand University fits with our vision of the future of information networking limitless, instant, and ubiquitous. The bandwidth provided by the optical networking technology of the new millennium will drive one of the most dramatic communications revolutions in history. And in this increasingly IT-centric world, our most valuable assets will be human creativity and spirit.

The universities that today embrace the amazing power of photons to capitalize on that creativity and spirit will be home to the intellectual leaders of the 21st century.


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