Inventing the virtual classroom

Karen Seidman

Montreal Gazette
Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Pinchas Zukerman is in Ottawa as he uses a super-high-speed Internet connection to teach McGill student Véronique Mathieu in Montreal. The new technology is being developed by McGill University.

There was violin virtuoso Pinchas Zukerman, urging student VÈronique Mathieu to curl her fingers and "envision the bow" in a master's class that brought together the accomplished and the aspiring in their mutual love of music.

"Listen to your sound, not your feeling," Zukerman instructed his apprentice, watching and listening intently as Mathieu, 20, practiced her scales.

The interaction was just what you would expect from a master and his student.

With one big difference: Zukerman and Mathieu weren't in the same room.

They weren't even in the same city.

Thanks to innovative new technology being developed at McGill University, the two were connected via the McGill Advanced Learnware Network - a video-conferencing system that transmits audio and video so quickly over the Internet that Zukerman can easily interrupt a student to offer pointers.

Unlike conventional videoconferencing, which has a transmission delay, the McGill system uses a special high-speed bandwidth system that represents the Web of tomorrow.

So from the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Zukerman was able to instruct Mathieu in Montreal on a better way to hold her bow, tell her to release her thumb when she shifts and show her some finger-strengthening exercises to practice.

The violin may date back hundreds of years, but the wires and microphones attached to Mathieu yesterday represent something brand new.

Internet Future

"This is how the Internet will be used in the future," said John Roston, director of McGill's Instructional Communications Centre.

Also involved in the project are the engineering faculty and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Music, Media and Technology.

Most businesses will have access to this high-speed bandwidth within five years, and McGill's technology will affect not only education but the business world with its high-quality videoconferencing capability, Roston said.

"Since Sept. 11, people just don't want to travel if they don't have to," he said.

The system, he said, offers far superior sound and audio. The life-size image is shown on a 50-inch flat screen. "This gives more of a feeling that the person is right in the room."

An enthusiastic Zukerman, who is music director of the NAC Orchestra, told reporters in Montreal and Ottawa that what they were seeing was nothing like TV.

"This is interactivity - TV can't do that," he said. "This is extraordinary, incredible technology we're looking at."

Andrew Beer, another McGill music student who studied with Zukerman over the system, said it seems very natural.

In fact, said the 20-year-old, he preferred it to being in the same room with the demanding maestro. "That would make me even more nervous."

In the future, Roston said, the technology might even allow a teacher to feel a student's violin bow, or for music vibrations to be felt as though in a concert hall.

For Zukerman, who loves to teach but doesn't have much time, it gives him the opportunity to do something that conventional videoconferencing hasn't been able to do: transmit audio and video with the quality and speed required to support the nuances of one-on-one music instruction.

- Karen Seidman's E-mail address is

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