Naval school goes peer-to-peer

Software collaboration tools give students at the Naval Post-graduate School online discussions, two-way transmission of shared data and customization for various classes and projects'regardless of where they may be.

Courtesy of Naval PostGraduate School

Naval students on opposite coasts and across borders are swapping files and instant messages in a virtual classroom that they can tap into from their desktop and portable PCs.

The Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey, Calif., is using peer-to-peer software for some of its distance-learning, research and thesis classes, so that far-flung students can collaborate.

A professor at the postgraduate school tried the peer-to-peer system last year on a project for the Joint Forces Command Joint Futures Laboratory. To help reconnaissance and surveillance teams communicate wirelessly, the lab deployed Groove Workspace 2.5 collaboration software from Groove Networks Inc. of Beverly, Mass.

Alex Bordetsky, an associate professor for information systems, said he was intrigued. 'I started to advocate this on campus' for colleagues who were looking to link a student body spread across 30 countries.

He said the Workspace software gives students 'a high level of awareness in terms of who is doing what, which is extremely critical.'

Bordetsky then made the Joint Forces Command project a classroom experiment. The synchronization worked well enough that he now counts on it for several of his campus classes: resident networking and global information, collaborative technologies and multiagent architectures, decision support systems and network operation centers.

'That's just to begin with,' he said. 'We plan to expand.' He expects use of Workspace to spread campuswide as other professors adopt the system.

Groove Networks officials said the school is scheduled to continue buying licenses each quarter for the next two years at an undisclosed subscription fee.

The software connects users within the virtual classrooms where they can simultaneously share comments, send text messages, edit documents and speak with one another via voice over IP technology.

Online discussion

The main window shows what the collaborators are viewing'for example, a document, graphic, streaming video or Microsoft PowerPoint presentation. A side window pops up with a list of names and roles of each online participant, who must be invited by the students or professor into the online discussion. When participants make any revisions to the main file, the software automatically updates only the file changes to each PC to save bandwidth.

About 50 of 1,500 students so far have downloaded the Workspace client from a school Web site.

'The Groove client fits on the desktop as opposed to [going through] a uniform resource locator,' said Ronald Pemberton, director of federal programs at Groove Networks. 'We're not talking about reconfiguring the desktop.'

Aside from those engaged in distance learning, about a third of the current Naval Postgraduate School students are writing theses. They work on collaboration and communication schemes for tasks such as ship-to-shore updates or emergency humanitarian support.

Bordetsky said personnel involved in humanitarian aid in Kuwait have used the system.

Groove Management Server 2.5 manages the desktop clients. Groove Relay Server 2.5 connects students across network firewalls and synchronizes offline edits when students come back online.

Using 192-bit encryption, Groove Workspace runs under Microsoft Windows 98 and later versions.

Groove hosts some of the servers that support the clients. Some students use the Workspace browser via servers provided by Blackboard Inc., a Washington e-learning company that delivers classroom lectures for the school. Bordetsky said Blackboard's technology alone doesn't allow two-way transmission of shared data'a gap that Groove fills.

'It improves dramatically the way students work in teams,' he said.

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