Navy students go to school on Groove Networks

Navy students on opposite coasts and across borders are swapping files and instant messages in a virtual classroom 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 school tried the 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 and started telling 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 multi-agent architectures, decision support systems and network operation centers.

"That's just to begin with," he said. He expects use 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 using voice over IP technology.

The main window shows what the collaborators are viewing, such as a document, graphic or streaming video. A side window pops up a list of names and roles of each online participant.

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.

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. Microsoft Corp. has invested about $500,000 in Groove technology.

Groove hosts some of the servers that support the clients. The Naval Postgraduate School also maintains local management servers to customize its system for a particular class or setup.

Some students interact with 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. *

Vandana Sinha is a staff writer for Government Computer News. She can be reached at vsinha@

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