Magazine article University Business

Choosing Telepresence: When and How to Take the Plunge

Magazine article University Business

Choosing Telepresence: When and How to Take the Plunge

Article excerpt

Imagine being a student in a class listening to your professor as she writes on a whiteboard at the front of the room. She asks a question and you faintly hear a voice, but you can't see who it came from or understand what was said--because you're sitting at your desk participating in class through your webcam.

Another scenario? "Someone walks into the room. You can't see the door but you saw everyone's head move and look. It reminds you, 'I'm on the outside looking in.' You're at a huge disadvantage because you have no context," offers Lew Epstein, general manager of integrated technology at Steelcase, which has furnished telepresence rooms.

Instances like these are when well-in-stalled telepresence solutions from companies like Polycom, Cisco, Digital Video Enterprises, BrightCom, and Teliris can make a difference in the learning experience.

The difference between telepresence and traditional video or web conferencing is that more senses are involved. Various stimuli, including life-sized images and spatial sound, give a more "real" feeling for all involved and help remove the distance between participants. Telepresence also requires a more advanced and permanent installation, making it a more costly and time-consuming commitment.

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Epstein advises taking the time to fully understand your institution's needs before making that investment. "The university needs to invest a quarter million [dollars] to outfit a big room with screens." Why are many beginning to make that investment? Colleges and universities try to compete on the basis of best equipment because it attracts students and faculty, Epstein says, adding that they're also on the hook for making sure the equipment runs properly and provides a different kind of experience; "they're obligated to support that."

Below are four points about telepresence to consider.

Decide how your programs might benefit from it.

Telepresence works best for programs seeking collaboration and lively discussion between people from all over the country and world. This is why business schools are seeing the bulk of telepresence success, and why the technology isn't as well suited for coursework requiring hands-on learning, like a science lab, for example.

"This is a wonderful technology, but it can't stand on its own," says Loft Sebranek, director of operations for learner success at Madison College (Wis.). The institution recently installed six telepresence rooms. "You really have to have a plan of where you want to go with instruction and what type of programming and collaboration you want to build into your environment. You can't just throw classes in there without a roadmap of how it's going to fit into your standard offerings."

Duke officials realized the potential for telepresence for the Fuqua School of Business early on. The university has been using videoconferencing for several years, and the business school was one of the earliest adopters, shares Tracy Futhey, president of information technology and CIO. The university installed several Cisco TelePresence units around campus in 2009, and in early 2010 renovated a large lecture hall in Fuqua. Called the HCA Classroom, it features high-definition video and high-quality audio using three 103-inch plasma displays, six 1080p cameras, two document cameras on a podium, and 66 custom push-to-talk microphones. It can hold more than 140 people and is the largest of the 12 telepresence rooms on campus.

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"Even before the current generation of technologies and products existed, Fuqua had been innovating in how the use of immersive video technologies can eliminate geographic barriers," says Futhey.

Similarly, when Robert Morris University (Pa.) was planning for its new business school building that opened in August 2011, administrators realized that telepresence and business can easily go hand in hand. …

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