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How Telepresence Is Connecting Students Worldwide
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Georgetown’s John Steitz says the university’s Polycom system lets the foreign service school in Qatar share resources with the Washington, D.C., campus.

James Kegley

How Telepresence Is Connecting Students Worldwide

Colleges use telepresence to offer students a lifelike video conference experience.

posted March 3, 2009  |  Appears in the March/April 2009 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Colleges use telepresence technology to offer students a lifelike video conference experience.

There’s something special about one of Georgetown University’s classrooms in Washington, D.C. Undergraduates feel like they’re sitting in the same room with students nearly 8,000 miles away.

A telepresence system links the campus with Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in Doha, Qatar, creating a global classroom for interaction and collaboration. “We want to connect these campuses as closely as we can and give Doha access to knowledge that resides in faculty here,” says John Steitz, assistant director of classroom educational technology services for Georgetown. “This system allows us to do that very well.”

Georgetown rolled out Polycom’s RealPresence Experience (RPX) HD gear to both sites, choosing the product for its high-definition voice, video and content-sharing features. “Regular video conferencing did not produce the quality learning environment we were seeking nor our students expected,” says Johnathon Chapman, CIO for the School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

Telepresence solves the shortcomings of standard-definition video conferencing, which lacks fluid motion and life-size images. Pair high-definition video conferencing with plasma screens, carefully placed microphones and artfully arranged lighting, and you get a lifelike experience.

“You can create something very close to the experience of sitting in the same room with someone who might be thousands of miles away,” says Howard Lichtman, president of the Human Productivity Lab research firm and consultancy in Ashburn, Va.

Better bandwidth availability, demand for visual communications and the need to reduce travel costs and emissions drive telepresence deployment, says Dominic Dodd, global program director for unified communications and collaboration research with Frost & Sullivan. Barrow Neurological Institute, Cornell and Duke universities and the University of Arizona are among the early adopters using the technology to link students, faculty and researchers from afar.

Systems from manufacturers such as Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, LifeSize Communications and Polycom cost anywhere from $50,000 to $750,000, with the average deployment costing about $250,000. Some gear also includes a managed-services component.

6 Tips for Implementing a Telepresence System That Works For Your Environment

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Creating Community

Telepresence technology expands an institution’s reach and helps create what Lichtman calls community-of-interest networks. Purdue University uses a two-seat Cisco TelePresence System (CTS) for research collaboration with other universities and industry.

“It definitely makes a qualitative jump in the way in which a conversation takes place,” says Tim Korb, assistant head of computer science at Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. “It’s the difference between watching somebody on television and having a face-to-face conversation.”

Purdue deployed the system in October 2008 as one of the first members of the Cisco TelePresence University Connection initiative, and Korb is eager for more schools to come online. “It’s like being the first one with a fax machine,” he says. “We don’t have a lot of people to talk to.”

However, he’s looking forward to tapping the global reach that the CTS and accompanying managed services provide. Purdue has access to Cisco sales offices around the world, so meeting with a researcher in Beijing or Mumbai can be a simple matter of that person driving to a local Cisco office to connect over one of their telepresence systems.

Students have inquired about using the system for job interviews, defending theses to remote committee members and checking in with internship projects, Korb says.

Easing Congestion

For the Los Angeles Community College District, high-definition video conferencing saves time and money and helps the environment. The city’s infamous traffic and nine campuses spread across 882 square miles make it difficult for faculty to attend meetings. Some members would spend an hour in traffic to deliver a 20-minute presentation, then face a two-hour trip back, says CIO Jorge Mata.

Mata rolled out LifeSize Room and Express systems to link up to 24 video conferencing sites in a session. “For the price of two telepresence systems from major vendors, I was able to outfit 23 locations with HD video conferencing,” says Mata.

Frost & Sullivan predicts worldwide revenue for telepresence products and services will hit $14 million by 2014.

“It was important to increase participation. Executives see themselves on [the LifeSize system] and love it,” Mata says. Since the initial deployment last summer, IT has added five more high-definition video conferencing units.

Mata can upgrade the LifeSize gear by linking three of the screens. One drawback: Full-fledged telepresence requires a dedicated, single-purpose room, something that’s not available on a campus undergoing $5.7 billion in construction. “Space is at a premium,” he says. Instead, the video conferencing gear is housed in multi-purpose rooms with whiteboards or in executives’ offices.

Deployment Challenges

Most space will need some modification before installation so rooms have a consistent look and feel. “There’s a rigidly defined arrangement of everything, from the kind of furniture, the lighting, to the paint color on the walls,” says Purdue’s Korb. In Qatar, coordinating delivery and installation of the telepresence system after it cleared customs proved tricky.

But latency was of greater concern to Georgetown. So far, the average latency of 200 milliseconds has only minimally degraded video and sound quality. When a cable break in the Mediterranean forced traffic to be rerouted to the Pacific, latency climbed to 400 ms. Yet the video continued to work with minimal change in signal quality, Chapman says.

People issues can pose another hurdle to implementation, according to Mata. “It’s making sure we have sponsors for meetings. They thought IT would organize [the sessions], but I don’t play that role,” he says. “It’s really the business that needs to take ownership.”

Once telepresence becomes second nature to educators and administrators, the possibilities are endless. “Through further collaboration of educators and manufacturers, we will see other enhancements that benefit pedagogy and the instructional potential of these units,” sums up Chapman.

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