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Franklin University plans to use telepresence to communicate with its multiple overseas locations, say Dr. Christopher Washington and John Miller.

Chris Bucher

Telepresence Fosters Connectivity Beyond Campus

Franklin University leverages telepresence to support its ambitious international goals.

posted January 11, 2010  |  Appears in the February/March 2010 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Franklin University leverages telepresence to support its ambitious international goals.

After a century of serving adult learners from its Columbus, Ohio, campus, Franklin University is going global. Starting with a recently opened facility in Indianapolis, an ambitious five-year initiative is adding outposts staffed by U.S. educators in China, India, Macedonia, Poland, Slovakia and Vietnam.

To ensure that the educational experience of its far-flung community remains uniquely “Franklin,” the university is rolling out telepresence for distance communications, a technology that translates cultural nuances well across geographic boundaries, offering a lifelike experience.

“We use our telepresence system to help foster cultural consistency across our main and satellite locations,” says Dr. Christopher Washington, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs.

“In practice, this means our Indianapolis faculty members fully participate, on a routine basis, in main campus meetings and collaborative projects without anyone driving the six-hour round trip.”

But the technology's role hardly stops there. “We're also using telepresence to conduct initial interviews with prospective faculty members,” Washington continues. “This increases our confidence in the candidates we ultimately invite to campus. More important, we envision a range of future classroom and administrative uses for the technology.”

A Better Experience

Beyond traditional video conferencing, IP telepresence offers an immersive experience that creates the impression of being in the same room as other participants. This is accomplished through the use of large-format display monitors (42 inches or more) projecting images captured by a specialized high-definition camera coupled with sound from an audio conferencing phone.

“Essentially, telepresence fixes the things that didn't work with video conferencing,” explains Robert Mason, principal research analyst for Gartner.

Although early telepresence systems were once cost-prohibitive, the market has completely changed with the rise of open-source players such as LifeSize Communications, the manufacturer that Franklin selected.

“The move in telepresence is definitely away from proprietary networks and restrictive site requirements, such as dedicated rooms with specialized paint, furniture and lighting,” says IDC research analyst Jonathan Edwards. “Also the adoption of video technologies across the board is eliminating transmission issues as infrastructure providers are rapidly building out bandwidth.”

As a result, basic telepresence systems now sell for only a few thousand dollars and can use a range of transmission avenues, including the Internet.

Selecting a System

Already familiar with blending traditional and online education, Franklin University's move to telepresence coincided with the opening of its Indianapolis site for the 2009–2010 academic year.

“We already had a legacy video conferencing system,” recalls John Miller, director of infrastructure and network services. “But it often required a technician to set up and establish a conference call. We wanted a system that was easier to use.”

After evaluating four telepresence vendors early in 2009, LifeSize stood out. “Company reps brought a unit to campus, installed it in 20 minutes and established conference calls to Texas and India via the web,” Miller recalls. “Even over the Internet, the quality was outstanding.”

Affordability, flexibility and interactivity were also important. “With LifeSize, entry cost was well below $10,000 per location,” Miller says. “Plus, we could integrate it with our existing Cisco IP telephony system without outside contractors. And its open systems architecture allowed it to interact with both legacy and emerging systems.”

Easy to Use

Some of the factors that led Franklin's IT team to LifeSize is that it is a simple solution that's transparent to the staff and easy to use. “We didn't want to present people with two phones,” Miller says. “Instead, we wanted one phone that could make either a voice or a telepresence call, depending on the equipment at the other end.”

This was a critical decision, say the experts. “High levels of utilization are essential,” says Gartner's Mason. “And utilization is driven by easy and highly repeatable experiences of consistent quality.”

Accomplishing transparency at Franklin required establishing communications between its legacy IP telephony system and the new telepresence equipment.

“Since LifeSize is capable of understanding multiple protocols, we simply added a gatekeeper,” says Burt Bardus, senior network administrator and team leader at Franklin. “Other telepresence systems would have first required a massive telephony upgrade.”

Early adopters report that use of telepresence systems can exceed five hours per workday, versus less than 10 hours per month for legacy video conferencing.

Source: Gartner

By comparison, Bardus says deploying telepresence was fast – setting up in less than 60 days. One big reason: the versatility of LifeSize's camera. With legacy telepresence, conference rooms required time-consuming makeovers to install specialized lighting, wall coverings and furniture. Even then, lighting and system tweaking was required whenever a teleconference was initiated.

“At the Indianapolis site, the primary telepresence room has a lot of windows, so people are backlit,” explains Eric Ramsey, a senior network engineer and IP telephony specialist at Franklin. “Instead of requiring Hollywood lighting to resolve the issue, we just adjusted camera settings.”

With the LifeSize Express system exceeding expectations, Franklin is now developing a build-out plan. “The system will grow as Franklin grows because the reaction to the technology is always ‘Wow, how else can we use this?'” says IT Director Miller.

Experts agree that telepresence has come a long way. “Due to technological convergence, the worlds of video and telepresence will be much ingrained in our lives in as little as two to three years' time,” predicts IDC's Edwards.

“In fact, innovative institutions can use video resources to differentiate themselves,” Edwards says. “On the learning side, by adding flair and helping students develop fluency with the new tools that they will increasingly encounter in the workplace. And on the teaching side, by drawing in subject matter experts for collaboration and curriculum enhancement.”

Presence of Mind

In addition to following typical IT deployment best practices, you should answer the following questions when planning your telepresence deployment:

  1. How can we integrate telepresence holistically? IT networks are the next-generation platform for all things AV, including telepresence. Therefore, seek ways to integrate it with other collaboration tools, such as conference scheduling with the calendar function in Microsoft Outlook.
  2. Will our telepresence solutions always be internal, or will we eventually connect with other institutions? Connecting externally expands student and faculty collaboration opportunities, but adds complexity with respect to system compatibility and various IT issues, including data security.
  3. What level of video quality is good enough? Standard definition video versus resource-intensive high-definition video may suffice in a variety of situations. For example, compare YouTube to an HD movie. Depending on the context, people don't expect HD quality all the time.
  4. Can we push video to multiple endpoints? The more uses for live and recorded conferences, the greater the ROI. For example, if a user can't be present, can he or she participate from a desktop or mobile device?
  5. How will bandwidth requirements be addressed? While tuning and upgrading your network can significantly increase available bandwidth, ask prospective vendors about their road map for advancing compression routines to reduce future bandwidth requirements.

Sources: Gartner and IDC

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