When a consortium of four Virginia universities began taking shape in 2010, gathering the key players for a meeting was often a scheduling and logistical nightmare.
Participants might spend a day on the road for a two-hour planning session at one of the campuses: George Mason University in Fairfax, James Madison University in Harrisonburg, the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.
But full-room video conferencing has changed that. Beginning in late 2011, educators and administrators at each campus no longer had to leave their own universities for the meetings. At telepresence rooms on each campus, members of the 4-VA consortium can dial in and participate in a virtual — and extraordinarily lifelike — session.
"Telepresence makes people feel that they're a heartbeat away from being in the same room," says Anne Moore, associate vice president for learning technologies at Virginia Tech. "It has helped us pursue difficult procedural discussions. We used to drive to other schools or send e-mail, which can be misunderstood. Telepresence is marvelous for bringing people together easily and fluidly."
The 4-VA consortium was formed in 2010 to address educational and economic development needs in the commonwealth. Its mission is to leverage the individual strengths of the partner universities collectively to:
To jump-start the effort, the state's General Assembly approved $3.4 million in funding, and Cisco Systems donated two of its TelePresence video conferencing room systems to each of the universities. The quality of telepresence encounters makes the technology particularly effective for creating ties among the participants from the four universities, says Amy Brener, deputy director of 4-VA and director of global IT projects at George Mason.
"To get things done in a group like 4-VA, you have to develop personal relationships — people don't trust strangers," Brener says. "There is no question that we would not have made the progress we have with the consortium without telepresence."
Using state-of-the-art video and audio technology, the Cisco TelePresence systems create an environment that closely simulates face-to-face meetings, says Ludwig Gantner, supervisor of the Video Network Operations Engineering Group at Virginia Tech.
The 4-VA telepresence rooms are equipped with either a 65-inch, high-definition display or three 55-inch plasma screens arrayed side by side that deliver separate high-resolution video feeds synchronized in real time. HD cameras are mounted above the screens to provide the video for other telepresence locations. Shielded microphones filter out unwanted ambient noise while stereophonic speakers reproduce sound.
71 The number of educational or research institutions with telepresence rooms (229 facilities across 13 countries) connected by National LambdaRail's exchange, as of January 2012
SOURCE: National LambdaRail
System software automatically presents the image of the person speaking to remote locations. Lighting and furnishings in telepresence rooms, which in the 4-VA schools hold either six or 18 people, are chosen to create a uniform visual environment and enhance acoustics. The National LambdaRail, a high-performance network infrastructure for U.S. education and research communities, provides the links joining the four universities as part of its telepresence exchange.
Images displayed in telepresence systems are life-size, with resolution quality that makes it easy for participants to pick up nuances of expression and gestures, Gantner says. The accompanying sound accurately reproduces conversational tone and inflection.
"It's an immersive experience, designed so that the participants can see facial expressions, hear conversation clearly and even make eye contact with each other," he says. "Telepresence is video conferencing done right. It takes the best components and puts them together following a specific procedure to get the most natural interaction."
The systems eliminate the network latency that causes distracting pauses and jerky movements, Gantner says. The systems transmit at bandwidths of up to 12 megabits per second, far faster than the standard video conferencing speeds of between 300 to 700 kilobits per second.
"Telepresence gives you truly real-time interactions. There are no delays even though you're transmitting a large amount of information, as required by high-definition video and audio," he says.
In addition to 4-VA meetings, the rooms also allow student government officers at George Mason and James Madison to meet and share ideas. And students at the colleges also have begun to use the rooms for graduate school, job and internship interviews. Plus, the ability for researchers to share ideas without having to travel far from their labs is invaluable, Brener says.
The universities are still exploring the most effective ways to implement the technology for instruction. In the two semesters since the telepresence rooms became available, educators have used them for six small seminars or language classes shared by two or more of the universities. The task for the campuses is to exploit the full potential of telepresence as a teaching and learning tool, Moore says.
"It's marvelous that we've finally realized the full potential of video conferencing, but like any other technology, the next step is figuring out where telepresence works best for what we're trying to accomplish in education," she says. "It's obviously wonderful for small seminars and collaborations by students or instructors or researchers, but we have to find how the synchronous model of telepresence works best with the asynchronous interactive technologies used in distance learning programs."
The impact of telepresence within the consortium will grow as members explore its uses and learn more about how it fits in the mix of instructional technologies, says Dominic Swayne, 4-VA coordinator at James Madison.
"We're already collaborating and sharing the expertise of the individual institutions using telepresence, and we have faculty members signing up to teach courses that might otherwise not be available at some schools," he says. "Telepresence is the far edge of video conferencing, and one of our goals is to push the edges of technology in education."
4-VA members need to answer the same questions that they would ask about any technology; chiefly, when and why to deploy it, says Veronica Diaz, associate director for the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative.
"Telepresence can mimic the personal synchronous interaction that is the core of the traditional face-to-face education model — and do it over distance," Diaz says. "It's easy to think of wonderful uses for the technology. Medical or scientific demonstrations where detail is very important come to mind."
Yet, no matter how well the tools can do certain things, institutions still must identify the need and justify the cost, she points out.
Clearly, telepresence will continue to be an important platform for meetings and collaboration. More shared course offerings are planned too, including advanced Chinese, Arabic and Turkish classes. The four universities are also considering modifications to the telepresence environment to facilitate teaching and learning.
Investigating and expanding telepresence's potential in education is an excellent model for what 4-VA is trying to do with instructional technologies of all kinds, Virginia Tech's Moore says. It's a good example to set for students, she points out: "Learning to mix and match tools to improve the way we do things is one of the best lessons we can teach and learn."