You are here


Choosing Telepresence

When and how to take the plunge
University Business, Jan 2012

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.

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 Lori 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.”

‘The technical installation of tele-presence is a lot more than just the cameras and the video and the network. There’s tremendous value in the room specs because they contribute immensely to the end result.’ —Igor Steinberg, Madison College

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.

“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.telepresence room at RMU

Similarly, when Robert Morris University (Pa.) was planning for its new business school building that opened in August 2011, administrators realized that tele-presence and business can easily go hand in hand. The new 18,000-square-foot building houses the U.S. Steel Center, featuring a telepresence area that serves as a resource for companies and other organizations to provide corporate training and business certifications, shares Derya A. Jacobs, dean of the school of business. The telepresence center will also contribute to workforce training and development efforts in Greater Pittsburgh.

“The students will have direct exposure to the day-to-day workings of the professional world, giving them the experience they need to compete and succeed in an international business environment,” says Jacobs.

Don’t just add a camera, design the room for it.

Telepresence works best when it isn’t an afterthought. That’s why, whenever possible, it’s best to build and furnish a room from scratch, rather than just add a camera, Epstein suggests.

“Sometimes there are exercises you’re engaged in where you need to move around the space. If the equipment isn’t smart and can’t respond to those kinds of changing modes, it’s limited in its uses,” he says. “It needs to be responsive to your needs, and if classrooms have different modes of learning, you’d want your technology to respond.”

When Madison College built its telepresence rooms in 2008, officials worked with Cisco to ensure the rooms met size, acoustic, and lighting specifications. In fact, shares the institution’s CIO, Igor Steinberg, Cisco would not even ship its product until company reps confirmed the room was suitable for Cisco’s product specifications.

“One of the things that I came to appreciate through this process is that the technical installation of telepresence is a lot more than just the cameras and the video and the network,” he adds. “There’s tremendous value in the room specs because they contribute immensely to the end result. If I were to install a lower-cost system, I would still go through many, if not all, of the same steps we had to go through to condition a room for telepresence—that’s how important it is.”

Ensure high utilization.

You can have the fanciest technology out there, but it isn’t worth much if it isn’t being used.

telepresence room at DukeSteinberg believes it’s vital for any organization’s leaders to consider how they’re going to ensure high utilization for telepresence rooms. “It’s important that they deploy sufficient critical mass to be able to really leverage the investment.”

When Madison officials decided to go down the telepresence path, one of the major considerations was how many rooms to equip, he explains. “Our provost indicated that we needed to have this at every one of our [four] regional campuses or it didn’t make sense. Six rooms was a radically large number to start with, but it was also one of the keys to success.”

The result of conscientious planning is that the rooms are busy ones. “They are in constant use,” Steinberg says.

To be exact? When the number of hours the classrooms are occupied is divided by the number of hours the campus is open, “we have anywhere from mid-70 percent to 85 percent utilization, which for classrooms is almost unheard of,” explains Lori Sebranek, director of operations for learner success. “So we’re very proud of the efforts that we have put in place for scheduling and maintaining that utilization.”

Make students feel like they’re there.

Telepresence technology would be misused if it didn’t further enhance the feeling of belonging that comes with actually being in a classroom.

“One thing that Madison College is committed to at this time is recognizing the changing needs and expectations of our students,” says Sebranek. “They’re expecting an environment that provides that kind of experience, that provides that kind of flexibility. It’s more than just the telepresence room, it’s re-envisioning what our classrooms are going to look like and how you can support the students in those environments.”

In the past, an instructor had to stand in one place in front of a camera, which hindered teaching style. Students on both sides of the lens couldn’t see or hear each other. Now, instructors can walk around and the camera will follow them. Students can ask questions and the remote learner can see them, and often interact with them.

“The larger classroom facilities include camera pan and zoom controlled by voice-activated microphones,” says Futhey of Duke. “This creates a much more intimate sense of presence for the remote participants. This has been an essential ingredient in creating an environment where the remote participants feel they are ‘here’ rather than ‘there.’ ”

And the effort has paid off. Futhey says students have noticed the difference. “We’ve had great reaction from students and faculty who have experienced first-hand the ease with which our telepresence deployments have brought participants from halfway around the world back to Duke.”