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Videoconferencing Inspires Global Teamwork

With videoconferencing technology, distance is no barrier to face-to-face collaboration
University Business, June 2013
Rochester Institute of Technology biomedical photography students videoconference with students at the University of Cardiff in Wales.

At the Rochester Institute of Technology (N.Y.), biomedical photography students are using videoconferencing technology to show their work to audiences in Wales. A librarian is providing tutorials to students at satellite campuses in Eastern Europe. And researchers are holding meetings with project sponsors hundreds of miles away.

Videoconferencing technology has been in place at RIT since 2009. RIT’s Office of Research Computing developed the institution’s Global Collaboration Grid from a combination of in-house software, open-source software—including the Access Grid from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratories—and other components.

Administrators began using the technology for meetings with program officers at the National Science Foundation, which was financing some of the office’s research.

“This is sort of videoconferencing taken to the next level,” says Gurcharan Khanna, director of research computing at the university. “We can use it for meetings, and we can also use it for classroom, distance-learning missions, and a kiosk system where you have a video wall for large displays for people to collaborate at multiple sites.”

RIT’s experience exemplifies the wide-ranging ways higher education faculty and staff engage videoconferencing for long-distance teamwork. Here’s a closer look at how the technology is transforming teaching, research, and administrative connections.

Teaching and Research

More than one-third of higher ed faculty reported using distance and virtual learning methods more frequently than they had in the past two years, according to “Learn Now, Lecture Later,” a June 2012 CDW-G study of high schools and colleges.

Overall, 33 percent of students and 37 percent of educators, in both high school and higher ed, reported using telepresence—which according to CDW-G’s definition includes telepresence, videoconferencing, and/or web conferencing. Out of that number, 42 percent of students and 30 percent of educators said they used the technology at least once a week.

Students at Hendrix College (Ark.) use videoconferencing to participate in several collaborative courses with fellow members of the Associated Colleges of the South. The program, which uses a cloud-based Blue Jeans Network system, grew out of the ACS’ New Paradigm initiative to expand the academic choices of students enrolled at member colleges, says Hendrix CIO David Hinson.

The 16-school consortium initially began offering noncredit courses. For example, when one professor was elected to the Arkansas delegation of the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., he conducted a virtual class in politics and elections from the convention floor. Another professor taught a fall course in post-modern constructionism that connected his class with students at three universities in China.

This spring, the ACS offered its first full-credit videoconference class, a theater arts course taught by a professor at Rollins College (Fla.). Hendrix students, participating remotely, got to take a class their college had previously offered only every other year. “It gives us some flexibility in terms of getting another option, as opposed to having the faculty member teach an overload to accommodate the course, or having to go out and get an adjunct,” Hinson says.

Moraine Park Technical College (Wis.) made its first foray into videoconferencing in the early 1990s, with the purchase of an ITV system that allowed the school to offer some joint courses for students at its three campuses in Fond du Lac, West Bend, and Beaver Dam.

In 2009, after about three years of eying a Cisco TelePresence system, administrators acquired one and consulted with CDW-G to implement it. The equipment was installed in a 14-seat room at the West Bend campus, a 14-seat room at the Fond du Lac campus, and a six-seat room at the Beaver Dam campus.

“It finally got to the point where it was affordable for education,” says Pete Rettler, the West Bend and online campus and community partner at Moraine Park. Outfitting one 14-seat room cost about $150,000, not counting the price to convert the room to accommodate the equipment, he explains. “It was the single-biggest budget item we had that year.”

Rettler says the rooms are booked more than 60 percent of the time.

Outside groups can also rent space. For example, a West Bend area business partner tapped the technology to connect with a colleague in Hong Kong.

Graduate psychology students at Our Lady of the Lakes University (Texas) use the same type of system to record and share counseling sessions at clinics where they complete their practica. When the recordings are complete, a Cisco Media Experience Engine adds watermarks restricting the viewing of the videos in compliance with HIPAA privacy regulations, explains OLLU chief technology officer Joseph Deck.

The system also is at work in the OLLU speech pathology department, where faculty members and parents of children in therapy can observe student-run laboratory sessions.

At RIT, the professor who teaches the biomedical photography course has conducted virtual seminars linking his students with those of colleagues at the University of Cardiff in Wales and the National Library of Medicine. “This is a way for them to share their research ... with the students in those remote sites,” Khanna says.

He recently facilitated a videoconference involving participants in Rochester, Belgium, and Australia: a professor on the RIT campus, members of a faculty advisory committee at the University of Ghent (Belgium) and the student currently defending his thesis from Down Under.

Administration Collaboration

Higher ed administrative departments are using videoconferencing to connect communities on campus and beyond.

The Metropolitan State University of Denver’s new decision theater, the Center for Advanced Visualization and Experiential Analysis (CAVEA), will feature videoconferencing capabilities when it opens this fall. Along with students and faculty, businesses and organizations in the Rocky Mountain region will be able to access the facility for meetings.

CAVEA director Susan Lowrance says the first question she gets from people touring or inquiring about the facility is whether it is videoconferencing-equipped. “A lot of people are interested because they have many stakeholder groups scattered across the state, and it’s very difficult for them to all meet at one time in one place.”

Lowrance expects the center to attract gatherings to discuss environmental issues, including regional land use and the management of the Colorado River. Other projects will have local experts collaborating with MSU Denver engineering and industrial design students who are building a virtual wind tunnel.

At RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf, students eager for first-hand tips about making the transition from school-to-work videoconference with alumni.

OLLU uses videoconferencing for meetings between faculty and staff at its main campus in San Antonio and those located at the Houston and the Rio Grande Valley branches.

At the University of Michigan Google Hangouts allow for remote meetings among staff and communication during software deployments. The small-scale Google teleconferencing program enabled members of the Office of University Development to talk to the deployment support team when migrating email and calendar systems.

“It got pretty intensive in the weeks coming up to the actual migration, when we had to meet every day,” says Heather Oleniczak, web and data integration application developer in the development office. “If it was just to check in for 15 minutes, it didn’t make sense to pull everybody away from what they were doing to go and physically be in some conference room.”

Encouraging Use

As with any technology, ensuring an institution gets its money’s worth is an important consideration. And a popular way to attain a good ROI is to encourage use. Hendrix College’s Hinson says maximizing the benefits of videoconferencing for better teamwork requires choosing the right scenario for introducing the technology.

“We have to be careful that we don’t try to shoehorn technology into a place where it’s not wanted or where it doesn’t work well,” Hinson says. “One of the keys to success is having good pre-existing relationships before you try to form these types of collaborations, so that you don’t have a lot of dead air waiting for engagement to happen.”

Another tip: Don’t overburden instructors with complex technical tasks. Instead of using a special videoconferencing room, Hendrix faculty and administrators set up their equipment in regular teaching spaces, staffing them with student tech facilitators so instructors could concentrate solely on teaching.

“They can teach without having to worry about how they’re being framed in the shot or how they look,” Hinson says. “The facilitator takes care of handling the codex, negotiating the call, and making sure we’ve got a good back channel for the other location.”

Deck, who uses Vyopta’s V-Control software to keep the OLLU videoconferencing setup user-friendly, agrees on this point. “Whatever you do has got to be very simple for the faculty, staff, and students to do.”