Bryan Schneider of Minnesota State University, Mankato says a Cisco Systems telepresence system gives students an immersive experience.

Dec 02 2011

Telepresence Bridges Minnesota Campuses

High-end video conferencing connects campuses while enhancing learning.

At Minnesota State University, Mankato (MNSU), the recent rollout of a high-definition video conferencing system has not only made life easier for students during the harsh Midwestern winters, but has also significantly enhanced the learning process.

Students at MNSU can effectively be in two places at once, thanks to the deployment of Cisco Systems telepresence technology. Telepresence delivers improved fidelity of both video and audio, which makes participants feel as if they are present in another location.

“It’s like taking a big-screen TV and setting it right in front of your desk,” explains Bryan Schneider, director of technical services at MNSU. “The person on the other side is almost lifelike in size. You can see one another, look into each other’s eyes and you truly feel like you are sitting in the same room with them. It’s very interactive.”

MNSU is among a growing number of institutions turning to video conferencing to accomplish a wide range of goals — from improving instruction to engaging remote students to increasing access to curricular content. The university delivers these benefits while delivering cost and productivity savings for students, faculty and administrators alike.

“It’s a great way for universities with multiple campuses to have students at one location take part in a class at another site, with just one professor,” says Melanie Turek, principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan. “It provides them with a very real-world experience.”

Improving the Learning Experience

High-definition video conferencing has become a mainstream communication tool that encourages new levels of face-to-face collaboration.

“The kinds of students coming into higher education today are more technologically savvy and expect to be more engaged in their learning,” says Diane H. Coursol, professor of counselor education at MNSU. “When we can answer that with this type of engaged learning process, they leave here more prepared. The learning curve is quick and powerful.”

MNSU’s telepresence solution promises to augment the institution’s offerings in numerous ways. For starters, the university is piloting the technology in six graduate-level classes this semester, delivering access to key curriculum to students at its satellite campus 80 miles away in Edina, Minn.

Although MNSU previously had offered a handful of distance learning classes using iTV, Schneider says the technology was not engaging for participants.

“It was very impersonal, and students didn’t feel like they were connected,” he explains. “It was kind of like being a fly on the wall. There was a camera in the corner of the room, and students could usually only see the backs of people’s heads, or their faces were really small. It was hard to tell who was talking and often hard to hear the conversation.”

Further complicating matters, the system was unreliable and difficult to use, which resulted in poor class participation.

Enter the Cisco TelePresence System 1300 Series. The system comprises a single screen with three cameras that can support meetings with up to six people in a conference room. Participation is made easy with automatic voice-activated switching, while built-in lighting produces high-quality, natural-looking video by eliminating facial shadows. All participants appear life-size on the screen.

“We were looking for a technology that would provide a high-quality, personal and immersive experience,” Schneider explains, adding that another important requirement was that the product was easy to use. “We wanted faculty and students to press one button to connect everything — where it would turn on and just work. Cisco TelePresence seemed to be the product that would do all of that.”

With two units deployed on MNSU’s main campus in Mankato and one in Edina, students can now attend classes that otherwise would have required hours of driving.

“One of the goals was to offer more sections at our satellite site as well as the main campus,” Schneider says. “Telepresence is really helping with accessibility, making it so students and faculty don’t have to do a lot of unnecessary travel.”

Expanding the Classroom

In addition to facilitating distance learning, the technology will also expand the university’s recruitment and teaching opportunities by letting potential faculty members teach from afar. It is also being considered as a way to attract guest speakers and lecturers to the university.

MNSU also intends to interact with businesses that have deployed the technology at their own sites. “We can connect with different locations and simulate classroom training,” Schneider explains.

Going forward, Schneider envisions many other uses for the technology, including student orientation, faculty job interviews, academic advising and financial aid counseling.

If MNSU’s distance learning pilot program proves successful, the university also intends to purchase Cisco 3200 Series units that can accommodate larger class sizes at the satellite campus. And ultimately, says Schneider, classes will be offered in both directions, with some courses originating in Edina.

“The more students we can put into classes, the greater the ROI of this solution,” Schneider points out.

Cost savings and enhanced productivity were realized from the telepresence solution even before classes kicked off this fall, as administrators used the technology throughout the summer to host faculty and staff meetings between the two campuses, resulting in time and cost savings.

Although Schneider hesitates to estimate the return on investment, he expects the telepresence gear to reduce costs and boost class enrollment.

“But the biggest benefit with telepresence is the experience,” Schneider emphasizes. “A very important part of teaching is having students who are engaged, able to ask questions and feel like they are part of the class. The reason for telepresence is the real-life experience you get.”

Turek agrees that telepresence solutions can significantly bolster the learning experience.

“It basically expands the reach of professors and content,” she explains. “There really was no way in the past for them to access certain classes at all. Now they are getting a classroom experience that allows them to get access without having to travel or be at that campus.”

Furthermore, the technology is gaining increasing appeal as an effective collaboration tool among professors, according to Turek.

Enriched Connections

In addition to the telepresence units used for distance learning classes, the university deployed two Cisco TelePresence System 500 Series units in its counseling and student personnel department.

Designed for two-person interaction, Coursol says the system trains student counselors and is taking center stage for a research project to assess whether technology can bridge the gap between counselors and clients at geographically distant locations.

“It’s really important to have eye contact, to hear a clear voice, and to be able to look at facial expressions and body language,” Coursol explains. “What is really critical is to make it so the clients feel like they can be engaged with the counselor just like they are sitting face to face.”

Coursol reports that colleagues and students have been amazed by the technology. And selecting and deploying the telepresence solution was seamless, Schneider says. He was especially impressed with the technical knowledge and level of expertise offered by the CDW•G team who helped with the implementation.

“CDW•G visited our campus and let us know what type of units would work in which rooms,” he explains. “They helped us find the space and fit the technology for the room and the purpose. Then they came onsite and did the installation and training for us.”

Clearly, MNSU’s new “room with a view” is facilitating widespread advantages.

“The magnitude of how this equipment can impact higher education is amazing,” Coursol says. “We’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg. It’s very exciting.”

Benefit Snapshot: Video Conferencing Solutions

When it comes to the advantages afforded by video conferencing, seeing is believing. Higher education institutions can reel in a wide range of benefits, including:

  • Improved access to curricular content: Video conferencing can engage remote students while enhancing online curriculums, leading to increased retention rates for a university.
  • Cost and productivity savings: The technology reduces travel expenses for students, faculty and administrators alike, all the while increasing productivity.
  • Extended reach: Video conferencing empowers faculty and staff to expand their education reach and bring disparate communities of students closer together — a distinct competitive advantage over institutions that do not have such technology.
  • Better access for faculty and staff: The technology offers faculty and staff real-time, virtual seats at mandatory meetings and events that they might not otherwise be able attend, which can be a key factor in recruiting and retaining the best professors and administrators.
  • Increased expert interaction in any field of study: With video conferencing, college students can interact and engage with experts from all around the world, better preparing them for careers in their field of study and building relationships in the process.
<p>Paul S. Howell</p>

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