Besides conquering distances, telepresence brings unique energy to the educational experience.
"The system is amazing," says Jing Wang, a George Mason University professor of Chinese language. "The technology is very exciting to students and to teachers, and that excitement is valuable in itself."
Wang uses telepresence to teach her "Reading Narrative Prose After Mao" course to GMU and James Madison University students. Wang's class is one of four courses the 4-VA consortium made available via telepresence in fall 2012, up from two courses the previous spring semester.
"The technology is suited to smaller classes, which allow an immersive experience," 4-VA Deputy Director Amy Brener says.
Teaching in two places at once takes some adjustment, Wang says. Telepresence limits an instructor's ability to move around the room. Although the quality of the images and sound makes it easy to interact with remote students, it can sometimes be difficult to make eye contact with the students in the room where she is lecturing because some are seated behind her.
"These problems will be solved. The technology people on the project have been great," Wang says. "Telepresence has real value: It allows students to share resources that they might not have access to otherwise."
Beyond the Room
Cisco Systems TelePresence enables natural interactions over a distance, but until recently all the dynamic content generated in exchanges has been locked in a closed virtual environment: telepresence rooms connected to other telepresence rooms.
4-VA's telepresence interoperability project, spearheaded by Virginia Tech's Video Network Operations Engineering Group, aims to unlock the content for access by other devices.
"The goal is to connect telepresence to any video device," says Ludwig Gantner, the group's supervisor. "The result won't be the same experience as being physically in a telepresence room, but it allows the number of users who can participate in a telepresence conference to increase dramatically. Users have come to expect that technologies and all their many devices will interact seamlessly."
The interoperability project has created a video dial plan that assigns a numerical address to any properly configured device. One system or device can connect to another by simply dialing its number. The interoperability project has already linked telepresence rooms to traditional video conferencing rooms, as well as to both Windows-based and Mac desktops and notebooks, and tablets, smartphones and cell phones.
The video dial plan also provides connectivity to Virginia Tech's broadcast facilities, which means that a telepresence conference could potentially be broadcast beyond campus. "Now we're working on scalability," Gantner says. "How can we expand the technology to reach 8,000 to 10,000 users at once?"