May 28 2015

Video Conferences Extend Educational Opportunities

IT managers say cloud-based video conferences keep faculty and students in touch while reducing infrastructure costs.

For a small institution like Birmingham Southern College in Alabama, cloud-based video conferencing brings the bright lights of Broadway into the hands of local students.

Jesse McKneely, assistant vice president for IT, says Birmingham Southern once ran a five-hour live musical theater audition with a director in New York City using a cloud video conferencing system from Blue Jeans Network.

“We were able to do a live video conference in which our students could perform for the consultant, who was unable to make it to our campus that day,” McKneely says. “We’ve also created a mentoring program with a local school.”


The number of two-way video participants a single Blue Jeans Network session can support

SOURCE: Wainhouse Research, “Evaluation of the Blue Jeans Network (BJN) Video Collaboration Service,” February 2015

McKneely says Blue Jeans offers many advantages. All people need to run a session is a web browser and a webcam. Blue Jeans supports up to 99 people on a call, but McKneely says the college has never pushed the limit much past 20 or 30. This flexibility has enabled the college more easily bring in speakers from all over the country, including experts in New York, Silicon Valley or Washington, D.C.

“For most of the experts, it’s just a matter of sending them an email invite, and they can be up and running on a video call inside of a minute,” he says. “Plus, if we want to do a traditional room conference session, Blue Jeans lets us connect to our in-room LifeSize systems.”

As video conferencing becomes mainstream, many institutions can’t afford to deploy in-room systems to every conference room or building, says Andrew W. Davis, senior partner and analyst for Wainhouse Research. “As cloud-based video technology becomes more affordable, scalable and reliable, we expect that these cloud video systems will become the preferred communications strategy in most organizations within the next three years.”

Video on Many Fronts

At the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, professors and students have been using cloud-based WebEx from Cisco Systems for more than a decade.

Dominic Lau, director of IT and operations for the Distance Education Network (DEN) at USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, says USC began using satellite video conferencing in 1972 to deliver classes to students working at local defense contractors. Viterbi first started using WebEx in 2004 to enhance interactivity in the classroom for online students.

“Back then, if an online student had a question, they could only call in via chat or a phone line,” Lau explains. “The chat required a graduate assistant to be present, and the phone calls were often out of sync with the lecture, so we started using WebEx, which offered real-time communications.”

Today DEN@Viterbi offers more than 40 online graduate programs and supports more than 4,100 students. Use of WebEx also has expanded over the years. Students now use WebEx to collaborate and meet with professors during office hours, while the marketing team uses the system for recruiting, and student affairs uses it to work with international students to prepare them for life in the United States.

“The beauty of WebEx is that it works on any device,” Lau says. “It runs on tablets, smartphones, notebooks — whatever is convenient for the person.”


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