Videoconferencing adds flexibility and convenience for the campus community, says Matthew Wilk of Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

How Videoconferencing Platforms Help Connect Campus Communities

New, improved collaboration tools give students, faculty and visitors freedom and flexibility.

Matthew Wilk spends much of his time at Rutgers University-New Brunswick talking with faculty members about their technology needs. 

Typically, he says, their requests relate to integrating or troubleshooting a specific device

But lately, Wilk has noticed a growing interest in one technology in particular: web conferencing and videoconferencing solutions that let instructors connect with people outside of their classes.

“Guest speakers, off-campus students — anyone they want to be part of the conversation but who can’t be there in person,” says Wilk, the university’s associate director of technical services and operations for digital classroom services. 

Instructors see colleagues using these tools to great effect in their own classrooms, Wilk says, and “they come to us wondering if they can have the same thing.”

They can, he says, and the setup is simple. Instructors who want videoconferencing occasionally — to bring in an outside expert located overseas, for example — can get what they need from a university-linked Cisco Webex account. 

Those who plan to use the technology more often can do so in one of a handful of Rutgers classrooms equipped with the Cisco TelePresence SX80 Codec platform.

Hayhurst Wilk

Connected videoconferencing tools allow professors at Rutgers University-New Brunswick to offer a new kind of classroom experience, says Matthew Wilk, associate director of technical services & operations digital classroom services. Photography by: Colin Lenton.

Cisco’s Webex Meetings tool supports real-time video, voice and chat communications anywhere users have an internet connection. It’s exceedingly user-friendly, running on a laptop or mobile device through a web browser or app. 

“The good thing is that most people are familiar with the technology and are relatively comfortable using it,” says Wilk. 

The Cisco TelePresence solution, the technology at the heart of a Rutgers initiative dubbed “immersive synchronous lecture halls,” requires a bit more training, he says. 

The platform includes five Cisco TelePresence Precision 60 PTZ HD cameras, 45 microphones (40 at ceiling level), seven Epson 12000-lumen laser projectors displaying onto 119-inch screens and an array of inputs for HD video, controlled by the instructor at an “immersion lectern” (a custom user interface designed in-house and positioned at the front of the room). 

With the click of a button, Wilk says, a professor teaching in one classroom can broadcast his or her live and life-size image to a similarly equipped room on a different part of campus. 

What’s unique, he notes, is that these lecture halls create an environment in which faculty and up to 275 students can interact simultaneously between both locations.

“It’s not your standard videoconference environment,” he explains. “It’s as if they’re right there next to them in the same class.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out these four ways to remodel the higher education classroom to increase engagement.

Collaboration Tools Bring Flexibility to Various Campus Tasks

While Rutgers is on the leading edge of videoconferencing in the classroom, it’s hardly alone in recognizing the potential to revolutionize learning. That’s become easier as the technology has matured.

“Initially, these tools were pretty complex, and they presented a lot of challenges for teachers who wanted to try them,” says Eric Kunnen, associate director of e-learning and emerging technologies at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University. “But now I think those barriers are falling by the wayside. We’re seeing solutions that can be launched right from a browser, without extra plug-ins or the need for anything to be installed. Overall, they’re much more robust and significantly easier to use.”

At the same time, Kunnen adds, many universities view videoconferencing as a strategic investment. 

“The current generation of students is coming to campus with video being part of their daily life,” he says. “If you’re not doing what you can to connect with them — to offer them that flexibility around how they want to be engaged, and to give them opportunities to learn remotely — I think you’re going to be missing the boat.” 

Erick Kunnen
If they can reduce the need for travel and save people time simply by making videoconferencing an option, that’s something their community is going to appreciate.”

Eric Kunnen Associate Director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies, Grand Valley State University

Similarly, he says, instructors and experts increasingly expect institutions to leverage whatever technologies they can to accommodate hectic schedules.

“A lot of universities are geographically spread out, with campuses all over the place. If they can reduce the need for travel and save people time simply by making videoconferencing an option, that’s something their community is going to appreciate,” says Kunnen.

Reducing student travel was a goal for Rutgers, where students attend classes on four campuses, and for the University of North Carolina at Pembroke

UNCP has a rural campus and a diverse population, including many commuter students, says Kevin Pait, interim associate vice chancellor for technology resources and CIO.

Webex videoconferencing, he says, “has been part of our overall communications strategy for several years — a means for our faculty, staff and students to meet and collaborate in ways that they couldn’t before.”

Maine Students Stay Connected with Collaboration Tools

UNCP officials knew they wanted a tool that fit into the existing collaboration portfolio. With Cisco switching and a Cisco Meraki wireless network already in place, UNCP added Webex for Higher Education, creating Webex Teams accounts for everyone in the UNCP community. 

The platform, accessible through the learning management system, includes wireless screen sharing, file sharing, whiteboard and synchronous audio and video capabilities. 

“If I’m a student in a class, I can open Webex Teams and see all the other students taking that class,” says Pait. “I can have a one-on-one meeting with a classmate or a professor or connect with everyone at once. And if I’m an instructor, I can share what I’m doing as I write on the screen in real time.” 

Administrators use Webex to conduct job interviews with remote applicants, and faculty members use it to meet with students who can’t attend office hours. 

classroom

Videoconferencing tools let professors reach students from anywhere on campus. Courtesy of Rutgers University

“The best part is that it’s device-agnostic, so it works on anything a student or instructor may have,” Pait says. “From the user’s perspective, it’s easy and seamless. Everything is under a single pane of glass.”

At the University of Maine System, a network of seven institutions with 19 locations across the state, Zoom is the tool of choice. In a state where winter comes early and settles in, it keeps members of the UMS community connected even when they’re stuck at home.

“Whenever we get a serious snowstorm or ice storm, no one wants to drive to campus,” says Lauren Dubois, UMS executive director of classroom technology.

With Zoom, students join classes virtually, communicating with classmates via chat windows and clicking a box to virtually raise a hand. Instructors control a screen display in the classroom, which any participant can access. 

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Videoconferencing Tools Fill A Desire to Feel Connected

Much like students at Rutgers and UNCP, those at UMS use Zoom to collaborate with classmates and meet with advisers from the comfort of their homes. Instructors use Zoom to bring outside speakers in — whether from Maine or another part of the world. 

The Zoom licensing agreement allows all in the UMS community to use the tool from any device, says Angela Cook, director of classroom technology, but they also have access to Zoom-enabled rooms featuring high-end technologies that enhance the conferencing experience. 

Lecture halls and other large rooms have Vaddio and Huddle videoconferencing cameras and either (hardwired) Biamp or (wireless) Revolabs microphones, while meeting rooms and seminar-style spaces have Polycom Studio cameras with built-in microphones and speakers.

USM started these installations after completing an exhaustive assessment of all classrooms systemwide and then surveying the community about technology wants and needs. 

The assessment made it clear that the majority of teaching spaces were long overdue for technology upgrades, Cook recalls, while the surveys led to similar revelations around faculty and student expectations. 

“What we learned was that a technology like Zoom can help our students feel more connected to their courses and to the university itself,” she says. “It doesn’t resolve all of the issues we’re facing related to student and faculty engagement in a university system of this size, but we like to think it’s a really good start.”

Photography by Colin Lenton
Oct 09 2019

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