Sep 17 2012

Mobile Video Conferencing Advances Curriculum

Schools tap tablets to offer learning opportunities to students near and far.

Imagine a homebound student being able to fully participate in a class history lesson — asking questions, joking with classmates and, most importantly, not falling behind. Then consider how beneficial it would be for a child who attends an alternative school, to take part in an advanced language class.

Those visions have become reality for students of the Humble Independent School District, thanks to mobile video conferencing. The Texas district has been conducting conference sessions on tablets since deploying Polycom RealPresence Mobile earlier in the year.

“We started using [RealPresence Mobile] for our staff and faculty as soon as it came out for meetings, and we soon found that it had other good uses as well,” explains Angela Conrad, the district’s distance learning coordinator. “Teachers can use it to observe students’ behavior in the classroom, to watch other teachers conduct their classes so they can model the lessons, and to connect with other classrooms and guest speakers around the world.”

Video conferencing has a strong history at Humble ISD, starting in about 2003 with Polycom room-based systems and progressing last year to Polycom CMA Desktop, an operating system–agnostic software client. While both of those systems will stay in place for large class-to-class interactions and virtual field trips, use of mobile video conferencing in the district will continue to grow over time, Conrad predicts. “Mobile video conferencing enables students, teachers and faculty to participate in ways they couldn’t before. Having the mobile system frees up room-based systems,” she says.

Implementation on the Rise

Mobile video conferencing is taking off, says Andrew Borg, a research director at Aberdeen Group. “From a behavioral perspective, there is a generational shift; younger workers have come to expect mobile video access all the time, while older workers are taking their time getting used to it,” he says. From a technical standpoint, manufacturers are working out bandwidth, end-user presence and system compatibility issues. It will take some time before video conferencing becomes a viable alternative to phone calls, e-mail and instant messages, but growth will be inevitable. 

Adoption has increased because mobile video conferencing eases collaboration and accelerates decision making, Borg says. In addition to using mobile video conferencing for formal meetings, the technology is extremely useful for ad hoc meetings and for improving customer service. All of the major video conferencing players have mobile solutions, including Adobe, Cisco, LifeSize, Microsoft and Polycom.

Eliminating Isolation

Even small school districts have begun deploying mobile video conferencing, including Howe Public Schools, a district of approximately 550 students in rural Oklahoma.

“Our district is isolated from many things — the closest large city, Oklahoma City, is three hours away,” says Superintendent Scott Parks. “Our students are distanced from opportunities they should be able to have.”

Percentage of smartphones that, by 2015, will have stereo 3D cameras and screens, both of which will enhance video conferencing capabilities

SOURCE: 2012 “Mobile Devices and their Semiconductors Market Study,” Jon Peddie Research

The rural nature of Howe Public Schools was one of the major drivers for implementing video conferencing. Starting with room-based, first-generation telepresence systems in the late 1990s, followed by desktop video-conferencing systems a decade later, video conferencing enables students to collaborate with others, work with mentors on projects and even connect with educators around the world.

Within the past few years, as 3G networks became more robust, the district began incorporating tablet computers with video-conferencing capabilities — first with Cisco Movi and then with Cisco Jabber.

“With Jabber, students, teachers and administrators can connect with any H.323-compatible video-conferencing system, which really expands the possibilities,” Parks says. “I have even used it to attend or run board meetings from remote locations when I can’t make it to the actual meeting.”

Conquering Federation

For organizations that have standardized on a single video-conferencing system with mobile capabilities, such as Polycom RealPresence and RealPresence Mobile, Cisco WebEx and WebEx Mobile, or LifeSize ClearSea, which includes a mobile component, compatibility isn’t a problem. But for school districts that want to conference with other schools or districts, or instructors who want to enable as many devices as possible to access a lesson, compatibility can be a real challenge.

“When you’re dealing with a situation where a smartphone user with Skype wants to participate in a video conference with a dedicated room-based system, there might be issues,” says Andrew Borg of Aberdeen Group. “What’s really needed is a way for these disparate systems to talk to each other as a federated system.”

When conducting a faculty meeting, for example, it is critical that all participants, no matter where they are located or what device they are using, be able to fully participate. One type of emerging solution uses a common standard for video conferencing, in essence creating multiplatform video conferencing. Often, these solutions take advantage of the cloud to make video conferencing accessible to anyone with any type of video-enabled device, regardless of location.