Videoconferencing | Feature

Live and In Person...Online

Three years ago State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota (SCF) in Bradenton, FL, was staring into the face of a major budget cut and interested in enhancing its distance education program and the school’s overall efficiency. After being handed a mandate by the Board of Trustees to cut $2 million from the school’s annual budget, and realizing that 40-mile commutes between campuses were both expensive and time consuming, the school went in search of an A/V solution that could help it save money and become more efficient.

New to the institution at the time, Lars Hafner, Ph.D., president, spearheaded the search for an HD videoconferencing system that would meet the needs of the 36,000-student institution. CIO Feng Hou, who led the college’s videoconferencing implementation, said video communication was not a new idea to SCF. The problem is that the existing technology on all campuses was outdated.

"We implemented a standard system several years earlier but it was obsolete, difficult to operate, and it didn’t have the quality output that we were looking for," said Hou. "We really wanted to get to a place where people could meet online in a high-definition format with excellent image and sound quality."

Key features SCF was seeking in the new system included HD audio and video; HD streaming, auto-publishing, and recording capabilities; a user-friendly setup that could be operated with technical assistance; and built-in microcontrollers for simultaneous connections between different locations.

Hou and his team were charged with finding a system that met those requirements and that would enhance educational delivery and save money. The vendor and product review process took several months and implementation took place in late-2009. After surveying its options and involving faculty, administration, the IT team, and students in the review process, SCF selected the LifeSize Room HD videoconferencing system.

Twenty endpoints were installed on SCF’s three campuses and its tuition-free public charter middle school. The college is also using an HD streaming, recording, and auto- publishing solution that allows administrators and staff to record meetings and training sessions for playback at a later date. According to Hou, the video-enabled meetings are captured instantly and streamed in HD quality.

College committees that are discussing strategic enrollment initiatives, service excellence projects, and faculty outreach efforts, for example, collaborate across SCF’s multiple campuses without having to travel or deal with unreliable connections and poor image quality. Those online collaborations saved the college roughly $100,000 during its first year in service. For 2011, the school saved $30,000 in travel costs alone.

Productivity has also improved, said Hou, thanks to the reduction in travel time and the school’s ability to coordinate large groups for virtual meetings. The videoconferencing setup has also helped SCF exceed its e-campus expectations. Since installation in 2009 the school’s enrollment has increased by about 5 percent per year or about 1,100 students annually.

"We have a campus-wide initiative in place to build an e-campus and our online student enrollment is growing steadily," said Hou, who sees the high-quality videoconferencing setup as a key facilitator in that growth and in students’ increasing interest in SCF’s e-campus course options.

"Unlike with old-fashioned videoconferencing – where students have to wait for the professor’s words to catch up with his or her mouth," said Hou, "we can provide a crisp, sharp experience with very few – if any – snags or delays." Being able to replicate the "live" classroom experience online also helps students save money on gas and vehicle maintenance, said Hou. Some sessions that were only offered at the school’s main campus, for example, can now be taken at satellite locations that are closer to the students’ homes. "Students usually don’t have a lot of money to spare in the first place," said Hou, "so they really appreciate the fact that they can get the same experience closer to home."

The benefits that SCF has reaped from its videoconferencing setup extend past the classroom. The school’s human resources department uses it to conduct job interviews with potential candidates from all over the country, said Hou, whereas in the past many of those meetings were done in person. "They can whittle the list down to two or three potential candidates using the real-time videoconferencing," said Hou, "and then set up the in-person interviews with the top picks."

Hou said user training, a lack of physical space for the meetings, and the need for bandwidth control were the three biggest challenges SCF ran into when implementing its videoconferencing system. The goal was to introduce a user-friendly setup that everyone could handle, he said, and then train faculty, staff, and students on how to operate the system. The physical space issue hasn’t been solved yet ("We don’t have enough rooms for the people who want to use the system," said Hou) and bandwidth control is an issue that SCF mitigates with ongoing network management.

"On one hand we want HD quality but with multiple sessions taking place at once the network management can be a challenge," said Hou. "We don’t want the quality of the video and sound to be compromised or degraded so in many cases these sessions are given priority over other network traffic."

As SCF’s student enrollment numbers expand, Hou said the college will seek out more technology solutions that balance budgetary issues with cross-functional options that solve multiple challenges at once. "Our goal is to implement customer service- and needs-based solutions that truly serve the educational needs of our college."

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