University of South Florida Nurses Video Conferencing Onto the Internet

Debbie Cantero teaches pharmacology to nursing students located at five sites across Florida. The University of South Florida instructor lectures and interacts with her students using video conferencing over IP networks, a technology tool that has become an integral part of USF’s extensive distance-learning program.

“There is a shortage of nurses in Florida,” says Cantero. “Distance education makes it possible for more people to pursue nursing as a career or to obtain advanced degrees if they are working nurses.”

With more than 14,000 students in more than 300 distance-learning courses, USF is one of the country’s biggest providers of distance education. For some time, it has been a leader in adopting new distance-learning technology, delivering its current curriculum using a variety of media, including one-way video and Web-based systems. More recently, the campus has been using video conferencing, first relying on Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines for delivery and now venturing into video conferencing via the Internet, using Polycom Inc.’s MGC-100 multipoint control unit (MCU). It enables video conferencing for distance education, academic conferences, administrative meetings, and research collaborations.

According to Lynn Rejniak, director of research and development for educational outreach, IP capability was critical to USF’s distance-learning objectives. “The Polycom MCU provides USF with the necessary versatility to support the move to H.323 IP services,” she notes. The H.323 protocol is the backbone of high-speed video conferencing using Internet 2, the faster, better-performing Internet. At the same time, the Polycom MCU still supports ISDN transmission—important because many of USF’s partners and collaborators continue to rely on the ISDN H.320 protocol. This way, USF maintains a safe path from ISDN to IP for itself and the parties to which it links.

Adoption of the system has had a number of immediate benefits, according to Rejniak. “Software management is much easier,” she says. “We needed ease of operation and a short training time with the system so that our staff—many of whom are part-time or students—could get up and running with it quickly.”

The Polycom system also easily adapts to various configurations. With IP video conferencing, portable video conferencing endpoints can be easily transported to any location with an appropriate network connection for short-term or long-term use. This facilitates USF’s use of IP video conferencing at community colleges and other “fixed” distance-learning sites, as well as at one-time guest lectures or conference sites.

In the classroom, the Polycom system enables instructors to adapt the video conference to suit the occasion. Instructors, or the technical staff assisting them, can alternate between a fixed lecture-style presentation where they are the only presence on the screen, to a “continuous presence,” in which up to nine sites are in view on the screen simultaneously.

Instructors can use the screen to reflect the classroom style, whether it is a didactic presentation or a discussion group. They can make changes on the fly, simply by clicking and dragging icons. There are 21 presentation styles available with the MGC-100.

Students participating in video conference-enabled distance-learning courses meet at designated sites near their homes or businesses. For instance, nursing students may gather at the hospital that employs them rather than travel for an hour or more to reach USF. Polycom’s MCU connects USF to community colleges, hospitals, and other venues around the state. “We rely on Florida’s 28 community colleges to help us deliver distance learning,” Rejniak says. “And video conferencing is the distance-learning format of choice for them.”

More than 35 percent of USF’s distance-learning courses implemented video conferencing last year, making it one of the most important tools the program uses. Outside of the classroom, however, researchers and administrators are also finding uses for video conferencing. One of USF’s prominent marine biologists is using video conferencing to collaborate with a colleague at the University of Hawaii on a project to study the impact of shark attacks on submarine cables. USF and the Universidad del Norte in Colombia have developed an ongoing collaboration using video conferencing to help the South American institution implement many of the technology tools USF has adopted. And administrators at the four USF campuses have found video conferencing to be a valuable tool, using dedicated IP-based video conferencing rooms to meet with one another.

Currently, USF offers three degree programs completely off-site: master’s programs in engineering and public health and advanced degrees in nursing. During the next few years, USF hopes to increase the number of complete distance-learning degree programs.

“Portability is very important to us,” Rejniak says. “Being able to literally pack up the equipment into a briefcase and take it to where it is needed gives us the flexibility we need to develop new applications and programs as we need them.”

For more information, contact Lynn Rejniak at rejniak@admin.usf.edu.

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