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University of Arizona A Virtual Classroom Experience

For students in the Tucson classroom, their counterparts in Silicon Valley appear almost life-size on a curved screen situated across the front wall of the classroom. Remote students interact real-time with life-sized images of both the instructor and their distant classmates. Professors have the ability to switch the video conferencing system to “lecture mode,” sending the image of the Silicon Valley students to the rear wall, behind the students in the Tucson classroom.

The Eller College of Business and Public Administration at the University of Arizona implemented a distance learning program to build a model that would utilize modern technology and provide a more virtual experience for the students and professors.
It was the university’s first experiment with distance learning technology, and in pursuing the venture, we wanted to avoid a traditional Web-centric distance-learning program where students complete course work on their own time and in isolation. This approach is effective in that a student across the country can complete the same course work and read the same material as his or her counterpart on-campus, but it lacks the collaborative, interactive and team-oriented approach that Arizona felt was a crucial component to the business school experience.

The experiment launched with an evening MBA program jointly offered to students in Tucson and Silicon Valley (the latter through a TeleSuite system at the 3Com corporate headquarters in Santa Clara, taking advantage of the system in off-peak hours).

The physical space of the classroom is designed so that students in Tucson sit in tiered rows a moderate distance from the front wall, connected real-time to Silicon Valley by a high-speed wireless network. Live microphones are distributed to cancel ech'es and several cameras are mounted inside of the walls and ceilings throughout the room to create an illusion of direct eye contact between all participants. Overhead lights are positioned to illuminate participants’ faces and lights are temperature-controlled. The Tucson-to-Silicon Valley link is managed centrally through TeleSuite. Video, data, and voice are transported via a T1 line, allowing for instant, real-time visual and audio communications.

The program is designed to give students an immersive, interactive, and lifelike experience. Classes are held in the evenings, meeting once a week as part of a 22-month long course of studies. Class sizes range from 28 to 30 students with approximately one-third of those students participating remotely through the TeleSuite system. To date, two classes have graduated through the program, with a third in its second year.

Most importantly, students that live and work in Silicon Valley can enroll in Arizona’s MBA program and feel that they belong to a group of students who are all going through the same experience at the same time. The most frequent comment received from our students is that the experience is as close to being there as possible.

The system has paid for itself with the increase in enrollment generated from our the new distance learning program. In fact, the University of Arizona is now considering investing in a classroom with the newest version of the technology, allowing more seats, larger screens, and even better video resolution. The virtual classroom solution has made the evening MBA program more visible, raising our status with key decision-makers on campus.

The virtual classroom has provided the Eller College a high-quality and efficient means to integrate guest speakers from distant locations into the classes, conduct interviews for prospective staff members, enhance relevant college attendance, and bring more recruiters to Tucson (virtually).

Mark Zupan ([email protected]) is dean of Eller College of Business and Public Administration.

About the Author

Mark Zupan ([email protected]) is dean of Eller College of Business and Public Administration.

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