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Distance Learning in High Definition

A flashy new videoconferencing technology is making distance learners at a Wisconsin college forget they're not face-to-face with their distant classmates and instructor.

With a central campus in Madison, WI and four regional campuses as much as an hour apart, Madison Area Technical College (Madison College) wanted to give its distance learners a way to attend a wider variety of classes, and to access more of the top-notch instructors the college offers. The platform it chose, Cisco TelePresence, is raising the bar in terms of what classes and instructors the college can offer distance learners, according to Associate CIO Igor Steinberg. The college is using high-definition large-screen displays and super-fast transmission technology from Cisco in classrooms to help improve and extend its distance learning program.

Using the momentum from an initiative to improve the distance learning experience for students--along with the fact that the college was already using a Cisco wired and wireless network--the college has installed the Cisco TelePresence technology as its distance learning platform in six classrooms.

The Cisco TelePresence product has been marketed more for corporate use than educational. Although it's an obvious fit for distance learning, Madison College became the first higher educational institution to adopt the product for instruction when it deployed the system last year, according to Cisco.

The system is set up so that the two linked classrooms (both using Cisco TelePresence CTS-3200 systems) are identical. Each room includes an instructor computer to enable instructors to share content, a high-definition document camera, and two large monitors that echo whatever is on the instructor computer. The monitors display information to both rooms simultaneously. In addition, each room includes a laptop per student, allowing access during class to Blackboard, Microsoft Office programs, and the Internet.

Madison College has implemented 12 TelePresence rooms so far. Six rooms seat 16 students and the instructor and are primarily used for instructional delivery. Five small rooms hold just one to two people and are for distance tutoring, advising, and meetings. An additional small room is reserved for the college's help desk--part of a service that provides face-to-face assistance during a TelePresence session.

Prior to the Cisco product, the college used an interactive TV system to link distance learners at regional campuses with instructors. Class offerings were limited; students simply gathered in up to four different classrooms with a camera and four television screens set up in each. The TV screen provided a view of the instructor as a talking head. Via the classroom cameras, instructors and students could see tiny views of all the class participants at each location. While this technology permitted regional campuses to offer certain classes, it did not facilitate the sort of engagement that is possible with face-to-face instruction or the TelePresence system.

Features that distinguish the Cisco system from the old one include the speed of data transfer and image clarity. There is virtually no delay in transfer of the video image from the remote classroom--in fact, the delay is so small that the human eye can't detect it. That means voice and video are nearly perfectly synched. "A student waves a hand, and someone sees it immediately. There's no lag or delay--even the sound track matches up," according to Alli Jerger-Lopez, the technology adoption manager on the project. Jerger-Lopez is employed by Core BTS, the solution provider that worked closely with Madison on the project.

Cisco TelePresence system in action at Madison Area Technical College

In addition, the screens are 65 inches large and use high-definition technology, resulting in images that are so detailed, Steinberg said, that after the initial amazement wears off, users simply forget about the system. That doesn't mean it isn't incredibly popular, however. "We have people lining up to get into rooms to use it," according to Steinberg.

"It's like actually being there," Jerger-Lopez added. "You can see all the nuances of non-verbal behaviors. It allows the [classroom] connection to be that much stronger. Especially in the community college world, [which caters to] many displaced workers, that's so important."

In the process of setting up the classrooms, the college has been honing its classroom design ideas. The Cisco classrooms are configured in two rows in a semicircle, with six seats in front and 12 in the second row, for a total of 18 seats in the classroom. That setup encourages collaboration, Jerger-Lopez said--regardless of the technology in use: "It's not about the videoconferencing technology itself." Positive reactions from students and faculty to the seating design have led them to look at the design of other classrooms, including those structured for face-to-face instruction. For example, they initially thought that making the instructor sit in the Cisco classrooms in order to be visible on the monitor would be a problem. It turned out to be a plus--students told them it made the instructor seem more approachable.

Training faculty on the new system involves a two-hour session, some of it on the TelePresence technology itself, but more on best practices for teaching in a room using video technology. Issues covered included controlling the classroom, and making the technology fade into the background.

Instructors are required to have a basic level of proficiency with the Blackboard learning management system, which Madison College uses. There is also a small laptop at every student seat for access of online resources.

The system is a costly move, especially in an era of declining budgets. Madison College justified the system, Steinberg said, partly on the momentum of a strong ultimatum from the college's vice president of learning success to improve its distance learning technology and partly on the increased use expected with the TelePresence system. It's far too soon to measure the impact on enrollment and retention, but the TelePresence rooms are definitely popular: They are now in use more than 80 percent of the time between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. weekdays.

With just six rooms with 16 seats per room, at a college that serves 45,000 students a year, Steinberg said that deans are looking strategically at which classes should be offered via TelePresence, with a focus on those that make it easier for students near regional campuses to finish their degree requirements.

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