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When Does Telepresence Make Sense?

With the growing success of asynchronous online classes, why are some schools adopting room-based telepresence systems for distance learning?

When Does Telepresence Make Sense
The telepresence classrooms at Wharton's Philadelphia and San Francisco campuses provide an immersive environment for the school's bicoastal MBA program. (Photo courtesy of Cisco)

Online learning is on fire: Thirty-two percent of higher ed students today take at least one course online, according to the Babson Survey Research Group. And with overall enrollments declining, nearly 70 percent of surveyed college leaders see online learning as critical to their long-term growth. Not only is online instruction cheaper, but it allows schools to reach more paying students. Why, then, are some schools installing expensive room-size telepresence systems to connect classrooms hundreds of miles apart? Not only do these systems cost in the six figures, but they require students and teachers to gather in specific spots at specific times, seemingly defeating the purpose of online education. What's up with that?

This story appears in the May 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

For starters, say proponents, telepresence instruction is not about online learning at all. Instead, the goal is to extend the face-to-face experience of in-class instruction to remote areas and other schools. For certain disciplines, especially those involving healthcare, many educators feel that face-to-face instruction far outstrips the online alternative. And telepresence makes that face-to-face experience possible when other options--adding more courses and faculty--are simply not feasible.

Minnesota State University, for example, implemented synchronous courses via telepresence to serve students--and faculty--in its popular nursing program at its Mankato and Edina campuses, which lie nearly 100 miles apart. Until recently, some professors had to commute between the two campuses to teach the same course. And, in cases where demand for a course at a campus was low, the course was simply not offered.

In an attempt to allow faculty to teach classes simultaneously at both campuses, MSU experimented with simple interactive television (ITV) systems--small, three-screen tabletop units. While these systems work fine for interviews, meetings, and tiny graduate classes, faculty decided they didn't cut it for larger courses. Furthermore, MSU wants students to feel as if they're right in the classroom with the professor. "We want to provide an immersive experience, rather than a television experience," explains Ed Clark, CIO and vice president for technology at the Mankato campus.

To that end, the university installed Cisco's TX9200 and TX1300 telepresence systems in select classrooms at both campuses. To reinforce the sense that students are all in the same room together, MSU matched the paint colors of the classrooms, installed wall-to-wall monitors, and positioned speakers to make the audio seem as natural as possible. "This sense of being in the same place is key to the immersive environment," says Clark. Anyone who's languished on a conference call or peered at a stop-start videoconference image can probably relate: It's hard to engage when you're not in the same room as your peers and the instructor.

The synchronous rooms have been particularly valuable at Mankato. Nursing is a popular field on campus, but the most qualified instructors live and practice in the Twin Cities area near Edina. With the Cisco telepresence system in place, Mankato students can participate fully as complicated techniques are taught and demonstrated.

"Our desks are arranged in an arc and [the other class's] desks are arranged in an arc," explains Todd Giencke, a nursing student at the Edina campus. "The instructor stands in the middle and addresses both the students who are present physically and also the other class. There is no delay. The quality of the experience is very high."

Coast-to-Coast Connection
Telepresence systems have also been a boon for the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which operates campuses in Philadelphia and San Francisco. The school's MBA programs draw on experts from both cities, forcing faculty to fly across the country multiple times a year. With the installation of identical amphitheater-style classrooms at each campus, however, faculty can now kiss their frequent-flier programs goodbye. "The distance really drops away," says Don Huesman, managing director of innovation at Wharton, of the school's new telepresence system, which also comes from Cisco. "You get the sense that you can actually look someone in the eye."

Besides enabling schools to connect seamlessly with disparate branches, telepresence allows schools to partner with other institutions to share teaching resources. In addition to the Edina-Mankato link, for example, MSU has partnered with several two-year colleges in the Twin Cities to allow students to complete their bachelor's degrees. Instead of transferring to a four-year school, students can now attend Mankato-based telepresence lectures from their community colleges. To make it happen, MSU set up identical presentation rooms at the community colleges. "When folks come in and see the immersive environment, it makes it very easy for faculty on either side," notes Clark.

MSU has even extended these partnerships into rural Minnesota, where a dearth of college graduates has become a serious economic problem. To encourage engineering students to stay in their hometowns, for instance, Mankato teachers are broadcasting their tech courses to local two-year schools.

The Price Is a Fright
Make no mistake, synchronous systems involve huge upfront costs. "Anybody who wants to get into this space has to be willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per site," says Huesman. "This is not for the faint of heart, and it's not for everybody." Each room requires massive screens and projectors, carefully calibrated sound systems, and identical paint and furniture.

Given the expense involved, it's vital that schools ensure that telepresence can meet their needs before they commit themselves. Midsized, skills-oriented professional classes are particularly suited to this kind of instruction.For large introductory courses, however, telepresence systems just don't work very well. "When you want that kind of immersive experience, you can't make it into a 500-seat lecture," explains Clark.

If the systems are installed for the right reasons at the right schools, however, these initial expenses can lead to long-term savings and increased revenue. Clark notes that he operates with a lean IT staff that struggles to maintain MSU's older ITV systems. With the synchronous platform, on the other hand, teachers can simply flip a switch and connect to distant students in seconds. Wharton and other bicoastal universities can also drastically cut down on travel expenses. And, of course, installing a telepresence system at a partner school is a whole lot cheaper than building another branch.

Indeed, these kinds of outreach programs could become far more important as schools look to cut costs and grow enrollment. "Synchronous communication is not just nice to have, but something we need technology to make possible, especially when we're operating in a global arena," concludes Huesman.

Why Telepresence Is Not an Online Alternative

As useful as telepresence can be for campus-to-campus collaboration, it shouldn't be seen as a replacement for asynchronous online classes. "You can think of synchronous [distance learning] as kind of a lobster fork--a specialized tool too small for just about anything else," says Richard Rose, program chairman for instructional technology and design at West Texas A&M University.

Rose primarily teaches graduate-level online students, almost all of whom have families and full-time jobs. "They have no patience and no real ability to keep a schedule where they have to be 'at class' at 3 in the afternoon on Tuesdays and Thursdays," he explains. "I've got 103 students in my program. If I used synchronous instead of asynchronous, I'd have maybe 10."

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