College Connections

The compelling case for telepresence in higher education

HIGHER EDTECH | by Andy Lausch

cdwg telepresenceThe number of students applying to and attending college grew 37 percent between 2000 and 2010.  With that kind of growth and competition for students, it is increasingly important for higher education institutions to attract and retain the best and brightest students. Technology can play an important role in reaching new students and bringing new and flexible educational opportunities to current students.

One example of a game-changing technology is telepresence – high-end videoconferencing that connects multiple sites in a true-to-life experience, making participants feel as though they are all in the same room. In addition, telepresence can reduce travel between campuses, expand course offerings across campuses, connect students to guest instructors across the country and around the world, and increase the number and caliber of students taking courses. And now, telepresence comes at a price point that institutions are more able to afford.

Two institutions – Moraine Park Technical College and Minnesota State University–Mankato – offer compelling case studies for telepresence adoption.

Moraine Park Technical College has three campuses in Wisconsin about 30 miles apart.  In the early 1990s, it began offering interactive television (ITV) classes in order to expand educational opportunities for its students.  Classes were often comprised of small groups of students at the three campuses, with the professor at one campus and the other two campuses connected via ITV on 19-inch, low-definition monitors. The audiovisual quality was poor, but the technology expanded course offerings for students at all three campuses. In 2000, Moraine Park upgraded to IP-based videoconferencing, which improved audiovisual quality but was still far from lifelike and plagued by user error. In 2010, the college implemented a telepresence room on each of its campuses. Faculty and students immediately embraced the technology for its ease of use and lifelike experience.

“In about 15 minutes, the students forget that they aren’t in the same room,” said Pete Rettler, West Bend and online campus and community administrator. “If a student on one campus drops a pen on the floor, a student at the other campus will bend down to pick it up – it’s that real.”

What’s more: Moraine Park has eliminated technology downtime. In the past, getting a classroom online involved multiple remotes and a lot of trial and error, even with training.  Now, getting online is as simple as pushing two buttons.

Telepresence is also an important marketing tool for the college, which enrolls 3,600 students. Along with its computer numeric control (CNC) lab and nursing simulation lab, all prospective students visit a telepresence room. “Students considering a technical college expect the latest technology,” Rettler said. “We need to offer it.”

Minnesota State University–Mankato has a satellite campus nearly 100 miles from Mankato. It needed telepresence to connect students and faculty across the campuses.  Like Moraine Park, Minnesota State Mankato had ITV before moving to IP-based video conferencing in 2010 and then to telepresence in fall 2012.

Since its telepresence rooms went live on the first day of the fall semester, students and faculty have been clamoring to use the rooms, reports Ed Clark, vice president and CIO.

“I didn’t have to sell this technology. Our faculty members are begging to use it,” Clark said.

As with Moraine Park, Minnesota State Mankato administrators and faculty are using the technology to expand their educational offerings. “The fidelity is so clear, we are using telepresence for music instruction,” Clark noted.

Minnesota State Mankato engineering students in the Iron Range of Minnesota will soon be using telepresence, and the university is considering using the technology to deliver Ph.D. programs to southwestern Minnesota for the first time. The technology will enable these students to interact in real time with faculty and other students – without leaving their homes and jobs. Currently, the closest Ph.D. programs for these students are in South Dakota or available online.

The technology has many other benefits. At Minnesota State Mankato, it will enable students with an associate’s degree to continue on for a bachelor’s degree – again, without leaving their home communities. Minnesota State Mankato is also considering partnerships with community colleges to provide math remediation courses to students via telepresence

While telepresence offers compelling benefits, it also brings challenges that are important to consider before implementing.

One of the biggest challenges for both Moraine Park Technical College and Minnesota State Mankato was demonstrating return on investment (ROI). Clark and Rettler both recommend using student engagement and room usage as two important metrics.

Rettler conducts a survey of students each semester to measure their engagement with face-to-face classes (no telepresence), telepresence classes and online classes. In a recent survey, 19 percent of students said they were more engaged in a telepresence class than in a face-to-face class, which Rettler attributes to the concentric circle layout and audiovisual quality of telepresence classrooms. “You can’t hide, and everybody can hear you,” he says. “You have to pay attention, and you might want to dress a little better.”

At both institutions, telepresence is so much in demand that faculty members are willing to teach at off hours – 8 a.m. on a Friday, for example – just to use the telepresence rooms.  At Moraine Park, telepresence rooms are booked 65 percent of the time, compared to 20 percent for other classrooms.

Clark and Rettler also note that construction of telepresence rooms involves many elements beyond installation of the technology itself. The technology must blend into the environment. To achieve that result, institutions may need to moderate HVAC sound, control lighting and run cables under the floor. Room remediation takes time and detailed project management.

Moraine Park, Minnesota State Mankato and CDW-G offer the following recommendations for institutions considering telepresence:

  • Demonstrate the technology to campus stakeholders. Rettler saw the most reticent members of Moraine Park’s board become the biggest champions of telepresence after a demonstration
  • Take advantage of planned remodeling; install telepresence at the same time if possible
  • Ensure that your campus infrastructure can support the technology. Allow time and budget for necessary upgrades
  • Track telepresence room usage and student engagement.  Both are useful tools for proving ROI

Telepresence adoption in higher education will continue to grow because of the high quality of the experience and ability to provide new opportunities for students.  According to Learn Now, Lecture Later, a survey report from CDW-G, 39 percent of students and 32 percent of faculty report using telepresence in their classrooms. What’s more: 37 percent of students and 28 percent of faculty want more telepresence incorporated into classes as a learning tool. Moraine Park and Minnesota State Mankato experiences show how institutions can successfully implement and expand their telepresence offerings.

Andy Lausch is the vice president of higher education at CDW-G. With more than 14 years of IT and business experience, he is a strong advocate for applying both education-specific and market-independent best-practices to solve business challenges and improve productivity through the successful implementation of IT solutions. Write to: alausch@cdwg.com

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