It’s the stuff of science fiction. Interactive cameras move with the speaker with no operator in sight. Groups of people hundreds of miles apart feel as if they’re all in the same room together, learning and even laughing together.
But it’s not science fiction. It’s telepresence and, starting in Fall II, it became another way for Brandman University to offer classes.
Not content to just link campus-to-campus, Brandman expanded this innovation in learning by linking the Doctorate of Education January immersion held at the Costa Mesa Hilton Hotel with potential students at the Roseville and San Diego campuses and sharing the experience of listening to the keynote speaker as it happened.
Telepresence allows faculty members to teach an in-person class in Irvine with 10 to 12 students simultaneously with a two-person class in Roseville. Unlike Skype or other computer-to-computer programs which have limited focus, the telepresence system uses three cameras that take in the entire classroom and zoom in as someone speaks. Large-screen monitors allow each class to see the other in action, making it ideal for group presentations and discussions.
While the university has used Adobe Connect sessions for group meetings, telepresence changes the experience from an audio experience with a shared screen to one that is truly interactive.
“It really gives us a new set of options,” said Jan Hartz, campus director in Irvine, one of the four campuses currently equipped telepresence designed by Cisco. Previously a two-person class would have left those students with the option to enroll in the class during a different session or take it online.
“It’s really important for our military kids, who need at least one class with boots-on-the-ground to qualify for their housing allowance. This solves the problem in some cases,” said Hartz. Telepresence classes are also possible at the Modesto, Roseville and San Diego campuses. During the Fall II session, four classes were synced between Irvine and those campuses. This session, the Irvine campus has one class synced to Roseville and one to San Diego.
There was a learning curve, as with all new technology. Students in remote sites discovered the sound of potato chips being munched on attracted the camera’s attention just as much as asking a question. The system is also at the mercy of campus technology networks, which, like any network, can be overwhelmed by data transmission.
“Being a student in the telepresence class took a bit of getting used to as the sensitive cameras and video screens were distracting initially. However, once our class adjusted it was a great resource to share a class remotely with students in Roseville. I feel that the telepresence class is a great option for students who prefer Brandman’s blended on-ground format, but are limited by what is offered at their local campus,” said Shannon Feightner, manager of Alumni Relations at Brandman and a student in the MBA program. “It does make you feel like you are in one collaborative class.”
Working from a new site for a one-time presentation at the Ed.D. immersion added a new challenge, working with another organization’s network. Responding to a request from School of Education Dean Christine Zeppos and working with faculty member Keith Larick, Associate Vice Chancellor for technology services Luke Bixler assembled a team from Brandman including Albert Sze and Rene Diaz and engineers from Cisco, including Jason Su and Joe Casella, and an NICP consultant Michael Lacroix, as well as the Hilton hotel IT manager, Mike Phillips who flew in from Pleasanton, California, to work into the early hours of Saturday.
Calling the group the “heroes within,” Larick praised them for staying calm and cool through the entire process and providing the Ed.D. program with what he called it’s own magical moment.
Although still awaiting additional feedback, Bixler said the initial feedback from the campuses during the presentation was positive. Making it happen, he said was a joint effort with everyone working together to resolve any problems.