Telepresence In Education: Cisco & Wharton Reinvent The Business-School Classroom

Cisco has installed more than 1,900 telepresence systems around the world, offering business-oriented, multi-camera video-conferencing technology designed to gives the impression that all the participants are sitting in the same room.

With a new partnership with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Cisco will be putting this tech in business-school classrooms, offering what's being called a fully immersive, coast-to-coast educational experience - starting with San Francisco- and Philadelphia-connected classes.

In a press conference and demonstration Monday at Wharton's San Francisco MBA campus, Cisco executives and Wharton alums introduced "The Connected Classroom." Using Cisco's telepresence technology, Wharton Dean Tom Robertson and others were projected onto a floor-to-ceiling screen in 1080p HD, while rear screens projected the Philadelphia classroom onto the back wall and 80-inch monitors mounted on the side displayed PowerPoint slides and guest speakers from Oklahoma and London.

One look at the kind of tech Cisco has supplied Wharton with is enough to put the business school substantially ahead in the virtual classroom race. Not only was every monitor in the room broadcasting hi-def streams across the country with a bandwidth rate of 1.5Mbps, but the audio was seamless, with no microphones required, nor any needed volume adjustment from the various speakers spread out across three states and two different continents. 

Wharton is taking two approaches to telepresence - one will let remote lecturers teach a class from thousands of miles away, the other will let lecturers speak in person to one classroom while another classroom participates using telepresence. Wharton hopes to begin this teaching model next quarter with a handful classes and varying room sizes.

Leveraging Resources And Reputation

The goal of the partnership - beyond Wharton's talking points revolving around improving the student experience and being to teach from anywhere with anyone - is to leverage Wharton's resources and reputation for a future in which virtual education is more and more common. Beyond that, Wharton hopes to position itself as a technologically advanced and reputable option compared to the ever-increasing numbers of non-traditional approaches to online education - many of which are vastly less expensive than an Ivy League MBA program.

The telepresence model seems to have particular advantages for business schools. Wharton's sprawling alumni base offers a large industry-specific list of guest lecturers - and telepresence could help bring these experts into the classroom - opening real-time debates from contrasting viewpoints. Wharton also plans to use the system to greatly expand the reach of its lucrative executive education programs for working professionals.

As to how effective this model will be depends on how immersive the experience is, and how much value can be added by bringing in more screens. As Wharton demonstrated the technology, only one speed bump hindered an otherwise impressive display of high-speed, high-definition communication: the inability to project two seperate live feeds of remote speakers simultaneously. The presentation seamlessly looped in a Cisco member from Oklahoma on one of the giant LEDs, but wasn't able to project the second speaker from London onto the adjoining screen (they simply switched off one feed and brought in the other). 

But that hiccup aside, this virtual classroom experience pretty much lived up to the goal of replicating the experience of actually being in the same room as a remote teacher. During the presentation's Q&A, for example, randomly selected members from the room in San Francisco and the linked room in Philadelphia asked the same person questions, with unhindered audio transmission and in completely lag-free real-time interaction. Cost aside, there is no doubt that the telepresence experience easily eclipses other virtual classroom technologies. 

One-Touch Record

Through integration of Cisco Jabber, the company's unified communications application, the video lectures will also be accessible through mobile devices, tablets and laptops.

And using Cisco's Capture, Transform, and Share video platform, the system gives Wharton professors the ability to easily record their lectures. But that's only the beginning. The next step is to combine the videos with Cisco's speech recognition software. More advanced YouTube indexing, Cisco's system transcribes and indexes the entire audio stream, allowing students to jump in at the exact moment an important term or topic is uttered by the professor.

Cost And Expansion

Wharton and Cisco representatives were vague about how much all this will cost, saying, "Wharton already had existing technologies in place that are being utilized for this solution, which... makes quoting a figure challenging." Examples of components from other third parties include projectors, LCD monitors and projection screens, they said.

Will this approach be marketed to other B-schools? It's too soon to tell. "Cisco may opt to market the technology to other academic institutions, but there is no formal announcement of these plans today," they said. "As per future collaborations, Cisco and Wharton have a close partnership and will indeed explore additional opportunities if and when they present themselves." 

 

Top image courtesy of Cisco. Second image by Nick Statt.