Videoconferencing: Green With Envy

When it comes to green initiatives, Western Kentucky University (WKU) in Bowling Green sticks to a very old-fashioned concept: Officials here emphasize less driving.

And they do it by offering a bevy of cutting-edge technology solutions that give professors and students alike the freedom of mobility.

Western Kentucky has more than 18,000 students and 2,000 staff (700 are faculty) scattered across seven campuses. The most far-flung campuses are 75 miles apart, with the closest sitting roughly 35 miles from each other — distances that are certainly drivable but not practical. Add in the fact that some students live 30 miles from their nearest campus on top of those miles, and suddenly enrollments begin to depend heavily on ZIP codes.

That means, said Edwin Craft, director of telecommunications and interactive video services at WKU, that one single mother near the Glasgow campus could not find a daycare center open late enough to provide babysitting for her children while she drove to the Bowling Green campus for a class in her major. Thanks to officials’ foresight in exploring videoconferencing 25 years ago, she didn’t need to.

Currently, the Midwest University boasts 34 dedicated interactive video service classrooms, where it teaches 200 classes a year to more than 4,000 students. Of course, that number grows every year, and WKU is in the process of bringing at least three more rooms online in the near future, according to Tamela Smith, director of interactive video service for WKU.

The rooms feature a microphone on each desk; when students press that microphone, it’s the same as raising their hand in class to talk. The camera pans automatically to that student and zooms in so he and the professor can carry on a dialogue.

“When we first started doing videoconferencing back in the dark ages, the quality was superb for the time,” said Craft. “But one of the complaints we got from faculty members was that they couldn’t write on the whiteboard and still have it legible to students. That seems like a small thing, but if you take away a whiteboard, then you change the nature of the class.”

The solution: high-definition screens. They not only allow students the detail to see what the professor writes on a board, they also eliminate motion blurriness and ghost images. “When the prof uses the document camera to write out a math formula, for example, students can see it crisply while it’s happening,” Smith noted. At least 80 percent of the IVS rooms deliver this high-definition capability.

In Craft’s experience, weaning away from the static T1 lines created the biggest creativity impact. Because the rooms are fully video interactive now, professors are welcome to bring in guest speakers from around the world. All they need to do is step into a videoconferencing room — even if it’s a local FedEx Kinko’s — to join the action. Consequently, the University fields an increasing number of requests to use one of its 12 high-tech conference rooms to conduct employee interviews with job candidates around the country.

Currently, individualized video is now starting to appear on desktop computers across the WKU campuses as well. “It’s really becoming Star Trek ‘Beam me up, Scotty’ when you can see the person on your PC and not have to go to a classroom to get the same technology,” Craft laughed.

Calling Out

“We don’t want isolated ‘island solutions,’” he added. “We want a consistent and synergistic set of communication capabilities that are accessible from a variety of devices.” That’s why he also installed Avaya’s one-X Mobile Edition, which allows users to bridge calls on the IP desk phones to a cell, so they can continue conversations while on the go. The move reduces calling costs and enables users to be more responsive, since one number reaches them no matter which device the recipient finds most convenient to answer at the moment. That’s certainly a boon toward building virtual office hours, in Craft’s vision.

The next building block in the foundation will be synchronous online classes using video and audio via Adobe Connect Professional. An accounting professor is piloting it during the spring 2009 semester, teaching to students who log in on their computers at home to take an online course with the same interaction as they could in an IVS room.

Still, nailing down specific savings in hours and dollars is difficult. Yes, the IVS rooms allow Western Kentucky to host departmental meetings via screen rather than face-to-face. Instead of a three-hour drive to meet with state officials in Frankfort, they ask Smith to set up a room. “Time is the biggest factor they appreciate,” she noted. There are also the collaboration possibilities with other universities, as WKU explores connecting its engineering students to professors and curriculum at the University of Kentucky and University of Louisville.

For Craft, the value lies in helping students like the single mother attend school in the first place. “Could we say that there is enough benefit financially? Definitely, but I don’t think you can put a price tag on educational opportunities that you give to those rural students,” he said.

Teleconferencing Advice

So what advice does Smith have for other institutions exploring a similar set up? Save yourself a few headaches and copy someone else’s work.

“A lot of thought and design went into planning our rooms to be very user-friendly, “ she said. “They’re intuitive, which is highly important, and the focus of the technology is to make it transparent so that if a faculty members walks into the room to teach, she doesn’t have to think about the technology. She pushes one button to start everything in the room and the camera placement, microphone placement is automatic.”