Cisco video tech gets Colorado classroom closeup

Rural access and the ability to extend specialized expertise to students are among biggest benefits.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Cisco and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs have provided an update on an pilot experiment they began in March 2010 to offer public university courses via Cisco's immersive Cisco TelePresence video communications technology. Representatives from Cisco and the Colorado university system report that their limited experience over the past nine months has reinforced their belief that videoconferencing collaboration will be instrumental in helping bring more advanced curriculum to higher education students in rural communities.

Wim Elfrink, chief globalisation office and executive vice president for Cisco in charge of its Smart+Connected communities projects, says: "We see in this century technology will play the same role as highways, training and airports played in the previous century." That's a pretty strong statement, don't you think? But he's apparently not the only one who buys this.

Pam Shockley-Zalabak, chancellor of Colorado at Colarado Springs, says the technology is currently linking classrooms between the Colorado site as well as Otero Junior College in La Junta, Colo., and Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colo. Ultimately, she hopes the Cisco Telepresence network can be used not only to link together 10 higher-education institutions in the region by more than 300 middle schools and high schools in the region.

"We need to get more people and their families convinced that post-secondary education is still possible, no matter where a person happens to be located," said Shockley-Zalabak during a press briefing about the project that was broadcast via Cisco TelePresence and Internet television.

She believes distance education technologies will be imperative in the future not just for reasons of environmental sustainability but for these three reasons:

  1. Ensuring access for students who may simply live in the "wrong" part of the state for the programs they're interested in taking. (Some students in the state would otherwise have to commute five to six hours round trip to get to the classes on the conference.)
  2. Supplementing the limitations of classroom instruction, incorporating simulations and other interactive learning techniques
  3. Extending the reach of specialized faculty, who can now touch more students with their individual courses. One really poignant example focuses on nursing. Nancy Smith, dean of the Beth-El College of Nursing and Health Sciences for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, notes that a majority of nurses in southern Colorado are more than 55 years old, which means many will retire in the next decade. The state is trying to address this through, among other things, the TelePresence technology

Among the classes that were offered via TelePresence in the past semester were those in the engineering and nursing programs. Bob Kressin, an instructor with the Electrical and Computer Engineering program for the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said he was initially concerned that using the technology would be a distraction. "The first time you use this technology, though, it is a little startling as to how well it works," he said.

Let's be clear, not every student participating in the experiment has had the benefit of using the rather expensive TelePresence technology as part of this experiment. In some situations, students were required to enter the classroom via the Cisco WebEx service. That meant that while the instructors could hear their questions or interactions, they couldn't actually seem some of the remote students. So there is work to be done. But the Colorado experiment is likely to be followed and echoed, as the rules of education are rewritten for a smart planet.

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