Mason hosts governor for unveiling of new videoconference technology

Mason President Alan Merten and Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell joined presidents at other Virginia state universities, debuting new videoconferencing technology. (Jake McLernon)

A new type of classroom in Mason’s University Hall debuted to some distinguished guests Thursday in a showcase of newly installed Cisco TelePresence technology that digitally links Mason’s Fairfax campus to three other Virginia universities in a first-of-its-kind partnership.

Gov. Bob McDonnell joined Mason President Alan Merten to discuss what the new technology means for educational partnerships. Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash moderated the event while the presidents of James Madison University, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia demonstrated the TelePresence videoconference system by using it to join-in from their respective campuses.

The communications infrastructure unveiled at the event is part of the 4-VA Initiative which will allow the four partnered universities to combine resources in teaching, research and planning by using the video system, according to the presidents.

Students will get their first taste of the TelePresence experience in January when two advanced Chinese language courses will be taught using the system.

The class professor will teach from the Mason campus in the TelePresence room on the third floor of University Hall.  Then, through the live video technology, the course will be available to students at the three other universities, said Amy Brener with Mason’s Information Technology Unit.

“Students will have access to this in a couple of months,” Merten said of the classes planning to use the technology.

Through the system, Mason students will eventually have the option to virtually join and attend classes taught from the TelePresence locations at one of the other universities.

During Thursday’s discussion, the university presidents said putting the technology in place for this type of learning environment is the easy part. They said there is additional work in developing courses and making it logistically possible for students to register for these classes.

Cisco CEO John Chambers echoed that point while joining the conversation through the TelePresence system from California.  Chambers also said it’s unique that four universities work together in this type of partnership.

The 4-VA partnership began in 2010 as a consortium of the four state universities to meet the education needs identified by the governor’s Higher Education Commission.  To accomplish some of those goals, 4-VA established a private-public partnership with Cisco to bring, what the company calls an “immersive video experience,” to the campuses.

Aside from classes, the presidents said administrators can communicate with each other without wasting time or resources to travel and researchers at the different universities can collaborate to assist in each other’s projects.

The TelePresence systems are widely used by the business community, but the installations at Mason and the other Virginia schools are part of the technology’s early deployment in education, said Jennifer Dunn with Cisco public relations.

The setup positions video monitors at eye level in configuration with conference-type tables outfitted with microphones.  Central cameras capture the speakers and strategically placed audio output gives a realistic speaking experience.

Live video from the system can also be used in a traditional large lecture setting, but that disrupts the immersive experience of the smaller TelePresence room, according to Joy Hughes with 4-VA.

To develop the technology, Cisco worked with the entertainment industry to choose the best colors and lighting to accompany the multiple video monitors, cameras and speakers -- to create what Dunn called the sense of sitting at the same table with someone who happens to be in another city.

The governor called the technology innovative and said it’s the beginning of a revolution in higher education, comparing the system’s advanced capabilities and high-definition quality to more well-known video services familiar to college students.

“A little better resolution than Skype,” McDonnell joked.

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