Higher-ed instructors are always looking for new ways to make their courses more attractive, engaging, and convenient for students. Doing so helps institutions remain competitive and ensures they are meeting students’ needs. One way that many colleges do this is by using videoconferencing technology to connect far-away classrooms or campuses to each other to provide better access to courses.

A basic videoconference is fine, but students want a more immersive experience when they are paying to learn. That’s why Rutgers University in New Jersey used AV technology to take our videoconferencing program to the next level through our “Immersive Synchronous Lecture Initiative.”

We launched the initiative on our New Brunswick campuses to connect students in different buildings and on different campuses that are miles apart. Our university is unusually spread out; our New Brunswick students take busses between classrooms that are up to 10 miles apart. The Immersive Synchronous Lecture Initiative addresses this challenge and allows students on two different campuses to take the same lesson from the same instructor at the same time, while making it feel like they’re all together in the same room.

The tech behind the scenes
Here’s how it works. The Immersive Synchronous Lecture Initiative uses cameras and multiple high-definition, wide-screen Epson laser projectors to project a life-sized video of an instructor who is standing in Classroom A, onto a screen several miles away in Classroom B. The instructor’s image shows in Classroom B on a screen positioned in the spot where he or she would typically stand. This creates the illusion for students in Classroom B that the instructor is actually standing at the podium in their classroom.

Meanwhile, in Classroom A, the instructor can see the images of the Classroom B students, projected onto screens on the back wall, and can interact with them in real time. The cameras and screens are positioned in such a way that if the instructor points to the video image of someone in Classroom B, the student feels like the instructor is really pointing at him or her. An assistant is present in Classroom B to pass out handouts, administer exams, and make sure everything goes smoothly.

Here are some tips for institutions wanting to implement similar solutions to take their videoconferencing to the next level.

Invest in the right technology.
Rutgers’ initiative uses seven Epson Pro L 1505UH projectors and extra-long, custom-built Da-Lite motorized screens to produce 10-foot-wide images in each classroom. Rutgers selected the Epson laser projectors because they provide vivid, crisp images and use laser technology instead of lamps. Multiple Cisco SX80 videoconferencing codecs work together to handle all communications between the rooms, and the rooms are equipped with a sound system based on Shure MXA910 ceiling array microphones and ceiling-mounted speakers so everyone can talk to each other in real time and hear everyone from both rooms clearly. Wireless technology allows students and instructors to share content from their devices and display it on the screens in the other classroom.

Plan and test the positions of the screens, projectors, and cameras.
The point is to make students in the far-end campus feel as though they are part of the class, not just watching a video. Making sure cameras, screens, projectors, and microphones are in the right spots is critical to ensuring this immersive feel.

Provide training and scale your rollout.
We train instructors how to use the rooms just before classes begin for the year and offer ongoing support to make sure they are comfortable using the equipment. Start with instructors who are familiar with videoconferencing and then expand the initiative slowly to add additional instructors. It may take time for some instructors to get used to leading a class in this manner. Once a core group is using the classrooms regularly, others will want to try it.

Think about class size and size of the projectors.
Make sure you select presentation displays that will provide images large enough for your rooms. Also, this initiative typically works best for larger classes. Rutgers has about 140 to 150 students in each classroom.

We launched our Immersive Synchronous Lecture Initiative to reduce travel time for students. It has indeed helped alleviate this pain point, but the benefits go beyond that. The initiative has also become a truly innovative way of using AV technology to connect and expand opportunities for students. It brings videoconferencing to the next level by creating an immersive, engaging environment for all.

About the Author:

Matthew Wilk is associate director, digital classroom services for Rutgers University.


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