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Embedding Video Conferencing in a Multi-site University Setting

by Andrew Wood published Nov 20, 2008 07:35 PM, last modified Apr 05, 2011 10:05 PM
An experience of the development and deployment of video conferencing while leading a university media production department:
Video conference

On 1st April 1989 a new Higher Education Institution was formed, combining two sites fifty miles apart at Cambridge and Chelmsford. It is today known as Anglia Ruskin University and is where I had worked for many years.

A year earlier, in 1988,  I was at a meeting of the Educational Television Association which was convened at several different sites of the LIVENET videoconferencing network. This linked many of the London University Colleges and Medical Schools together. By the end of the day I was convinced that my institution was going to need this technology if it was to operate effectively and become an integrated learning community of students and staff.

I wrote a paper to the Directorate which was enthusiastically received in principle, but in 1988 the cost of two video conferencing systems plus the installation of a dedicated network to link them over 45 miles was around £1million.

The next couple of years were spent researching and monitoring a rapidly developing technology and by 1992 the roll-out of ISDN2 (Integrated Services Digital Nework) by British Telecom and the halving of the cost of the video codecs (compression / decompression) meant that we were able to install our first two systems ready for the start of the 92/3 Academic year.

In order to ensure that all levels of staff were aware of the potential applications of the technology my department designed posters and leaflets for circulation around both campuses and we organised 70 staff development sessions which were carried out over the link. These linked theoretical discussion with practical use of the equipment and after 90 minutes, most colleagues felt confident to try booking a conference for real. From day one we offered the service in the same manner of other media services so that all staff needed to do was to book their slot, turn up on time, walk into the room and start conferencing at each end. Although this involved technical staff time at both ends it paid huge dividends in giving colleagues confidence in using the technology. There were occasional problems revolving around the diary system for conferences and the network links between the sites but we constantly struggled to resolve these and the benefits of the conferences that succeeded far outweighed the negative effect of conferences that failed.

In 1994 we purchased a smaller unit to link in a third campus at Brentwood and immediately started to use this to teach Music BA(Ed) modules between Cambridge and Brentwood. The Law School were using it for individual tutorials and Social Sciences were using it for PhD methodology training. By 1996 a whole Postgraduate Diploma Programme in Mental Health Innovation was being delivered between Chelmsford and Cambridge.

In 1997 Ultralab, the learning technology centre at the university, joined the network with the gift of a codec from Larry Ellison of Oracle and in 1998 the original codecs were replaced with the next generation and ISDN6 was installed to improve the quality.

The next leap forward came in 2000 with the advent of videoconferencing over internet protocols (IP) and Professor Tony Powell, the Deputy Vice Chancellor, who had been championing this innovation from the very start, released funds to purchase over 20 desktop systems to trial links between cross-campus Faculties and Departments. We evaluated several different systems but settled on the PolyCom Via Video. This initiative was undertaken in close co-operation with Communication & Information Technology Systems (C&ITS) because of the convergence between computers, video codecs and networking. This built on working relationships already established with the network team.

Within three years there were over 80 Via Video systems installed across the University and individual departments with substantial cross site travelling and responsibilities were purchasing their own room systems within overall advice and specification by the Media Production Department and C&ITS.

Lessons learnt

Today video conferencing is a natural part of the culture and communication processes of the University enabling it to reduce the stress, danger and carbon footprint of travelling on the M11 motorway. Equally importantly it enables Anglia Ruskin to be more nimble and responsive to external opportunities and threats as it competes with single campus universities in the global higher education community.