Telepresence - It's What's Next for Videos and Education

In 1980, U.S. cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky introduced the concept of telepresence, giving a remote participant the feeling of being present in a different location. Nearly 25 years later that theory is in operation across the world and importantly for us, in education.

Today, telepresence is high-end videoconferencing that connects multiple sites in a true-to-life experience, making participants feel as though they are in the same room. 

Our institutions – Moraine Park Technical College and Minnesota State University-Mankato began adopting video technology as early as the 1990s. But it wasn’t until the use of telepresence that we saw video pushed to the next level, enabling institutions like ours to connect students across campuses and across the globe.

Moraine Park Technical College has three campuses about 30 miles apart in Wisconsin. In the early 1990s, we began offering classes via ITV to expand educational opportunities for students. Classes were often comprised of small groups of students at the three campuses, with the professor at one campus and the other two campuses connected via ITV on 19-inch, low-definition monitors. The audiovisual quality was poor, but the technology expanded course offerings for students at all three campuses. In 2000, Moraine Park upgraded to IP-based videoconferencing, which improved audiovisual quality but was still far from lifelike and plagued by user error. In 2010, the college implemented a telepresence room on each campus. Faculty and students immediately embraced the technology for its ease of use and lifelike experience. 

Minnesota State University-Mankato has a satellite campus in Edina, Minn., nearly 100 miles from Mankato, which also needed to connect students and faculty across the campuses. Like Moraine Park, MSU-Mankato started with ITV before moving to IP-based videoconferencing in 2010 and then to telepresence last fall. Selling the idea of telepresence isn’t necessary; students and faculty are clamoring to take and deliver classes in the telepresence rooms. Myriad applications of the technology are already in use and planning for additional ones is under way. 

In Minksy’s essay for the June 1980 edition of Omni Magazine, he wrote, “[telepresence] suggests future instruments that will feel and work so much like our own hands that we won’t notice any significant difference.” Likewise, we explain that you have to experience it to believe it, which sounds clichéd, but it’s true. After a few minutes in a telepresence room, the technology disappears. Students forget they aren’t in the same room as their peers. If a student on one campus drops a pen on the floor, a student at the other campus will bend down to pick it up – it’s that real.

It is important to explain that telepresence is more than just videoconferencing. Guest instructors can teach from across the nation or around the globe. Soon, MSU-Mankato may use telepresence to deliver Ph.D. programs to southwestern Minnesota for the first time. 

What’s more is that technology downtime has been eliminated. Getting a classroom online was once a process involving multiple remotes and trial and error, even after training. Now, getting online is a matter of pushing two buttons. 

Telepresence (News - Alert) is also a valuable marketing tool. Students want to see the latest technology, especially if they are pursuing a technical course of study. At Moraine Park, which also features a computer numeric control lab and nursing simulation lab, all prospective students visit a telepresence room. Moraine Park and MSU-Mankato are also marketing the technology to their local communities and using it to connect faculty with their counterparts at other institutions.

While telepresence offers compelling benefits it also brings challenges that are important to consider before implementation. 

One of the biggest challenges is demonstrating return on investment. Telepresence is more affordable than ever before, but like any major technology investment, it’s not inexpensive. Boards of trustees and other stakeholders need to understand the hard costs, as well as the benefits, both tangible and intangible. Student engagement and room usage are two important metrics. 

Moraine Park Technical College conducts a survey of students each semester to gauge their engagement with face-to-face classes (no telepresence), telepresence classes, and online classes. In a recent survey, 19 percent of students said they were more engaged in a telepresence class than in a face-to-face class.  It’s not surprising: The concentric circle layouts and tiered seating means students are looking at each other across the campuses, rather than at the backs of the students in front of them. Each seat has its own speaker, so every student is heard. There’s no hiding, and as a result, faculty say they are better able to judge student comprehension, know when it’s time to move on, and when they need to spend a little more time on a topic. 

At both institutions, telepresence is in such high demand that faculty members are willing to teach at off hours – 8 a.m. on a Friday, for example – just to use the telepresence rooms. At Moraine Park, telepresence rooms are booked 65 percent of the time, compared to 20 percent for other classrooms. 

In addition to up-front discussions about ROI, we also recommend careful attention to project planning. Successful implementation involves many elements beyond installation of the technology itself. The technology must blend into the environment. To achieve that result, HVAC sound must be moderated, lighting must be controlled, and cables must be run under the floor. Room remediation takes both time and detailed project management.  

Telepresence adoption in higher education will continue to grow because of the high quality of the experience and ability to provide new opportunities for students. Currently, 39 percent of higher education students and 32 percent of higher education faculty report using telepresence in their classrooms, according to Learn Now, Lecture Later, a survey report from CDW (News - Alert)-G. What’s more: 37 percent of higher education students and 28 percent of higher education faculty want more telepresence incorporated into classes as a learning tool. Our experiences present compelling case studies for telepresence success.

Pete Rettler is Dean of Moraine Park Technical College’s West Bend Campus 

Ed Clark is vice president and CIO at Minnesota State University      

Edited by Stefania Viscusi