Difficulties coordinating a group project on campus and meeting the deadline are fairly regular parts of the undergraduate experience. Imagine how challenging it might be if the group members were halfway across the world and available only through videoconferencing.

Georgetown students are now communicating with students at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service in Qatar, in classes, through new videoconferencing technologies. One of the emerging challenges for students is collaborating with the Doha campus, which is eight hours ahead of Georgetown.

Assma Al-Adawi (SFS ’09) used videoconferencing in a class at SFS-Q, noting problems in logistical coordination.

“We had a group project and it was tricky to figure out a time to meet or talk when we both had different time zones. . Distance makes the [timing] difficult,” Al-Adawi said. “It was always too early or getting [too] late.”

Coordinating obstacles aside, though, videoconferencing as an instrument of learning is taking off both on the Hilltop and in Doha.

Last spring, Zack Bluestone (SFS ’09) enrolled in GOVT-310 Causes of War, the first class at Georgetown to use the most advanced form of videoconferencing available on campus, the Polycom Realpresence Experience. David Edelstein, the course instructor and an assistant professor in the School of Foreign Service, decided to make use of this technology in the course, allowing his students to directly communicate with students on the Qatar campus. As a result of Edelstein’s decision, Bluestone said he has had the unique opportunity to share a class with students halfway around the world.

“The [classroom’s high-definition] capabilities allowed the other students and me to feel comfortable enough to build a foundation for friendships that will undoubtedly last for many years,” Bluestone said.

Edelstein did acknowledge that there was a transition period when he began using the RPX technology. However, any initial worries were quickly alleviated by the delay-free in-class conferencing.

“It took a little bit of getting used to for everybody involved, but by the end of the class, I [don’t think anybody] was even noticing the technology, which is exactly when you know that technology like this is succeeding,” Edelstein said. “We were able to carry on discussions in class just as any other seminar would if it were being held only on one campus.”

The system far outpaces the other videoconferencing systems that Georgetown uses, Edelstein said.

“The technology in the telepresence room is at least a generation ahead of older videoconferencing technology. The video is life-sized and high-definition. The audio is high-definition,” he said. “And the connection between the two rooms is high-speed, reducing the delay to almost zero.”

The telepresence room features a table in addition to several bench-style desk rows with seats all facing the two six-foot curved panel screens at the front of the classroom. An additional 50-inch diagonal monitor off to the side is used to bring up PowerPoint slides and other visuals. In order to add to the life-like experience, the room also utilizes directional audio and lighting, giving the illusion that a student on one side of the screen really is there and speaking from that position. Audio sounds are captured by microphones that are suspended from the ceiling while cameras are located in the middle of the two screen panels in front of the class.

The push toward investing in a more advanced type of academic videoconferencing technology began when the SFS-Q campus opened in 2005, according to John Steitz, assistant director of Classroom Educational Technology Services. There are currently seven locations for video telecasting on the main campus, including the Mortara Center, the BMW Center and the Prince Alwaleed Bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, located in the Intercultural Center. The New South screening room, which can seat 60 people, is the largest of these, while the rest are used for one-on-one contact or small seminar-sized classes.

In 2007, a committee was created to look into investing in the more advanced, high-definition type of videoconferencing, telepresence technology. This committee, chaired by Randall Bass, executive director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, spent the summer of 2007 investigating the benefits, costs and different manufacturers of telepresence rooms. The committee ultimately settled on Polycom’s Realpresence Experience model – and six months later, Edelstein was the first to use it at Georgetown.

According to Mark Cohen, executive director of CETS and Steitz, videoconferencing capabilities in the classroom are not entirely new. The University of Pittsburgh has been utilizing such technologies for nearly two decades. However, according to Steitz and Cohen, high-definition, life-like video telepresence technology on university campuses is very rare.

This spring semester marks the beginning of the fourth class to be held in the room, Cohen added.

Bluestone said that Georgetown is one of the top universities in telepresence technology fields.

“I’m proud to say that this [RPX] experience is entirely unique to Georgetown, as even the other American schools in Education City [the university-rich area of Qatar] lack such capabilities,” he said. “Hopefully, students and faculty will increasingly come to utilize this asset in new and innovative ways so that its full potential will actually be realized.”

Al-Adawi used the same RPX telepresence technology overseas on the Qatar campus. She said that it provided possibilities for exchanges that would not otherwise occur.

“The pros [of using the RPX room] were that you got to communicate with a wider range of students and professors, as well as have the opportunity to take more classes,” Al-Adawi said. “You’d be surprised how people on each side had completely different ideas and ideals, and in a way, you were exposed to that. It also teaches you to be creative, because you have to communicate with students exactly on the other side of the globe.”

“[With telepresence technology] you have this opportunity to discuss things with people you would not otherwise be able to, and it was really interesting to see the cultural differences,” said Emily Fisher (COL ’09), another student in Edelstein’s Causes of War course. “It’s definitely been one of my best experiences at Georgetown.”

In addition to teaching classes, the RPX room is used for administrative meetings both nationally and internationally, as well as for staff and faculty training. The room has been used to train SFS-Q faculty on Blackboard, the new administrative Banner system and other technology systems, as well as for employment interviews.

In the future, the RPX room will also receive increased use in communicating with Fudan University, a Chinese university in Shanghai, with whom Georgetown has recently signed an educational contract.

According to Cohen and Steitz, Georgetown is hoping to have two to three telepresence rooms in the future, but no definite plans have been made at this time.

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