Laurier invests in new videoconference technology

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Graphic by Lena Yang

Come September, the Wilfrid Laurier University community will have access to improved videoconferencing technology, which is meant to benefit the campus both academically and administratively.

“What the videoconference allows you to do is have basically TV monitors at both ends that are showing both the location that you’re at and the location that you’re videoconferencing with, so that you can have meetings or teach classrooms with the projection going on in both locations.” explained Deborah MacLatchy, vice-president: academic and provost. “

Across all campuses there are currently 12 videoconferencing units that cover 300 seats. As MacLatchy pointed out, the technology is can be used to make meetings more accessible to those who may have barriers to attending in person. Academically, there are a handful of courses offered at Laurier that incorporate keynote speakers and partnerships with students from other countries into the classroom via videoconferencing.

Gary Wagner, manager of employee technical support, explained that there are three main changes being made. The first is that a built-in unit will become a portable unit that will move between the Senate and Board Chambers and Paul Martin Centre, vastly increasing the availability of the technology for meetings. Secondly, a unit will be moved from a 40-seat classroom in Peters to a 200-seat classroom in the Bricker Academic Building. This will allow larger class sizes to access the technology.

In addition to these changes, Laurier has acquired 50 licenses to use Cisco’s Jabber technology.

“The Jabber application allows external folks to connect into the classroom,” Wagner explained.\

With the current Cisco software, any technology that is not Cisco is unable to connect to a classroom or meeting room.

The Jabber application, however, allows “external parties from the university to connect remotely”, as long as they have the application.

Wagner said he doesn’t anticipate many challenges to accompany these changes as they are staying with Cisco, making the technology consistent.

“There’s obviously a learning curve with the Jabber software,” he said. “But I think if we start off with the basics and some training that no one will have an issue with it.”

MacLatchy hopes that the improvements will provide the university with the opportunity to begin offering courses between campuses in the future.

“Especially in areas that we have an interest at both campuses, but we may only have a few faculty that are actually able to teach in a field,” she continued. “It will give an opportunity for students at multiple campuses to take courses.” The first part of that quote is an incomplete sentence, so it doesn’t really make sense.

Long-term, MacLatchy said she’d like to see classrooms “where every seat has a microphone and a lot more flexibility and ability for students to participate in the class and to have multiple screens…”

“I’ve seen these systems in other universities,” she explained. “It’s amazing the amount of interaction you can get between two very distant locations by having the right technology to support that.”

For now, Wagner sees the improvements increasing flexibility. In a survey sent out in January, Skype came up as the number one tool that people said they use. For what? The survey also showed that people are using Skype for interviews, meetings or in the classroom for keynote speakers. Wagner explained that Skype is unreliable and so they took these preferred uses into consideration when looking to improve their videoconferencing technology. Jabber will allow the community to do all of the above.

“I’m really happy that we have it and I think it’s critical for us as a multi-campus university,” MacLatchy said in her final remarks about the technology. “But I also see it as opening up a lot of possibilities on the teaching and learning side and opportunities for faculty and students across the whole Laurier system to be more interactive.”

 

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