Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

University of Arkansas Leads the Charge In Video Conferencing, Distance Learning Mobility

on July 29, 2013
Across the United States, many college campuses have adopted video conferencing in the classroom for distance learning and administrative uses — but the University of Arkansas is taking a comprehensive approach.
 
The university has utilized video conferencing for years now, first in standard definition for occasional use, and now more systematically in high definition (HD) for everything from hiring interviews to classroom use, including video conferencing software for use on students’ mobile devices to make distance learning portable.

Early Uses and Infrastructure Buildout

The university’s experience with video conferencing started with administrative uses in standard definition. Only a couple of endpoints on campus were dedicated for HD video. 
 

U of A a Video Conferencing Hub

A land-grant university with some 25,000 students, and more than 4,000 faculty and staff, the University of Arkansas is the state’s only institution classified as having the highest possible level of research by the Carnegie Foundation, placing it among the top 2 percent of the nation’s 4,600 universities.
 
Partly because of its status as a premier public research institution, the university founded and serves as the home of the Arkansas Research and Education Optical Network (ARE-ON). ARE-ON is a consortium of all public degree-granting institutions in Arkansas that designed and deployed a high-speed fiber based optical communications network designed to connect the state’s four-year and two-year institutions to regional, national, and international colleagues.
 
The University of Arkansas will be a hub of video conferencing among the state’s academic institutions once the ARE-ON network is completed. At that point, the University of Arkansas will join the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Arkansas School for Math, Science, and Arts as major interactive video bridging sites in the state.
Standard definition video conferencing also was used for occasional classroom applications. One class on high-performance computing, in conjunction with Louisiana State University, was run as uncompressed HD video, connecting lecturers and students in the Czech Republic, Mexico and various United States locations.
 
The university found that it got the most from video conferencing in a range of administrative and educational capacities once it built out an IT infrastructure specifically with the system in mind. This marks the first time the university supported a centralized HD video conferencing solution for the campus. 
 
To provide a centralized video conferencing solution, the university conducted testing on all of the major vendors’ video technology solutions. Video endpoints from LifeSize, a division of Logitech, were already used on campus for administrative purposes and had garnered positive feedback. After considering various options, the university decided to standardize around the LifeSize technology. Instead of a few individual video conferencing endpoints scattered across campus, each department or college can now leverage a central videoconference infrastructure. 
 
This infrastructure and standardization allows the university to bring more users together in a more structured way. Various colleges and departments pay for the endpoints that utilize the infrastructure – approximately 20 such endpoints across campus. The more robust backbone and the greater number of endpoints gives departments across campus the power to implement video conferencing solutions in more sophisticated ways.

Cutting Costs While Serving Students

The biggest benefit of adopting video conferencing is the enormous saving of time for faculty members and students in commuting to other campus locations.  Both the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, for example, are almost a three-hour drive from Fayetteville, home of the flagship of the University of Arkansas System.
 
With the capability to not only participate in live high-definition conferences but also to record and stream content, video conferencing at the university has become a fully functional addition to classroom technology.
 
For example, The University of Arkansas School of Law, located on the Fayetteville campus, uses the system extensively. One professor has been able to connect with universities in various Eastern European countries to hold several video conferencing-based classes. He has also traveled abroad to teach classes in person while his students on campus participated through video conferencing. Video has allowed students, regardless of location, to experience consistent interaction with the professor. 
 
What’s more, the School of Law can now connect with the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s William H. Bowen School of Law, allowing students to participate in mock trials over high-definition video. The school also finds value in using video for “overflow” classrooms, when physical classrooms are too small to seat all of the students. In that case, the school will use another classroom connected by high-definition video endpoints. 
 
Elsewhere on campus, research groups meet together via video conference on a regular basis to compare notes. This is particularly true within the astronomy and poultry science programs. The Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences takes it a step further. As a land-grant college, the University of Arkansas has strong ties with Washington, D.C., as well as the state capital. Bumpers College representatives frequently use high-definition video conferencing to coordinate communication with the USDA and state offices in Little Rock.
 
The university’s College of Education and Health Professions also uses video conferencing to connect with the medical school in Little Rock – particularly because they are separated by a nearly three-hour drive. Improved high-definition resolution, recording and streaming capability has been a great boost to their use of the technology in learning.
 
In one case, a researcher conducted standardized patient training with students in the Eleanor Mann School of Nursing. An actress (who was also a nurse) was able to present symptoms to the students, and the nurses were asked to diagnose the condition from the presented symptoms. The high-definition recording allowed evaluators to review the student's diagnoses at their pace, and to re-play the recording as needed. 
 
Other education-related video conferencing applications include the ability of doctoral students on other campuses to present and defend their dissertations.
 
Another valuable application is integration with Blackboard Learn. Classrooms are equipped with cameras to capture lectures for students to access at their convenience. As a result, we are now able to offer degrees that are entirely online, such as a graduate degree in educational technology and an online nursing degree. Students log in to the platform and watch the lectures at their convenience from any location. The university expects this program will continue to grow in the future as more degrees are offered.
 
Administratively, some university departments use video conferencing for employment interviews of prospective faculty and staff members. Through video conferenced interviews, the overall field of prospects for a job can be narrowed to a few top candidates, who are then brought to campus for final interviews. This streamlines the process and cuts costs by reducing travel and lodging expenses.

Looking Ahead

Mobility is a key part of future plans for using video conferencing in teaching at the University of Arkansas. In the fall of 2014 the university will launch its first-ever mixed-use application of both mobile and fixed classroom video conferencing. This will be a live, interactive class, with conferencing accessed by students on their own software-enabled mobile devices. 
 
When fully implemented, ARE-ON will connect four- and two-year campuses in the state. Developers are completing extension of high speed optical fiber capabilities to two-year colleges. Once that is completed, these academic institutions can launch their own vision for utilizing video conferencing infrastructure. Arkansas is poised for better connectivity, collaboration and cost-savings with the completion of the ARE-ON project, an economic initiative of the Arkansas higher education community. 
 
The state of Arkansas is making huge strides to create a technological infrastructure for learning and research that is equal to the best higher education has to offer. The benefits reaped from high definition video conferencing put students first, reduce costs and obstacles to student success, and support the growth of the state’s knowledge-based economy, ultimately creating a positive impact on the state and beyond.
 
Eric Gorder is Program Manager at the Faculty Technology Center for University of Arkansas IT Services. He can be reached at egorder@uark.edu.

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