An Education in Collaboration

Remember those bulky, expensive video conferencing systems you would see in well-equipped schools not too long ago? You know, the ones the district technology director never allowed you to touch? Every now and then, you would sit in on a video meeting and curiously await the pixel-laden face on the screen. By all accounts, this no-longer fuzzy, unreliable and inaccessible technology – now called collaborative technology – is making a more pronounced and permanent impression on educational institutions of all sizes. Whether you’re in an Ivy-league university, or an inner-city grade school, conferencing is quickly becoming a smart and efficient way for students to improve the way they learn.

Video conferencing, for its part, has re-defined distance learning. Over the course of three years, Wainhouse Research, an independent market research firm covering the conferencing and communications fields, conducted a detailed study into the incorporation of collaborative technologies by organizations across various verticals, including education. The data revealed that schools, especially, are increasing their reliance on these technologies.

There are several trends that have spurred the recent growth in conferencing:

More Reliable
Most schools using video conferencing conduct their meetings over ISDN lines (Integrated Services Digital Network). Although it has always been the most affordable medium for video communication, ISDN is plagued by performance, reliability and image quality issues. For years, the typical conferencing user has had to deal with the dreaded dropped call. Imagine being in the middle of an important school board meeting and the call abruptly ends due to a service interruption. For this reason, those educational institutions that could afford it, accepted the initially higher costs of IP Networks (Internet Protocol), and enjoyed relatively uninterrupted service.

For the last few years, there has been a significant migration to these IP networks, a medium that is much more robust and has recently become more affordable. Used more frequently by larger schools, video over IP is rapidly gaining adoption among mid and small-sized schools. The image quality of the video calls is superior, the point-of-entry is significantly lower, and the call connections are more reliable.

Industry-Standard Increased
Video call quality is constantly improving, with this trend continuing due to H.264, a new video compression standard recently ratified by the Switzerland-based International Telecommunication Union. H.264 aims to cut the necessary bandwidth for sending video during a videoconference in half. This translates into improved call clarity/definition and an increase in simultaneous call capacity. It also means that there is a substantial reduction in the bandwidth needed to hold videoconferences. This year a call placed over a 256k IP connection (substandard economy class) looks as good as one placed on a 384k IP connection (quality business class) last year. This means that companies of all sizes can now enjoy the same quality that only larger corporations had access to. Due to the fact that less bandwidth is needed to conduct better quality video calls, IT departments are more interested than ever since they can now devote less departmental resources and reduce the recurring operating costs associated with implementing video conferencing.

Varying Uses
Schools of all sizes are employing a combination of conferencing technologies, as each serves its own purpose. For instance, schools use video conferencing to supplement face-to-face meetings, where the tangible elements of human presence, body language and eye contact are all active components of the meeting. This differs somewhat from Web conferencing, which schools are using almost exclusively to collaborate and share documents. In other words, video and audio conferencing are being used for communication, whereas Web conferencing is being used for collaboration.

More Affordable
Schools realize that the technology is more relevant than ever, and with enhanced quality and reliability, demand will only continue to grow. What is happening in the area of conferencing technologies can be best described as a communications phenomenon; akin to the boom of the home computer in the 80’s. It was only a couple of years ago that revolutionary technologies like video conferencing were available only to schools with large budgets. This has changed in the advent of the ‘consumeration’ of conferencing technologies.

Two years ago, you could have expected to spend $30,000 on two video conferencing units and many thousands of dollars on monthly network usage fees for a modest package linking two schools. Entry-level products now start at as little as $400 and maintenance-free, unlimited-use services packages start at $500 per month.

Breakthrough Quality
Video conferencing is the new face-to-face meeting. All studies that have been conducted recently on video conferencing show that students are now able to effectively receive all of the key elements present with in-person face-to-face meetings (body language, eye contact, hand movements, subtle gestures). The technology has improved so drastically that it’s literally like being in the same classroom with the parties with whom you are meeting.

Email:Harold German