U of T adopts videoconferencing as research tool

A Canadian school hopes its upgraded videoconferencing system will get students travelling and keep professors at home.

University of Toronto‘s director of instructional technologies for the humanities and social sciences says

the Internet protocol (IP)-based service can help recruit students and let researchers collaborate with peers across the globe from the comfort of their own labs. Paul Ruppert says a number of elements have come together that allow video conferencing to move from hot topic to handy tool.

“”We’re now at the point that people are past the, ‘Oh look. I can see you, can you hear me?’ (stage),”” he says. “”Collaborative tools associated with videoconferencing have matured. People can do the videoconference and share the PowerPoint presentation at the same time. It’s not just talking heads anymore, people are actually getting work done.””

Easy to use tools are useless, however, if the system fails. Ruppert says this is the other half of the maturation equation.

“”The support options have matured to the point now where you can support the units without having to physically be in the same room, which is great for a big campus like ours where we can have remote support through basically a Web server and IP-based support,”” Ruppert says.

U of T can set up a conference anywhere a data connection can be found in less than 10 minutes. Ruppert says this and the cost factor were important factors in choosing IP over integrated services digital network (ISDN). Three ISDN lines (at about $100 each per month) would be needed per session, he says, to get the same quality as the IP network.

“”Our IP infrastructure, on the other hand, was already very good quality,”” Ruppert says. “”We had the bandwidth that we needed and we weren’t actually even worried about things like quality of service initially because we thought we’ll just try deploying it, see how well it works and adjust on the fly as problems come up.””

Avaya was selected as the hardware and software vendor of choice for the project. Ruppert credits Avaya’s reputation in the telephone business experience and feature set for winning out. “”There were a lot of systems that were basically Windows-platform based and we were a little bit concerned about reliability. Whereas the Avaya unit, the chassis and the software were based on their phone switching which had a long and successful rack record.””

IDC Canada training and career analyst Julie Kaufman says a number of universities are investigating videoconferencing as a means of reducing their use of brick and mortar facilities. While the technology is far from perfect, she says people are trying it out.

“”Providing live video feed over the Internet has its problems,”” Kaufman says, but adds “”there is increased usage in this particular area.””

Don’t expect grade schools, however, to try it anytime soon. Kaufman says they lack the infrastructure, knowledge or the technology for such projects. Which is just as well given how Ruppert views the tool.

“”There are no plans right now to start doing distance education by videoconferencing,”” he says. “”We’re not trying to use it as a teaching tool. Right now it’s more of a research tool.””

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