GUEST COLUMN | by Tom Toperczer
Video technology has permeated all walks of professional life, and education is no exception. Students come armed with video-capable mobile devices and video editing tools besting many A/V departments of the last decade. There is hardly a publication that does not mention the use of Skype video among students and faculty. Such prominent use of video technology begs the question: When will audio/video (AV) and information technology (IT) departments catch up? Answer: 2012. The widespread availability of low-cost video peripherals and on-demand cloud computing technology is poised to bring video conferencing to educational institutions of all sizes.
Setting the Stage
There is nothing wrong with Skype video, MSN video, and several other consumer online services. These free to low-cost services are optimized for consumer use. Much like cell phones, these services will continue to be used in personal settings and where HD video quality, reliability, security, seamless collaboration, and other commercial features are not required. This is unlikely to change, and further highlights the rift between the availability of video technology and the lack of institutional video conferencing solutions.
The big sea change in the video conferencing industry today is cloud computing—this fundamental shift to shared, distributed computing has already swept through a number of IT-related product categories including storage management, online backup, security and, outside educational markets, even more including CRM, ERP, and so on.
The Tyranny of Complex Hardware is Over
The greatest and most obvious impact so far is the virtualization of complex hardware traditionally required for multipoint video conferencing applications. Today, the capabilities provided by such infrastructure components as multipoint channel units (MCUs), desktop gateway servers, and collaboration servers are easily provided via the cloud.
In institutional settings where multipoint video was required, the infrastructure components were often two to three times more expensive than the video endpoints, often eclipsing initial project estimates. This equipment typically required dedicated bandwidth, fixed network routes, careful network planning, and the matching of “speeds and feeds” between all interconnected devices.
The tyranny of expensive, complex infrastructure equipment is over. Many cloud-based solutions completely eliminate infrastructure equipment by providing all their associated capabilities via software running in the cloud. In addition, some implementations provide dynamic scalable video, which provides HD-quality video where bandwidth permits, and best-possible video over limited-bandwidth connections. In addition to further eliminating expensive dedicated lines, dynamic scalable video technology also supports remote sites and rural applications where bandwidth may not be as plentiful as central campus settings.
The Cloud Enables Fully Interactive, Real-Time Sessions
Another benefit that cloud-based video conferencing brings to educational markets is expanded reach to desktops and rooms, and complete, real-time interactivity among all participants. The expanded reach and fully-interactive nature of this new class of video conferencing enables a number of educational-specific applications. It enables online seminars, workshops, tutorial sessions, video remote interpreting, and other applications where interactivity between students and instructors are required.
For example, Wright State University uses a cloud-based system for online group sessions as part of its Deaf Off Drugs and Alcohol program (DODA). In this venue, where American Sign Language is most often used, extended reach to any desktop, including those at home, and fast video frame rates over variable Internet bandwidth are valuable contributions. In another case, the University of Illinois, School of Nursing, uses such a system for online staff meetings across distributed campus facilities, saving time and providing a business continuity method during times of inclement weather.
In a K-12 setting, secure online video conferencing could be used between a school nurse or students at a controlled, nurse’s office, and off-site medical checks, and so on. In this case, personal computers and Internet connections already exist, and the incremental cost for adding HD webcams and a cloud-based online service is very little. On the other hand, the six-figure cost of deploying traditional, installed-site systems for a district-wide application such as this would be simply untenable.
Advanced Collaboration Tools Support Diversity of Teaching Styles
A third major benefit of many cloud-based video conferencing solutions is the inclusion of seamlessly integrated web collaboration tools. Previous generations of video conferencing technology only provided H.239 screen sharing or separately provided collaboration tools with more capabilities, but the added expense of infrastructure components.
In addition to multipoint audio and video, most cloud-based solutions also provide seamlessly integrated whiteboarding (drawing tools), text chat, presentation, document and desktop sharing as built-in features. Nefsis, for example, emphasizes collaboration and goes beyond also providing annotation over live application sharing, PDF sharing, electronic handouts, and the ability to play movie files during a conference.
The depth and breadth of these collaboration tools supports a great diversity of teaching styles found in college, university, and post-graduate educational environments.
Video technology is everywhere, highlighting the rift between video-savvy faculty and students and a dearth of institutional video conferencing solutions. Cloud computing technology promises to close that rift. The greatest benefit of cloud-based video conferencing is cost reduction—today, all that is required for multipoint HD video conferencing is an online service and an HD-capable webcam or video peripheral.
Depending on cloud-based service provider, other benefits may include dynamic scalable video over virtually any bandwidth, fully interactive sessions including student participation, and seamlessly integrated, advanced collaboration tools.
Cloud computing has already ushered in a sea change in commercial video conferencing markets—one can easily predict it will bring affordable video conferencing solutions to educational markets in 2012, too.
Tom Toperczer is the vice president of marketing for Nefsis Corporation. Nefsis provides cloud-based video conferencing and advanced web collaboration tools to business, government and educational customers in more than 45 countries worldwide. Write to: [email protected]