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Sara Campbell, a kinesiology professor at Rutgers University, teaches a split classroom using new telepresence technology.

Nick Romanenko, Rutgers University

Although half the students in Sara Campbell’s 200-person lecture at Rutgers University sit in a room several miles from where she's teaching, she said the large physiology course feels personal. 

“I can without a doubt say that the students feel much closer than in one of the big lecture halls,” said Campbell, an assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and health.

Campbell is one of 11 Rutgers faculty members piloting a technology that allows instructors to be in two places at once -- an especially practical opportunity for Rutgers, which has four campuses as many as five miles from each other across New Brunswick, N.J.

About 78 percent of the Rutgers New Brunswick students will attend classes on two or more campuses on any given day. The university offers bus transportation, but it can take up to an hour to travel from one campus to another, thereby limiting which courses students can schedule in a semester.

“We want to, as best we can, turn our transportation system from more of a necessity to more of a convenience,” said Paul Hammond, assistant vice chancellor for technology and instruction at Rutgers. “It’s about improving the student experience, really taking certain barriers out of the way.”

Rutgers may have found a way to ease the transportation problem through its Immersive Synchronous Lecture Initiative that's employing telepresence technology. The added bonus is that the technology also helps the split classrooms feel like one.

“We want to create this sense of ‘immersion.’ We want the students to feel as if they’re actually there” in the same room, Hammond said.

How it Works

The Rutgers synchronous learning initiative was inspired by technology used at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Rutgers's initiative already is about twice the size of the Wharton School's program, Hammond said, adding, to his knowledge, no other institution has launched an initiative comparable in scale.

Rutgers is using Cisco's telepresence technology, which allows Campbell and others to teach students in one classroom while being streamed, life-sized, into a classroom at another campus. Students in both rooms can see, hear and speak with each other as if they are all in a shared space, Campbell said.

The projection of the professor into the other classroom is designed to look like he or she is standing at the front of the room. Campbell said when she walks or moves, it looks like her feet are on the ground in the remote classroom. The high-definition broadcast also allows professors to use white boards, chalkboards and interactive presentations just like in a traditional classroom.

Campbell said she’s had to make some minor adjustments with the camera angle and microphone, but that the video quality and transmission speed are exceptional.

“[I] can be standing on Cook/Douglass [campus], and I can just point my finger to the camera showing me the room on the Busch Campus, and just speak as if they know exactly who I’m pointing to,” she said.

T. Corey Brennan, an associate professor of classics who also is teaching a synchronous learning course this semester, said the technology “achieved its purpose, which was to look like a seamless academic environment.” 

Brennan said the technology has made him a better teacher by forcing him to move out from behind the podium and engage with the class. That changes the dynamic in the room -- in a good way.

“There are only 50 or 60 students in my room, which makes it feel like a smaller class. There’s an intimacy,” he said. “I feel like the student focus is at a higher level than it normally would be.”

Nevertheless, Brennan said students in the remote classroom tend to participate less than those sharing a room with the professor; he attributed that to camera shyness. The students have to look at and talk to a screen, and their voices project across two large classrooms through a microphone. That can make anyone self-conscious, he added.

Flexibility Across Disciplines

The Rutgers pilot program started in January, at the beginning of the spring term. Going forward, the university hopes to prioritize classes that accommodate between 175 and 275 people per section in order to reduce the number of bus trips students take between campuses.

The university has 11 faculty members teaching 10 telepresense courses across a range of disciplines, including theater appreciation, exercise physiology, law and politics, introduction to marketing and human resource management.

“It’s meant to be as flexible as possible across disciplines,” Hammond said. “[The instructors] can work these just like any other classroom.”

For now, only two Rutgers classrooms -- one each on two campuses in New Brunswick -- are equipped with the technology, which cost $1 million for the two spaces, Hammond said. Depending on feedback from students and instructors, Rutgers will try to scale the technology to its other two campuses in New Brunswick as well at campuses in Camden, Newark and elsewhere, Hammond said.

Eventually, Rutgers would like to use the technology to collaborate with other universities.

“We imagine partnering with our Big Ten peers, and looking at options for real, genuine course sharing on a large scale,” Hammond said. “Like team teaching, faculty team teaching, or having the option to have a world-famous faculty member in New Brunswick.”

Team teaching is what Brennan is most looking forward to. The Immersive Synchronous Learning Initiative could serve Rutgers well, but the real reward would be if the institution could work with experts at other universities and offer courses that students might not otherwise have the chance to take, he said.

“You do feel you’re on the cutting edge of an experiment,” Brennan said. “This can be very effective, part of a much larger consortium at Big Ten schools.”

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