by Joe King
Comparing his new video conferencing system to his old one, Rich Casey believes he got a major upgrade.
“It’s like we went from a Model T to a 2009 Porsche,” says Casey, who oversees operations at the NIU Learning Center in Gabel Hall, where some of the university’s new equipment is housed.
Gone are the 26-inch televisions, the analog video cameras, the computers running Windows98 software, the microphones that picked up every bit of background noise, the speakers that projected muffled or garbled sound and unreliable telephone connections that left both teachers and students frustrated.
In their place are 53-inch, flat-panel, high-definition screens, digital video cameras, proprietary Polycom hardware and software, ceiling-mounted microphones that filter out background noise, speakers that project crisp digital sound and rock-solid reliable Internet connections between sites. The new equipment also allows instructors to better employ PowerPoint and other computer graphics programs.
“It’s a major improvement from top to bottom,” Casey says. “When I talk to other institutions to ensure that our equipment is compatible, they are all envious when they hear what we have. It’s top of the line.”
The cost of the upgrade was covered using funds from the “tech fee” assessed to all students and funds from NIU-Outreach. That money paid for installation of equipment in the two video conferencing rooms in the Gable Hall Learning Center; at each of the university’s outreach centers in Hoffman Estates, Naperville and Rockford; and at the Family Health Wellness and Literacy Center (the former Monsanto Building). The School of Music also has its own cutting-edge equipment, which was purchased separately.
The new equipment also is much simpler to use than the old. Operated via a single remote control, it is so intuitive that the old manual has been replaced by a single, double-sided page of instructions.
“Everything about it is better,” says Dennis Cesarotti, who uses the system once a week to teach disaster preparedness and homeland security. “The picture quality, the sound quality, the reliability – all of it makes my life so much easier.”
Becky Butler, a professor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, who also has taught using both the old and the new systems, agrees with Cesarotti that the Polycom system is a major improvement.
“Once you get used to it, it’s fun,” she says.
The challenge for Casey these days is to get more people to give the new equipment a chance.
The old equipment had proven so inadequate in recent years that many had given up on the idea of using video conferencing to teach students in remote locations. Currently, only two courses use the technology each week. Next semester that number will grow to six courses, he says, but there is still potential for much greater use.
“Sometimes this is the perfect tool for teaching a course in its entirety. Other times, an instructor might want to use it as part of a blend of traditional face-to-face instruction and/or online instruction. We’re happy to work with faculty to find the right combinations,” Casey says.
To learn more about the equipment and what it can do, contact Casey at (815) 753-8360 or look online at http://www.niu.edu/videoconferencing/index.shtml.