In 2010, when Dr. Brian Stevenson became President and Vice-Chancellor at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Orillia, one of his key priorities was to create new opportunities for rural, remote, and Aboriginal learners to study and engage with the university.
One of the strategies he championed was immersive telepresence classrooms, as his experience with their use at the University of Winnipeg convinced him of the potential of this technology. Classrooms equipped with high definition video, audio, and content sharing capacities enable students and faculty in different locations to interact more naturally and effectively than traditional videoconferencing.
This approach dovetailed well with strategic initiatives already in place and is aligned with the priorities of the recent Academic and Strategic Plans. The Plans include a focus on the delivery of high-quality undergraduate and graduate programs, enhanced engagement for students, faculty and staff, and the extension of community engagement and outreach with an emphasis on serving Aboriginal learners.
A multi-phase project that addresses continued development and support of educational technology, and expansion of distance education offerings, is now underway for the use of immersive telepresence classrooms at Lakehead.
Phase One of the project focused on setting up the infrastructure and classrooms as a way of improving delivery and connections between the two widely separated campuses in Thunder Bay and Orillia. The classroom in Thunder Bay was built for 28 students, and the one in Orillia for 18. Some students sit around a table, where the professor is also situated; other students are in rows behind the table – but all are equally visible to others in both locations. Overall, over 100 external participants can be accommodated by the system, with 64 students able to be displayed on the screen simultaneously. Regardless of location, all students can see each other on screen and can communicate, creating a sense of presence and community.
The technology allows for the use of PowerPoint slides, visual aids, videos, and offers a built-in document camera. Hand-outs and additional information can be shared with, and by participants in real-time, so everyone has access to the resources. As part of the telepresence infrastructure, there are terminals built into the desks for viewing displayed content (presentations and documents) while the screens at the front of the room show the participants in other locations.
Professor David Richards, in the Faculty of Business Administration, taught one of the first courses in Summer 2014. As the class had more than 28 students in Thunder Bay, some were in an overflow room. In addition to the students in Orillia, there were also two remote learners using mobile technology – all present on screen. Discussion of issues and core questions took place with the whole class. Students worked on case studies in small groups and were able to include the remote students through the integration of the RealPresence Desktop application or an external application such as Skype.
Staff in the Instructional Development Centre provided faculty with training on the technology and pedagogy, once the room was in place. Ongoing technological support is also available.
Outcomes and Benefits
Dr. Richards found the participation and interaction in the class were more extensive than with other videoconference formats as: “telepresence made it more natural as students could look each other in the face.” Student response was positive with the Orillia students especially appreciative, finding this “100% better” than videoconferences where only the professor is visible. He used pedagogy similar to what he applies in his face-to-face classroom, with student-to-student and student-to-professor interaction as the focus. In his view, the room would add less value for delivering static lectures when it is not necessary for the participants to see each other, but favours active, engaged learning.
The assessments from students highlighted a number of benefits:
- Very easy to see and communicate with classmates, especially those in Orillia;
- Very comfortable seating;
- The individual screens (as opposed to one large screen) worked very well;
- Nice for Master’s students to have the option to join via videoconference if necessary while travelling for work; and
- This type of room works very well for a discussion-based class experience.
The connection between Thunder Bay and Orillia allows for meaningful and more equitable connections between the two sites; courses can be delivered from and received at both campuses, with students able to participate in discussions and debates regardless of location.
Dr. Jane Nicholas, Director of the Instructional Development Centre, describes the classrooms as “high tech, but with the technology well-designed and incorporated so it is not intimidating.” The most common response of faculty is a sense of excitement at being able to use the facility; many describe it as “looking like Star Trek”. Faculty respond to a call for proposals for room use, and the demand has been high.
Challenges and Enhancements
The only challenge Dr. Richards found was getting used to all the new places to look on his screen, but he adapted quickly. The size of the room limits the size of the on-campus classes it can be used for – as too many students would be in the overflow room. However, remote student access can be incorporated to make courses more widely available. As with every classroom, accessibility issues are raised and responded to on an individual basis.
As there is considerable demand for the room, Professor Richards regrets that: “it may be a while before I get another turn, but I will be glad to use it again.”
Phase Two of the project will increase access for distance learners – whether on desktops or mobile devices. This involves consideration of course design for mobile learners and new strategies for course promotion.
In looking at future possibilities for immersive telepresence, Dr. Moira McPherson, Provost and Vice-President (Academic), explains that: “Lakehead is working with college and other partners, including Contact North | Contact Nord to collaborate and expand the immersive telepresence classrooms to new rural sites in our regional communities.”
For Further Information
Provost and Vice-President (Academic)
Associate Professor and Assistant Dean
Faculty of Business Administration
Associate Professor and Director
Instructional Development Centre
Continuing Education and Distributed Learning