There were a few strange things about the event I attended in a classroom at the San Francisco branch of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Instead of students, the room was filled with Cisco executives, professors, and journalists. There were cameras trained on us from all angles. But most noticeably, the man speaking to us in the front of the room wasn’t really there. Neither were the people sitting in the back of the room. The man was standing in front of a nearly identical classroom at the Wharton School in Philadelphia; the people sitting behind us were there as well. They were just projection—albeit convincing ones—on a screen.
We were at Wharton for a demonstration of the Cisco Connected Classroom, a new way of using Cisco’s telepresence technology to make it possible for one branch of an MBA program to hold classes with another branch across the country in real-time—and even bring in guests from elsewhere. Duke uses a smaller Cisco telepresence system for its executive MBA program, but Wharton is the first school to get the whole package: a floor to ceiling screen at the front of each connected room for the lecturer, two smaller 80-inch screens on each side to display notes and guests beaming in from elsewhere, and two mid-sized screens in the back to show students in the other classroom.
And then, of course, there are the technical components: cameras all over the room, high-definition video, audio equipment so sensitive that it’s possible to clearly hear people speaking in another classroom no matter where they’re sitting, and a highly reliable and secure connection that ensures audio and video don’t waver in quality.
The result is a set-up that’s remarkably smooth and immersive. You could easily forget that the professor in front is located elsewhere. And the students in the back are a little hard to see, but then again, so are students in the back of a lecture hall.
Multiple Cisco executives told me that one of the big reasons it launched this program with Wharton is because of the school’s bi-coastal executive education programs. Students who can’t make it to class can participate remotely—via their laptop, for example (professors can choose to make their lectures available for playback). And while Wharton professors fly to San Francisco every two weeks to teach, the school’s West Coast students can now get access to lecturers on the other coast even on the off-weeks (Wharton stresses that professors will still come to San Francisco with the same frequency). "In business school, it’s global. Everyone is starting to teach the skills of collaboration," says Robert Lloyd, president of development and sales for Cisco.
Cisco wouldn’t divulge specifics on cost, but it’s safe to assume that only an institution with plenty of money to spare could afford it. For Wharton, it makes sense. Classes on more niche subjects could be held frequently for example, if schools could cobble together reasonably sized classes on both coasts. Distant guest speakers could more easily be convinced to beam in via video (on those side screens I mentioned) than to actually come into a classroom.
But how can a high-end system like this make a big impact if only the Whartons of the world can afford it? This exact system won’t. But Cisco believes that other, less pricey set-ups will also contribute to telepresence’s impact in education—even in high schools. "It’s much better and much more realistic than Skype, especially when you increase the number of endpoints and you want to maintain that visual integrity," says Lloyd.
The technology is probably going to gain speed in the sector quickly. Consider: Cisco’s telepresence technology was only introduced in 2006, and now it’s used by over 80% of Fortune 500 companies.
"We’re already seeing a lot of interest. I think you’re going to see a bunch of movers like Wharton and then you’re going to see others that are worried about their intellectual property and all sorts of other concerns about their brand," says Lloyd. "I think it will be very interesting in let’s say three to five years in advanced education when some people embrace this idea of a global platform, a global campus."
There is a glut of startups (Udacity, Coursera, etc.) offering online courses—sometimes in concert with universities—that some believe will one day overtake the real thing and make advanced degrees outdated. But if higher education institutions can adapt and embrace new technologies, especially ones like Cisco telepresence that make remote learning easier, they will remain relevant in the foreseeable future.