Open your classroom to the world

03/30/2013  |  BY ASPEN MOULDEN

These are exciting times in education, as schools across the country are asking how they can shift into the 21st century. Twenty-first century learning environments aim to provide children the skills that will enable them to use technology as a vital tool for learning and prepare them to excel in an increasingly complex global future. As educators work tirelessly to advance our curriculum into the new age, the nation’s schools face tighter budgets. Teachers are urged to use new tools to increase productivity, use technology to differentiate curriculum, and help students develop non-cognitive and soft skills.

The use of video conferencing technology within the education industry is rapidly advancing the effectiveness of knowledge transfer and collaboration. Video conferencing can be used for an unlimited number of teaching applications and can help students gain a global perspective and foster skills they need to succeed in school, work and life.

There are new solutions designed to take the cost and complexity of video conferencing away from the user and move it to “the cloud,” making it easy, open, and affordable to extend video collaboration from the classroom, across the district, and even into the home. It’s an exciting time for video conferencing in schools, but you have to “think outside the box” and avoid the pitfalls of the conventional “build your own” approach.

Traditional ‘Build Your Own’ Video Deployments

Deploying a video program throughout your schools may be something you are considering or something you have already done. In either case, unless you have experience with video conferencing technologies, it can be a daunting undertaking. There are a multitude of options available and knowing where to start can be like finding a needle in a haystack.

Here are a few things you should take into consideration when you are evaluating video solutions:

  • Who will you need to connect to?
  • Which locations need video systems?
  • Which systems are the easiest to use?
  • Which provide the best quality picture at the lowest bandwidth?
  • How many locations will you want to be able to connect to at the same time?
  • Will you connect to other districts that may have different video equipment?
  • How will you connect to locations on different networks?
  • How much bandwidth will you have available?
  • Will you want students to be able to join from home?
  • Will you want to include desktop and mobile video support?
  • What is your budget?

The starting point is always with the endpoint. Most of you may have, or will want, to invest in High Definition video conferencing systems from manufacturers like LifeSize, Polycom or Cisco. These high quality video endpoints provide true-to-life communication that while feature-rich, come with a sizable price tag. Some of you may have much older ISDN systems that you hope to integrate with the newer IP based systems. Many schools may not be able to invest in new technology for each classroom or teacher, let alone each student. Some of you may want to incorporate free consumer conferencing solutions like Skype or Google video chat.

Once you have identified the video systems you will use, next you are forced to think about infrastructure. This is where things can get incredibly complex and very costly.

You will need to provide a network to connect your systems to other video endpoints. You will need to consider firewalls, NAT traversal and know whom you plan to call.

After this step you will need to determine how you will connect multiple locations into a single call. This typically requires a “bridge” commonly referred to as an multipoint control unit (MCU) that can be embedded in a video system — typically limited to four to six connections — or a stand alone hardware MCU that can cost upwards of $150,000 and requires a network of its own and a dedicated IT professional on staff to manage it.

Getting the program off the ground can take a lot of thought and fact-finding before you are ready to go. This is not meant to derail your plans to add video to your curriculum. It’s clear that through the use of video conferencing in schools, educators are able to plan and coordinate experiences for their students that not only fulfill the objectives of the curriculum, but also address the larger goals that schools have for students, such as fostering and developing leadership skills, promoting the concept of global citizenship, and providing students with experiences that develop their emotional intelligence. The value is immense, but the commitment is too.

An Alternative to The Traditional Approach Is In the Clouds

What if there was an alternative approach that gave you all the things you need and more; and it were easy, flexible and affordable? Sound too good to be true? It isn’t. Look to the clouds. New video conferencing service providers are taking the complexity and high cost out of video conferencing and applying the proven ease and affordability of the audio conferencing model.

These interoperable cloud services allow you to leverage the video systems you already have, incorporate new best-of-breed systems from manufacturers like LifeSize, Cisco, or Polycom, and also connect with free consumer video clients like Skype and Google on desktop, tablets or mobile devices into your calls. Suddenly you have the flexibility to include all kinds of participants, in all kinds of locations in your video conferences.

Just think how you could expand the reach of your classes by offering the ability to connect to students, subject matter experts, docents, etc. using Skype from anywhere there is an Internet connection.

These new cloud offerings also address the need for multipoint video conferencing. Meetings are scheduled, hosted and controlled by users without the need for IT involvement. Most multipoint video deployments today require some sort of IT support to get the call scheduled and connected.

Through an intuitive web interface, users can see who has joined their meeting, change layouts, mute participants, lock the meeting, disconnect participants and much more. Administrators can manage users, set security settings and view usage reports.

When you shed the complexities of building and managing your own video conferencing network, and leverage the ease of use, interoperability, and wide range of supported devices, suddenly you unlock new and exciting use cases for video conferencing in education. The opportunities go well beyond the classic distance learning scenarios.

Aspen Moulden is the Product Marketing Manager at Blue Jeans Network.
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