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Virtual Frugality

Cost-cutting and slashed travel budgets have bumped up videoconferencing’s popularity and expanded its application. See how institutions are using it to foster economical communication and collaboration.

By Apryl Motley

“Videoconferencing tools have been there for years, but not everyone purchased or used them,” says Frederick R. Brodzinski, associate director of the CUNY Transportation Institute at City College in New York. “Now, the financial crisis is driving us in that direction; we're using videoconferencing to save travel, meeting, and teaching costs.” According to Brodzinski, five years ago the campus had one videoconferencing room. Today there are units in all academic buildings, and they are used for a variety of purposes, ranging from coteaching of classes to collaborating on research projects.

Brodzinski considers himself a frequent user of virtual solutions. “We do a lot of work with the state government in Albany,” he says. “Instead of trekking there and paying travel costs, we can meet via videoconference. People who like to travel don't necessarily prefer this format, but our budgets have been cut such that there's no money for even local travel.” Brodzinki expects this reality—little or no money for travel—to be the status quo in the tristate area for quite some time.

Ongoing financial challenges coupled with increased awareness of potential cost savings have helped videoconferencing become the popular alternative for face-to-face interaction. “There's been a definite increase in use of videoconferencing,” says Veronica Diaz, associate director, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. “The private sector has been using it for quite a while. Now higher ed is catching on.” If you have multiple campuses, she says, the virtual option makes sense.

Videoconferencing Results in a Road Less Traveled

Going to meetings began taking on new meaning for Richard King at Central Arizona College, Coolidge, about 10 years ago. Since 2000, CAC has used some form of videoconferencing. In his current role as executive director of multimedia support, it's not unusual for King to attend as many as three meetings per day held via videoconferencing.

“There's a lot of distance to cover here. Our college has 10 sites, and 9 of those are equipped with videoconferencing technology,” says King. “Staff participate in lots of meetings in this format—on topics from hiring and training to committee and legal proceedings. It's not right for every situation, but for routine meetings, it works just fine.” King estimates that 15 to 20 meetings per week at the college take place in a virtual setting.

Conservative estimates, notes King, put the college's savings on staff travel costs at as much as $11,000 per month. These savings are calculated in terms of the traveling staff person's average wage plus any specific travel expenses that CAC covers. As more CAC faculty and staff have grown accustomed to saving time and money by holding meetings this way, videoconferencing, says King, “has become part of our college's culture.”

Fortunately, numerous options are available at different price points, with free services like Skype at the lower end and telepresence suites—that can cost several hundred thousand dollars—on the higher end. “In higher education the use for videoconferencing varies,” observes Diaz. “Institutions will need to think about whether they need something very expensive or if they can be just as effective with lower-cost solutions.”

In her role as global director, higher education and corporate training, for Polycom, a provider of telepresence, video, and voice solutions, Marci Powell helps institutions evaluate and implement videoconferencing options. “With the economic downturn, higher ed institutions have to find better ways to handle administrative meetings and still provide a collaborative environment for staff, faculty, and students,” says Powell. “They have to meet these needs without increasing expenses. They're basically trying to use the technology to clone themselves. If they can be in five places at one time, they can be more efficient.”

Such increased efficiency generally equates to cost savings. Such is the case at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where the chief financial officers at the university's 16 campuses meet at least quarterly using videoconferencing in lieu of traveling as much as 300 miles to the central administration office. “There's no question that we saved money,” says James Smith, former associate vice president for finance at UNC. “As budgets come under more scrutiny and the perception is that you don't really have to travel, videoconferencing has been a real lifesaver.”

Meetings of Many Minds

As videoconferencing becomes even more affordable and easier to use, higher education institutions are able to bridge the distance between campuses, states, and even countries to facilitate important discussions on topics ranging from routine administrative matters to collaboration on international research projects. Following are some examples of the effective use of such virtual communication.

Tackling transparency. With the appointment of the President's Advisory Committee on Efficiency and Effectiveness at UNC four years ago, videoconferencing provided a venue for a truly open forum to share information among multiple campuses.

Each participant on the eight-member committee had six months to prepare a report for presentation to the university's governing board and then to the state legislature. During the report-preparation period, the committee held four open meetings, which were broadcast live via videoconferencing to UNC's 16 campuses. The committee needed a very public and open way to conduct this project. “And, we needed a mechanism by which interested parties could view our formal presentations live as they were being given,” recalls Smith, who worked with the rest of the finance division to provide operational support for the project. “Everyone was getting the same information at the same time. It worked remarkably well for us.”

Seeking subject matter expertise. Today's higher education students need and expect access to recognized experts in their fields of study. Videoconferencing makes it possible to enrich their learning experience by exposing them to academic, business, and community leaders around the world. “Baylor University likes for me to speak to one of their classes about emerging technologies,” says Powell. “At a time when I had to be out of town, I suggested that we use videoconferencing for my presentation. So I was able to provide subject matter expertise virtually.”

Brodzinski has taken a similar approach in teaching an ethics course for graduating seniors. He incorporates a live discussion on ethics sponsored annually by the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. “I just need a laptop and a screen,” he says.

Inquiring internationally. Researchers in all fields of higher education—particularly science, engineering, and medicine—have found videoconferencing invaluable. It allows a more sophisticated level of communication with their counterparts in other countries that otherwise might have been cost-prohibitive. “Learning technologies as a whole have facilitated more international collaboration,” says EDUCAUSE's Diaz. “Videoconferencing has opened the doors to expertise and collaboration that weren't available before.”

As part of a research project with the European Union, Brodzinski and his staff regularly meet with their counterparts in Cyprus and Greece. In fact, a member of his group recently gave a presentation to a conference in Cyprus and addressed questions from the audience—all at no cost to City College. At Central Arizona College (CAC), a professor taught a course for Chinese graduate students over video. The course was designed to help the students learn English, conduct research, and publish papers.

Consolidating courses. By now, the challenge of trying to do more with less is all too familiar. Teaching courses via video is one way of managing in this business environment. One of the primary drivers of CAC's decision to expand its videoconferencing capabilities was that the technology could be used to more effectively allocate scarce faculty resources. “Before videoconferencing, if fewer than the required number of students enrolled in a course on a particular campus, it would be cancelled,” says Richard King executive director of multimedia support. “Now if only a few students show up, it doesn't matter. They can be connected to the location of the class being taught, even if it's on another campus.” More students are actually able to take these courses, and CAC has recognized cost savings by not hiring additional faculty.

The use of videoconferencing will likely have increased application for the business office, as higher education budgets continue to be scrutinized—and in many instances reduced—at the same time that faculty, students, and staff desire more opportunities for collaboration and teamwork.

Taking on Technology

Despite its benefits to the budget, not everyone is thrilled about using videoconferencing. As with most technologies, people have to “be open-minded about it,” says King. CAC makes an ongoing effort to encourage faculty and staff to use the tools. Workshops about online teaching methods and communication are included in the college's employee professional development program.

Members of the IT department have also provided ad hoc training for faculty when needed—ideally the weekend before a class is scheduled to start. King acknowledges that even with efforts to provide training and promote the technology's user-friendliness, “some instructors still feel a barrier between themselves and their students.”

Learn More About Being in Video

Here are some resources that may be useful as you consider videoconferencing options for your campus.

Calculators of Cost and Time

Polycom offers a videoconferencing return-on-investment calculator.

Tandberg (now owned by Cisco) offers a similar calculator to estimate videoconferencing costs.

Conferencing provider InterCall features a travel calculator to help with conference scheduling.

Books, Newsletters, and Blogs

The Videoconferencing Cookbook is a how-to manual for getting started with Internet videoconferencing

Telepresence and Videoconferencing Insight Newsletter” is published in the United Kingdom and is a good source of case studies and articles about how higher education institutions are using videoconferencing. On the Web site, click on “SD Applications” and “Education–Universities.”

Organizations

The Center for Interactive Learning and Collaboration supports and advances education through videoconferencing and other collaborative technologies. Its Web site includes videoconferencing directories for sites in and outside the United States, professional development options, and content providers for videoconferencing.

The Law School Connect site identifies a network of law schools equipped with videoconferencing to provide remote interviews and lectures worldwide.

The United States Distance Learning Association serves the distance learning community by providing advocacy and research.

The Video Development Initiative, founded by representatives from universities and education networks, promotes the deployment of digital video in research and higher education.

Brodzinkski admits that at first he wasn't enthusiastic about using the technology. “It's hard to get people to participate—they aren't relaxed initially,” he says. “Some faculty members are reluctant to go 100 percent online with a course or teach a hybrid class, because they are unsure of the technology and don't want to be embarrassed.”

Powell acknowledges that “some faculty members would like an IT person to be in the room when they're using the equipment, but institutions can't afford that.” She emphasizes the need for adequate training to aid the transition from the traditional classroom to the virtual setting.

There are concerns about using videoconferencing outside the classroom as well. For more strategic discussions among administrators, UNC's Smith thinks face-to-face meetings are needed and preferred. “You communicate by more than just voice and what you would see on camera,” he says. “And meeting in person lends itself to people being more candid.”

Focus for the Future

As comfort levels with videoconferencing grow, administrators are finding new applications for the format. For example, prospective students now have the option of discussing the college admissions process online. Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Arizona State University, Tempe; and the University of Georgia, Athens, are among those institutions that offer virtual admissions interviews to students. While a personal visit to campus is preferable, virtual interviews are a means for connecting with those students who may not be able to come to campus for financial or other reasons.

Meanwhile, the University of California–Los Angeles; the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia; and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, are among the institutions that have used video to conduct preliminary interviews with candidates for high-level staff or faculty positions. When hiring for these positions, institutions like to look nationally or even internationally to fill vacancies, but they can't afford to bring everyone to campus for interviews. Videoconferencing has made initial interviews more affordable, and the overall process is more efficient and less time-consuming.

One of the items on the James Madison University wish list is instructional videoconferencing. If the institution, in Harrisonburg, Virginia, could acquire the technology, experienced faculty would be videotaped, and new faculty could view real-time teaching from their offices, followed by an online discussion.

The uses for videoconferencing in higher ed are likely to expand even further as the technology becomes more portable. For example, CAC recently purchased a 200-user license for a converged management application that will allow for videoconferencing functions to be accessed from laptops. Users will be able to download the application online. Kings says while the purchase of license was “fairly costly, it was cheaper than building another videoconferencing room,” at a cost of approximately $40,000.

“Some institutions don't have the physical space for videoconferencing rooms,” says Powell. “Instead, they can use portable technology that can be rolled into the classroom. This will empower both administrators and faculty.”

Certainly, videoconferencing options hold lots of promise for higher education institutions. While investments in equipment will vary widely, it's critical for colleges and universities to participate at some level in the global conversation that's becoming ever-easier. “All institutions need to have some baseline ability to use videoconferencing,” cautions UNC's Smith. “They need some methodology if they are going to be vital participants in higher education.”

APRYL MOTLEY, Columbia, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.