At first glance, Sara Campbell’s classroom at Rutgers University’s Busch Campus in Piscataway looks like any other. Yet only half her students are actually in her room. The others are miles away in a classroom on the Cook/Douglass Campus in New Brunswick.
This long-distance lecture is possible through the implementation of Immersive Synchronous Lecture Halls that utilize technology that beams the images of the professor and students into the other classroom so everyone sees and hears each other. The roofs of the classrooms have 36 microphones to transmit sound.
The idea is to save students commuting time and optimize the number able to take one course at a time. Rutgers began using the approach in select courses last spring.
“We reach more students with this [technology],” Campbell told NJBIZ. “This is a pretty high-demand class. The fact that we can reach 200 students in one class with two locations is nice.”
Campbell, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology and Health, teaches from the Piscataway classroom on Mondays and New Brunswick on Wednesdays to allow students to ee her in person for at least half the classes. They are allowed to go to either classroom so they can always be in the same room as her.
Based on the students’ grades, Campbell thinks they are performing as they would in a traditional classroom setting.
“There are always going to be students who excel at it and students who don’t excel at it and your middle,” Campbell said. “From that perspective, I feel like I still have a very good grade distribution even when I did face-to-face compared to this.”
Campbell does not find the technology changes the way she teaches. She repeats a student’s question to make sure everyone hears although she said she would do that anyway because she is used to teaching in large rooms. She recommends the immersive synchronous lecture to her colleagues.
Rutgers junior Jessica Amoako takes Campbell’s course and has become comfortable with seeing the professor’s image projected on a screen. A biological sciences major from Union, Amoako said it took some time for her to figure out how to get Campbell’s attention based on where the camera was focused.
“It is not as crazy as it sounds,” Amoako said. “It is just weirder, but after a while you get used to it.”
Amoako welcomes not having to commute to the New Brunswick campus. She stays on the Busch Campus because she has another commitment shortly after the exercise physiology class ends.
“It is easier for me to go to my next class as opposed to being restricted to one location,” Amoako said. “Then I would have to take a bus to go to another class. It makes life easier to get to class. Taking the bus to class takes a while.”
Her classmate Liad Auslander agrees. She took an immersive lecture class last semester and said it took a while to become comfortable with interacting with the professor.
“It was hard at first with the professor on the campus; you are more prone to being distracted,” said Auslander, a sophomore from Bellevue, Wash. “But then you become more focused and get used to the style. If the professor is interactive and loud, it helps. If they are soft-spoken, it is harder to hear them. Overall, it is an amazing opportunity, because more students can take the class.”
Cisco manufactures the hardware used, and Aspire Technologies built the infrastructure network. Audio-visual integration company IVCi designed and built the application in collaboration with Cisco’s Advanced Telepresence team. Voith & Mactavish Architects LLP was the project architect, and Rutgers’ Digital Classroom Services team also helped out.
Joseph Latessa, regional sales director at IVCi, said the project required existing rooms to be reconfigured to look alike.
“Our teams worked hand in hand,” Latessa said. “The part that made this project unique was the five teams working together.”
Rutgers New Brunswick has three campuses in New Brunswick and two campuses in neighboring Piscataway. Even though Rutgers operates its own bus system, students spend time on the bus traversing those campuses.
Paul Hammond, Rutgers’ associate vice chancellor for technology and instruction, said the university spent about $1 million to prepare the Wright Lab Auditorium on the Busch Campus and Loree Classroom-Office Building on the Douglass Campus to implement the synchronous learning technology. Rutgers plans to bring the technology to other rooms on its campuses as an outgrowth of its master plan to improve the student experience.
“The student experience piece is a much more difficult part to put a number on but it is a tangible thing,” Hammond said.
Rutgers is asking students and professors for feedback related to the technology so adjustments can be made to improve it.
“Faculty are sharing experience tips with each other as far as what classroom strategies improve the experience,” Hammond said. “There are certainly adjustments to be made because it’s not natural to have half your students in a different place.”