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Organizations Power-Up Distance Learning Systems

Universities, industry, government save big with distance learning.

Cisco Conference System As federal, state and local governments continue to deal with slimmer budgets in the wake of sequestration, distance learning has taken on greater importance.

When sequestration hit the federal budget in March, all discretionary spending not related to defense was arbitrarily cut by 8.2 percent. Subsequent cuts were felt downstream and created difficult situations for virtually every government entity that depends on federal funding to meet its needs. 

Continued cuts have forced many government officials to implement strategies that include both tried and true as-well-as innovative approaches. A good example of a tried-and-true technique is the military’s system that relies on hundreds of classrooms around the world communicating with each other via satellites. It is essentially the venerable forerunner to today’s distance learning over the Internet.

“Satellite distance learning is not widely known because it’s not marketed,” said distance learning specialist Jolly Holden. “Everybody thinks the world is going to online learning, not realizing that the federal government has got this capability.”

Holden retired from the Air Force, then helped start the Air Technology Network (ATN) more than 20 years ago. He believes that the success of ATN still provides lessons for today’s distance learning establishment.

ATN serves as the gateway to interactive television (ITV) networks within the Department of Defense that, in turn, are part of the Government Education and Training Network (GETN). ATN provides education and training to more than 20,000 students per year, including 2,000 broadcast hours resulting in 150,000 student training hours per year.GTN is a consortium of networks operated by 17 federal agencies using seven uplinks that reaches more than 2,200 receiving sites.

“It’s been expanded to just about every place it could go in the federal government,” Holden said, “Anything that is lecture-based in a classroom can be transmitted over satellite.


Holden points out that the infrastructure is already in place and the annual budget for satellite operations for thousands of students is less than $1 million.

“[Online education is growing] but there is always, especially in the federal government, a need to have live classroom instructors,” said Holden. “The business model has changed with online distance learning. The students have to buy the computer and pay for the internet connection.”

Ironically, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena is a federal government entity that has turned from satellites to embrace online distance learning. JPL is managed by the California Institute of Technology, which chose LifeSize to help connect its 5,000 employees spread out in more than 100 buildings.

In addition, JPL’s employees, contractors and business partners are located in remote offices around the world. JPL was looking for face-to-face over video capabilities enabling more frequent meetings between remotely located personnel and more timely exchanges of ideas. The result is increased collaboration and participation.

“Traditionally in the government and education space, implementing video conferencing has been difficult to deploy and making video calls has been a complicated process,” said Cindy Joffrion, LifeSize’s program manager for government, education and medical services. “I remember sitting in a college classroom that had video conferencing, and the conferencing unit took up half the classroom.”

Joffrion sees the advent of WiFi and mobile devices having ushered in a transitional phase in distance learning.

“There is a drive for mobile, cloud and virtualization, and this is fundamentally changing how video communication and distance learning works,” said Joffrion. “Distance learning is starting to become more adaptable to technology and to meet the needs of the user. It is actually incorporating and adapting to innovation.”


Another aspect of the evolution of distance learning is exemplified by simplified controls and functionality.

“WiFi enables smart video that puts collaboration in the hands of the user in a more simplified user-interface methodology,” said Joffrion. “The smart-video concept is built on that principle of simplification, allowing users to make a video call with a simple push of a button.”

Joffrion points to the combination of LifeSize Icon and UVC (universal virtual computer) products as a great example of another advance in distance learning scalability.

LifeSize ICON-10X System with MicPod microphones

“This means that individuals and organizations are able to buy what is needed now and easily transform what they have to increase capacity,” she said.

The UVC platform is a collection of virtualized infrastructure applications that are networked on the user’s premises along with the Icon equipment.

“You can buy the components together, and the functionality is built in and works together so you don’t have to go through a complicated integration process,” said Joffrion, “You have video conferencing on your cell phone or your tablet.”

Joffrion reports that streaming and recording are often among the virtualized applications that many customers choose to buy. The Icon series equipment is the video end point that is set up in the conference room or classroom. Classes can be recorded and archived, and they can be streamed over the Internet for on-demand access at any time.

Instructors can see who has watched the video and who hasn’t, and there is chat functionality for individual feedback to students. Someone watching the stream but not actively dialed in to the call can still ask a question.

“One of the things that a customer needs to decide is the type of infrastructure, how and when to deploy it and what types of applications,” said Joffrion, “Do they want mobile applications? Do they want video and recording and streaming capability?”

Cisco worked collaboratively with clients when applying its TelePresence Classroom Experience to school districts throughout the country, including California, Maryland, Minnesota, Arizona and Idaho. One advantage is that the school districts can connect with other entities that use Cisco systems.

Polycom HDX8000 RealPresence Conference System

As an example, the Paradise Valley Unified School District (PVUSD) encompasses 98 square miles in the northeastern section of Phoenix region. It has more than 34,000 students and about 3,000 staff spread out over 31 elementary schools, seven middle schools, five high schools and a variety of specialty schools.

The Fontana Unified School District in Fontana, Calif., is 50 miles east of Los Angeles. It has 44 schools spread out over 41 miles. The district uses Cisco TelePresence to enable students to attend classes remotely and enhance teacher-student communication.

California’s Fresno Unified School District (FUSD) attributes a historic gain in math scores for K-6 to Cisco’s TelePresence through collaboration with the Long Beach Unified School District. Some 2,000 Fresno students scored at the “proficient” or “advanced” level in math, as compared to the previous year.

The latest Cisco TelePresence system is the company’s TX9000 series. The system features three 65-inch HD screens to reduce camera intrusion, while maintaining eye gaze. A three-camera cluster allows greater eye contact and a continuous whole-room experience, and the system includes integrated lighting and microphones that are shielded to reduce RF interference. The system’s Touch-12 panel allows users to initiate and manage meetings with “one-button” simplicity.


With 95 percent of colleges and universities currently offering an increasing array of online courses, it’s estimated that by 2020, half of all content at institutions of higher learning will be delivered on line.

Western Kentucky University (WKU) produces 900 hours per week of instruction with Polycom RealPresence video equipment. Used in conjunction with BT Conferencing, instructors use video networks to present more than 100 courses per term, some with as many as 60 students taking part. Courses range from core English and math classes to advanced studies for doctoral candidates.

Polycom RealPresence room video systems are integrated into 44 classrooms and conference rooms throughout the WKU system.

Conservative estimates from WKU show the savings to students are substantial. If just half of the nearly 1,400 regional campus students enrolled in Interactive Video Services don’t go to the campus twice a week, they would collectively save more than 38,000 hours of travel time, five million miles of driving and nearly $1 million in gasoline per year.

The Polycom RSS 4000 recording and streaming server is network-based and records, archives and streams telepresence and video conferences to desktops and conference rooms. Access and management are centrally accomplished using existing networks. The system can record up to 15 simultaneous conferences, access video content live or on demand, and view it in the format in which it was recorded, including HD. 

Applied Global Technologies (AGT) is partnered with Polycom, LifeSize and other companies, and offers proprietary video conferencing management software solutions. AGT has supported government entities and distance learning programs for nearly 20 years.

AGT’s EncoreB2B is an interoperable service that connects video conferencing systems with desktops and laptops, tablets and smart phones and UC (mobile internet technology software) clients such as Microsoft Lync. It quickly installs to the desktop so that users experience a high-quality video conference with customizable screen layouts, high-resolution video and content, e-mail dialing, as well as real-time recording. EncoreB2B can also be accessed by a web browser and mobile video application.

“The evolution of technology is driving growth, it’s driving capacity and it’s driving simplicity,” said LifeSize’s Cindy Joffrion.