TelePresence comes to three Manitoba universities

Three Manitoba universities hope a new videoconferencing network will improve learning opportunities for students far away from the provincial capital as well as open opportunities for them to learn from others around the world.

At a ceremony on Thursday, the University of Winnipeg, Brandon University and University College of the North, which is based in The Pas, officially unveiled the network that links the trio, which uses a room at each institution equipped with Cisco Systems Inc.’s three-screen TelePresence systems.

The network has actually been running for three months – one student has used it to defend a thesis in front of a panel at one of the other institutions rather than travel hundreds of kilometers to do it in person.

“We’re going to be able to use our resources so much more powerfully,” said Dr. Kathryn McNaughton, academic vice-president of University College of the North, which is some 630 km northwest of Winnipeg. UCN serves some 2,400 students across 12 communities. It uses videoconferencing and the Web to deliver some programs, she aid, but the high-definition life-size system “adds immediacy and intimacy and productivity to our meetings.”

Less expensive room-sized videoconferencing systems are more functional than a custom TelePresence room, admitted Dr. Deborah Poff, president and vice-chancellor at Brandon University, which is about 215 km south of Winnipeg and has some 3,000 students.

But she is confident the new room will be frequently used. Except for the faculty of health studies, Brandon hasn’t made much use of technology in distant learning with the other two institutions, she said. She believes this is about to change. 

University of Winnipeg president and vice-chancellor Lloyd Axworthy also told reporters his institution already uses lower-resolution videoconferencing systems, but they are “certainly not satisfactory from the point of view of collaboration on teaching, research and development. They’re just too limited.”

The bigger system “exponentially increases the capacity for us to really revolutionize education.”

Ultimately, he added, through technologies such as Skype, he hopes to take university videoconferencing to even smaller communities.

Axworthy has used the room himself in his capacity as a member of the International Criminal Court Advisory Council, linking to other council members in Geneva, Washington, Brussels and Johannesburg.

But administration officials at the outlying institutions also told reporters they will appreciate using the network for the travel time to Winnipeg it saves them.

“We spend a lot of time going down the road and back and forth,” said Poff. Counting the travel, a one hour meeting eats up and entire day, “and it’s not cost-effective.”

“This allows us to have more frequent meetings, to brainstorm face to face in a way that I think will benefit us.”

Often TelePresence rooms are designed for groups of six people, but the Brandon and UCN facilities can each hold up to 18 people, making them useful for small classes.

All three are connected to the U.S.-based National LambdaRail 10 Gigabit Ethernet network, a high speed network linking several universities and research institutes in the U.S. and Mexico. It is also the only non-commercial Cisco TelePresence exchange.

The intention to link the three institutions was announced 12 months ago and was funded by $7 million from the federal and Manitoba governments, while Cisco donated gear for two rooms in Winnipeg. One room is already in use there, while the second will soon be installed in a new building on the UW campus.