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Wharton MBA Classes Go Bi-Coastal With Video

Cisco telepresence setup for classroom videoconferencing allows a lecturer at Wharton's main Philadelphia campus to simultaneously teach a class in San Francisco.
For example, in addition to the life-size projection screen at the front of the class, and the screens in the back intended to give a professor a view of remote participants, there are two additional screens on each side of the class. These are 80-inch Sharp LCD displays that Sidhu estimated would cost about $4,000 at Costco. Normally, the displays are used for slides or other content the professor might be using to accompany his lecture. However, they're also available as screens to display additional videoconference participants.

One of the reasons students are willing to pay a premium for a Wharton MBA is the quality of the guests its professors bring in, Sidhu noted. So suppose a finance professor has the necessary pull to bring in Jamie Dimon, CEO at JPMorgan Chase, a Cisco telepresence customer, on one screen and an official of the Securities and Exchange Commission on the other to debate the merits of financial industry regulation. "You can get going sort of a CNN Anderson Cooper effect," Sidhu said. Potentially, students could be watching the debate along with a professor who is also remote to the classroom.

Ulrich said that's just the sort of potential he sees for the system, although how often professors will choose to do anything that elaborate remains to be seen. He has used the equipment to teach an actual class as part of a course in entrepreneurial innovation, but he used it in a simpler scenario where the entire audience was remote, making it more of a broadcast experience than a blending of two classes that are remote to each other. It seemed to work well, and a survey of the students bore that out, Ulrich said. "They varied in their enthusiasm. Some students said, 'I would be happy to have all of my classes in this format.' The worst anyone said was that it was a pretty good teleconference experience."

Following Monday's unveiling and demo, the plan is to start working the system into at least occasional use for regular instruction over the next few months, with more serious usage starting with the fall semester.

Although Cisco played a key role, the total experience is really the work of a bigger project that included other technology vendors, integrators and architects, Ulrich said. "There are thousands of moving pieces in these systems, so it's a big systems integration project," he said. "The second one they do will probably be easier, and eventually it will get to be more turnkey."

Lectures can also be recorded using Cisco's Capture, Transform, Share (CTS) platform for later playback or made available live for students to view on their laptops or iPads, if they are not able to attend in person. However, Ulrich said it will be up to the professor to decide whether to use that technology and set ground rules for remote or asynchronous attendance.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+.