A Taste for Telepresence

Although high-end videoconferencing is still new to this Maryland school district, it’s a sensible next step on a well-planned path to location-free communication.

Charles County Public Schools, a southern Maryland district with 26,780 preK-12 students in 35 schools, isn't new to pushing the technology envelope. In 2006 it was the first district of its size to go completely wireless. Prior to that, the district introduced a data warehouse to enable teachers and administrators to make data-driven decisions. Laptops, streaming video, and interactive whiteboards are ubiquitous in the district's classrooms.

Nonetheless, when Superintendent James Richmond approached his school board three years ago with a plan for telepresence in the classroom, he was ahead of his time, even by Charles County standards. Telepresence--high-end videoconferencing that simulates in-person experiences--is increasingly favored in corporate and higher education settings but has largely lagged in K-12 due to its high-end price tag.

Yet, the building blocks for such a system were already in place in Charles County--telepresence wasn't so much a leap as a next step in the district's overall effort to create an environment that could seamlessly connect students, teachers, staff, and parents, regardless of location.

A Foundation for a Vision
In 2008, Richmond met with representatives from Cisco Systems, a major technology provider to the district, to explore ways to offer additional advanced placement courses through distance learning. A mainstay player in the telepresence market, Cisco suggested the district consider trying out a limited telepresence implementation.Richmond immediately saw possibilities of holding higher-level classes whose low enrollments would normally exclude them from school schedules. "An example is biochemistry, a subject in which we would have limited, scattered interest from students," he wrote in a report to the school board that year. "Instead of hiring a full-time biochemistry teacher at each school, we could contract with a university professor to teach the course via telepresence on a Saturday or in the evening for students from all high schools."

He envisioned that telepresence would allow the district to participate in cultural exchanges among local students and those in other countries. It could be used to deliver staff development courses and enable people to get together for district business meetings without the time, expense, or carbon emissions associated with physical travel.

Gear Box

Southern Maryland's Charles County Public Schools purchased a Cisco Tandberg bundle for each of its three new telepresence classrooms. The bundle includes:

  • Tandberg Profile 65 Dual 65-inch, side-by-side, high-definition LCD displays on floor stands
  • Cisco TelePresence Codec C90
  • Tandberg PrecisionHD 1080p Camera
  • Digital Audio Module
  • Microphone
  • Remote control

Richmond probably could not have lobbied his board for such an implementation if a foundation for his telepresence vision had not already been laid years earlier. One might even say that the first brick was put in place the day CIO Bijaya Devkota joined the district in 2004. When he arrived on the job, Devkota faced an abundance of networking gear that the district had purchased the year before to upgrade its wide area network (WAN)--including equipment for a new unified communications network intended to integrate voice and data. "We were kind of overwhelmed," he recalls. "The timeline was completely not realistic. We had 38 different buildings. We had limited staff, and they had to get trained. We had to run these projects in a sequential fashion."

Undaunted, Devkota initiated a step-by-step plan to tackle the upgrades. The first job was to get the infrastructure in place. That encompassed replacing T-1 service with 2-gigabit fiber links between facilities. Then came the WAN, which required outfitting the data center with new blade servers, a storage area network, and multiple systems for security, backup, and disaster recovery.

Next, the IT team tackled the voice over IP (VoIP) phone system, a time-consuming undertaking at a district with hundreds of classrooms and offices. That project included installation of IP phone switches wherever they'd fit in each building, as well as deployment of handsets in offices and classrooms. It also meant upgrading electricity in many of the buildings, especially those built in the 1960s and 1970s, in order to accommodate the proliferation of new technology throughout the district.

In doing the VoIP technology upgrade, the district discovered a multitude of analog phone lines that had no phones attached to them, even though the schools were still paying for those lines. The discovery led Devkota to consolidate the multiple phone bills into one bill that his department now handles. "Why pay 30 different phone bills when you can just pay one?" Devkota notes. School principals had previously handled the bills--not an ideal situation, given the unused lines that sprang from multiple accounts.

VoIP was a revelation to the district. Teachers have become more immediately accessible to parents, who no longer have to leave messages in the main offices and hope to be available when teachers call back. And now, when a teacher or staff member moves to another location in the district, the phone and a person's number can follow along; all it requires is a simple update through software. "We know who's got that device, where they have it, where they have it plugged in," Devkota explains. In short, VoIP gave the district community a taste for location-free communications, which naturally led to the next best thing to being there: telepresence.

Adding Video to Voice
In 2010 the district installed three telepresence rooms, two at high schools and a third at an administrative building. Each classroom fits about 30 people, reports Devkota. The original rooms were gutted and then redesigned from the floor up--including window shades, paint, furniture, and audio and video gear. Each room is outfitted with dual side-by-side, 65-inch screens and a Cisco Tandberg codec, which delivers integrated voice and video to those displays. Devkota estimates the cost at about $100,000 per room, a quarter of that going to cosmetics and the remainder invested in the technology.

The next step is to fill those telepresence rooms with classes and meetings, fulfilling superintendent Richmond's dream of providing the right instruction to the right students, regardless of location. First on the roster are distance-learning classes delivered by Kaplan, whose instructors will be teaching advanced placement statistics via telepresence from a location in New York City to classes located at the two high schools.

The district is also working with Duke University. As Devkota describes it, "Professors will be at Duke teaching a course and our students will be jumping in to learn AP math, AP physics. We'll work with their Nicholas School of the Environment to teach our kids about marine biology and take them on virtual field trips. These professors will possibly never meet these children in their lifetime."

The district is hoping to deliver professional development courses locally to its staff and faculty from the College of Education at Towson University in Maryland, which is about two hours away by car. "Towson is the biggest producer of teachers for our county," explains Devkota. "A lot of our teachers take courses out there, but it's kind of far to drive."

Devkota believes the outcome for the use of video and other forms of communication provided through telepresence can't be predicted, but he expects it ultimately to be positive. "If we have limitations in areas, or we don't have certain teachers to teach high-level courses, or we want our teachers to be experts in certain fields, rather than having them go somewhere, we can bring that whole world to our school system," he observes. "Instruction needs to be like Netflix's video on demand. Why can't we have education on demand? If I need to teach German, and we only have 20 students, they should still be able to take it. The four walls of the classroom should not be the barrier anymore."