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Virginia Universities Sharing Telepresence Infrastructure

Course sharing and reduced costs are touted among the projected benefits for the four participating universities.

Four Virginia universities joined forces this month in a public-private partnership with Cisco Systems to pilot a shared infrastructure and implementation of the company’s TelePresence technology.

Called “4-VA,” the project includes the presidents of George Mason University, University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and James Madison University; and Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, Virginia Secretary of Education Laura Fornash, and Cisco Systems’ Chairman and CEO John T. Chambers, according to an announcement Thursday, Nov. 3.

The project is part of an effort among the four universities to collaborate on educational initiatives and interoperate through the technology. The technology for the project is intended to change the way students are educated and to prepare them for jobs in a global economy.

For example, according to George Mason University President Alan Merten, starting in January 2012, his institution will offer an advanced Chinese course in a designated TelePresence room. Through the video technology, the course will be available not only to students enrolled at George Mason, but also students from James Madison and Virginia Tech. Students attending on campus will sit in for the class while students off campus will view the class through the video capability.

“This is the only place that has a group of universities changing what they do collectively as a result of the technology,” Merten said.

The Virginia General Assembly funded $3.4 million for the project, allotting each of the four universities one-fourth of the money. According to McDonnell’s website, the technology will improve access to academics, reduce time to graduation and reduce costs. State legislation passed this year under McDonnell’s watch aims to make higher education more affordable and expand the number of degrees awarded.

“If we are to afford awarding 100,000 additional degrees, we must create alternative pathways to degree attainment that increase the number of graduates while reducing the overall cost of a college degree,” McDonnell said in a statement last week. “The use of technologies such as TelePresence to help leverage resources will become more and more important in the delivery of higher education.”

According to McDonnell’s official website, 4-VA’s other priority projects in fiscal year 2012 are:

  • to design a distance education degree completion program in technology innovation and entrepreneurship aimed at community college graduates, particularly those from rural Virginia who have been unable to enroll at a four-year institution;
  • to identify science, technology, engineering and math courses that have high dropout rates and then recruit faculty from the 4-VA universities for a summer course redesign project focused on improving student success in those courses;
  • to identify topic areas where one university has specific research expertise needed by the other universities in order to increase research competitiveness by initiating projects that share this expertise across universities;
  • to enable the sharing of courses across universities when one university has the faculty resource to teach a course strategic to Virginia’s economic future but another university does not; and
  • to establish a team of mathematics faculty and others to begin the design of a mathematics learning infrastructure, modeled on Virginia Tech’s successful math emporium, that will be open to all of Virginia higher education.

To assist with the project’s organization, George Mason University CIO Joy Hughes was tapped to take on the role of the 4-VA’s executive director, Merten said. She will spend half of her time as executive director and the other half maintaining her position as the university’s CIO.