As a Director of IT, I’ve recently spent a good deal of time on launching a distance education initiative in collaboration with others in my office and organization. Over the last several months I’ve learned a few things that would make it easier on me were I to do it all over again and I’m sharing these insights here in hopes that they will make your life easier as you consider starting your own distance education program. I’ve been getting so many phone calls and emails asking for information on this topic I thought it would be a good idea to create a readily available resource on the subject. I would never claim to be the world’s leading expert on distance education, but I do think my experience in the field so far has yielded some valuable knowledge. If you have some experience yourself, please share your insights using the comment form below so as many people as possible can benefit from this post.
In this article I’ll share some advice as well as some technical considerations to mull over to help you as your distance education plans move forward. In reality, this article readily applies to business uses for telepresence as well as church service streaming since the underlying principles are essentially the same.
First, A Little Advice
For what it’s worth, I’d like to offer a bit of advice based on my own personal experience.
- It might take longer than you think. Initially, we thought our program could be setup within a few weeks or maybe a month and a half or so. While it’s certainly not impossible, if you are starting from scratch it would be smart to give yourself a decent buffer. There are so many moving parts: developing a strategy, tweaking that strategy, ordering parts, installation logistics etc. Depending on the brain-trust and manpower, it might be wise to plan for an entire semester of setup/testing before launch. Just be sure to give yourself (and other involved parties) plenty of time to learn and prepare.
- Communication is key. In any distance education initiative there are a lot of players. In our scenario, we have teachers, students, conference workers, volunteers, IT people, principles, proctors, multiple schools, a consultant, and parents all involved. Initially, we didn’t realize that keeping an open line of communication with everyone was paramount. We quickly learned that you can’t assume everyone will automatically be on the same page; you have to proactively get everyone on the same page. Team collaboration software like Basecamp or Huddle would be good ways to accomplish this. We found that when people are left out of the loop, not only is it destructive to the project itself, but feelings tend to get hurt and assumptions tend to get made that aren’t necessarily true. You can save yourself many headaches by simply practicing open communication.
- It pays to think outside the box. We learned right off the bat that doing what everyone else does may not be the most efficient or cost effective way to get setup. When I say it pays to think outside the box, I’m not just thinking of vendors, but also overall implementation. For instance, by incorporating Vidyo into our distance education strategy, we were able to strike a partnership between multiple entities (including Vidyo and some local area businesses) to increase our total number of endpoints to nearly 50 (some of these were shared lines and to use the full amount would require advance scheduling). This kind of creative thinking can give you more mileage for each dollar spent.
- Do your homework. I can’t overstate the importance of doing research. As with any technical initiative, the more you know the better. I’ve found that talking with other people who have “gone before” is incredibly helpful. I’ve benefitted greatly from speaking with colleagues from all across the nation to see what has worked best for them. If you are not a technical person by nature yet are charged with spearheading your area’s distance education effort, take some time to learn the technical terms like bridge, bandwidth, synchronous and asynchronous, etc… you’d be surprised at what you can pick up in a couple of short hours and you’ll be better equipped and more confident when making purchases and speaking with people who have a technical background. Visit websites of manufacturers and providers you are considering–since they are interested in selling to you, they usually provide treasure troves of information about their products online. Above all else, don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- Start small. The education superintendent wanted us to start small and scale up after an initial test phase and that proved to be a very smart move. While it’s never a good idea to bite off more than you can chew, it’s especially important not to do so when setting up a distance education program. By starting small, you can make sure you understand things properly and make sure things are working correctly before rolling out to more locations. The reason this is so important? A distance education offering is essentially a product being offered to students and parents. How many times are you happy when you buy an inferior product? Exactly. Trust me, you’ll need some time to tweak and find a groove and it’s well worth it to have a little patience instead of rushing in unprepared.
- Seek, and cherish, feedback. With so many people involved, you should definitely take advantage of any suggestions people offer up. In fact, you should actively seek feedback, perhaps by setting up a dedicated website (CheckThis is a great tool for quick and easy one-page website creation) or simply by pinging people from time to time asking for ideas. Since different people approach situations from different angles, the more perspectives you get the more likely you are to see the big picture.
- Take notes. Lots of notes. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to big projects like this I sometimes have a hard time remembering all of the minuscule, yet important, details. To help keep things straight, you might consider using Evernote (see my recent article titled How I Use Evernote to Stay Organized and Why You Should Too). Of all of the things I wish I could’ve recorded better for later reference, it was the many conversations I had with our consultant (this is where a Livescribe smartpen comes in handy).
- Plan for the future in the present. It’s helpful to think about possible crossover uses for your distance education equipment while you’re forming a strategy–in fact, it’s a must as there may be important financial ramifications. Can/would the equipment be used for business meetings for other parts of your organization? If so, this could cut down on travel costs and potentially open up a new source of funding. Can/would churches in your area be interested in using the equipment to stream live church services? Again, I want to stress the importance of starting small and scaling from there, but just because you’re not implementing a large idea all at once doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think big. Also, check into the specs of the equipment you are considering to see what other uses it might have beyond the initial appeal. For instance, our conference bought a LifeSize Video Center unit which allows for recording and live-streaming of sessions. While we mainly bought the machine for it’s recording capabilities, it also has the ability to stream asynchronously to 1000 endpoints at once. Potentially, our president could, at a future date, use that functionality to broadcast a live or recorded welcome message to every church in our territory at the beginning of each church service.
- Keep your options open. Finally, my last piece of advice is not to paint yourself into a corner. As an example, we’ve decided to take a vendor-neutral approach to purchasing equipment. Why? Things change. One company is on top one minute and the next thing you know a competitor has entered the market with technology that disrupts the incumbent’s business model (and therefore your setup as well, perhaps sadly and quickly rendering a very expensive purchase obsolete). Take Polycom for example. It was the alpha company in the telepresence space for years until an ex-employee founded Lifesize to compete with better pricing. Then came Vidyo with it’s VidyoDesktop software and accompanying iPad app which put Lifesize on the defensive (LifeSize is a division of Logitech who purchased Mirial to compete in the desktop telepresence space).
Some Basic Technical Considerations
- Bandwidth: You’ll generally want/need a minimum of 1 meg up and down (dedicated) to get decent streaming quality from your equipment. Your first order of business should be to establish which schools/locations have internet speeds that can handle the requirements imposed by distance education. If nobody at the school knows off-hand, you may need to check with their ISP (internet service provider, i.e. Comcast, CenturyLink and the like). If the building only gets 3 megs down and 1 meg up, for example, and this bandwidth is shared between the computer lab, guests on Wi-Fi and others using the internet, the teacher trying to teach a distance ed class may not have enough bandwidth left over for a quality experience. Really, the better your bandwidth the better your overall experience is going to be.
- A projector vs. a flat screen TV: This is really a matter of preference. Personally, I like the idea of using a nice, large HD-TV in the classroom. The main reason is that a projector requires a room to be less lit in order to be more visible but a camera requires more light to display a better picture. That said, projectors do seem to work well under the right circumstances. It could come down to being a matter of budget (although prices for nice TVs are always falling and have become very affordable in recent months) or perhaps a particular school already has one or the other already setup.
- Firewalls: If you are using LifeSize or Polycom equipment and have a firewall in place on your network, you’ll want to make sure to create a firewall exception in order to make and receive video calls.
- Sound: Sound is an important part of the learning experience. A TV’s speakers will probably do a good enough job of getting sound out to students in an average-sized classroom. If you are using a projector on the other hand, you may want to consider purchasing additional speakers. Some projectors do have built-in sound, but in my experience they tend to be a bit sup-bar unless you only have a few students who can huddle around the projector pretty closely.
- Microphones: This applies mostly to non-room system users (i.e. desktop or tablet users participating in a call) since room setups come with mics of their own. If a student (or anyone else for that matter) is connecting from a laptop, it’s a good idea to get a headphone set with a built-in mic. Why? In my observations, students on laptops move around quite a bit in their chairs which means at times they are further or closer to the microphone (which either makes it too quiet or too loud for other participants on the call). A headphone with a built-in mic moves with the student for a steady level of speaking.
- Testing: You’ll probably want to do some test calls before you begin broadcasting your first class or when you add a new location/student. Invariably, something will go wrong or settings will need to be tweaked and it’s much better to tackle that outside of class time.
In the end, the technology that enables distance education should melt into the background. Technology is a tool, not the main object. As I mentioned before, distance education is essentially a product and the technology should make the teacher and their content shine through to the students on the other end of the call. If done properly, there’s no reason why a good distance education program can’t act as a selling point for schools and help to boost enrollment numbers. I am yet to discover whether or not distance education implementation makes education any cheaper (although this will likely be the case years down the road as equipment prices decrease) though it will be interesting to see how different organizations are able to monetize, or at least build sustainability into, their offerings (perhaps through charging for recorded content?). I welcome your comments and feedback so please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below!