MANKATO — When adjunct nursing professor Jean Humphries shows up to her Friday morning class in Edina, 11 of her students are there and waiting.
The other 29 show up a moment later, all at the same time, when Humphries touches a screen and connects over the new Cisco TelePresence TX9200 system with a classroom in Wissink Hall at Minnesota State University.
Suddenly, the students in her Nursing Research class are virtually in two places at once, connected through life-size and life-like high-definition video and audio technology that far surpass interactive TV experiences.
Humphries, who lives in the Twin Cities, said she’d been teaching for MSU since 2004, and she would always drive to Mankato for each class. In the midst of pursuing her Ph.D, the commute got in the way of teaching at MSU.
But then the college called Humphries before fall semester with the news about the TelePresence system and asked if she would teach MSU students from a classroom in Edina.
“This was a surprise to me,” Humphries said. “When I came in (to the classroom), I was kind of astounded. It is lifelike. It’s real time. There’s no delay. (The students) are right there.”
MSU purchased the equipment in June 2011, in part with funds from President Richard Davenport’s “Big Ideas” campaign, which is $4 million in funding made available for innovative ideas that advance the university’s mission.
The campus piloted the system on a smaller scale the past year with units made for one or two people per room, said Bryan Schneider, director of technical services in Minnesota State University’s Office of Information and Technology Services.
Schneider, a tech buff, is reluctant to describe the equipment as television screens when asked. But essentially, he said, students sitting down in the Wissink room are looking at Humphries and the Edina students on 65-inch plasma screens, and three cameras in the room are sending their images to the Edina screens.
“It gives you the illusion that you’re sitting right across the table from the people at the other end,” Schneider said. “What TelePresence is all about is the experience. You don’t get that fly-on-the-wall experience. You feel like you’re sitting directly across from the remote people.”
If students have PowerPoint presentations or other visual media, that shows up in each classroom on separate screens to make it easier for students to see.
Schneider said the technology will be used in the future as a connection between MSU and satellite campuses, as well as schools the university has partnerships with. There may also be opportunities for businesses to connect employees to MSU through TelePresence for training sessions.
MSU is the first higher-education institution with the TX9200 system. Numerous colleges and universities worldwide have previous versions of TelePresence.
Humphries said she has never taught with interactive TV or other such programs in the past. But she said the system is incredibly easy to use, and she hopes to use it again.
“If I could use it again, yes I would, without hesitation,” she said. “I’m just in awe of it.”
Several other Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are working to purchase TelePresence equipment that will enable them to partner with MSU in various educational programs.
TelePresence also has the capability to go beyond the classroom. Schneider said MSU is testing software that runs on smart phones and laptops so students, faculty and guest speakers throughout the world can download a free app and connect to a TelePresence class.