Monash eyes video conferencing for collaboration boost

Connecting researchers, students and lecturers

Monash University is upping its use of next generation, high definition video conferencing in an effort to foster greater collaboration between students, lecturers and researchers.

The university has thus far rolled out about 200 video conferencing rooms across its eight campuses in Australia, Malaysia and South Africa and its CIO, Alan McMeekin has flagged a rapid, continuing expansion in the coming months.

McMeekin said video conferencing was becoming a very important service within higher education and research, driven by business needs such as former closer communication links within multi-campus universities.

“Students want to be able to receive lectures and instructions from the best possible lecturers, instructors and teachers and video conferencing provides a way for students on all the campus can take advantage of school lecturers in all the disciplines,” he said.

“It’s also important to support research which typically involves collaboration between researches in different locations in Australia and overseas, McMeekin said.

Video conferencing was playing an important role in supporting the administration of the university, and cutting down on long distance travel, which was helping address CO2 emissions.

“It’s a really important opportunity in response to the environmental issues we all face,” he said. “There’s a significant cost saving too and improvement in staff safety in that they don’t have to travel on the roads. It’s now a viable alternative to face to face [meetings].”

McMeekin said that with recent improvements in technology and the advent of increasingly reliable, high speed networks, such AARNet - Australia's Academic and Research Network – Monash was now confident in the capabilities of next generation video conferencing.

“It all depends on robust infrastructure and high capacity networks, and the AARNet is one of those,” he said.

“The technology is improving…video conferencing has been around for a long time but it typically required a technical person on standby if any issues arose. These days it is very intuitive to use and start the conference up, dial people in, things can be preset. It’s much, much easier to use than it use to be.”

Multipoint bridges and effective directory services to allow participants to connect by name rather than IP address - critical pieces of infrastructure for seamless connectivity - were now increasingly available, McMeekin said.

Despite advances in technology and network reliability and speeds, McMeekin said the continued use of both proprietary and common standards by video conferencing vendors added complexity to the integration process. Then there was the added complexity of integrating complementary services to video conferencing such as email and VoIP.

“We have done some analysis on integrating a whole range of collaboration techniques – Web conferencing, email, IM, video conferencing – and it is really quite difficult to achieve full interoperability,” he said.

“We have a suite of services which do fully interoperate, but over time different products from different vendors – desktop video conferencing, meeting room video conferencing - have been deployed to varying degree across the organisation and other universities. Some of these are based on proprietary implementations and they didn’t interoperate.”

To begin addressing this, McMeekin said Monash had begun moving more towards as standards based approach to the university’s IT and infrastructure. This also included a standard architecture and design for meeting rooms and lecture theatres which was being gradually been deployed across the organisation, he said.

McMeekin said the benefits of video conferencing could be seen in an effective extended collaboration process between professors and students at Monash and the University of San Diego in the US.

Future benefits would also accrue with the role out of the national broadband network (NBN) across the country, he said.

“When the NBN becomes rolled out, students will have much higher bandwidth and will be able to utilise video conferencing to a higher degree,” he said. “It will become much more mainstream and people will be using video conferencing as a matter of fact every day. If they aren’t using it in lectures rooms they’ll be using it at the desktop.”

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