USA Tour – Day 10 – CISCO HQ

On the list of places to visit CISCO HQ was one of the more interesting choices of the trip. The most stimulating aspect of the day was imagining the possibilities and calculating the differences between the more user orientated technology CISCO offers and the traditional networking hardware. From the very beginning I was fascinated.  I needed to mentally reconcile the CISCO technology and relate it back to my daily classroom work. I suspect too often technology does not consider the average classroom teacher who may not have the technical abilities to operate many of the interfaces technicians create.

The most exciting demonstration of the day was the product TelePresence. The conference organisers managed to link up with Lance Ford the Principal at a small school out in Oklahoma. Lance was a great advocate for the technology and his seamless use of it made it incredibly attractive. The picture on the right provides you with a perspective of the rooms where we were using the technology. It was truly an impressive setup with three main 65 inch television screens in the front, two on the side, slightly raised and one in the middle at the bottom of the other two displays. Again very impressive and understandably what you would expect from at CISCO HQ.

Cameras, Movement and Connectivity

When chatting over the medium is was very clear the technology of traditional video conferencing software and hardware has massively improved. Watching Lance Ford’s interaction with the technology was very inspiring; with examples of multi-screen broadcasting and touch device Interactive White Boards for interaction.  All this and the ability of the unit to be mobile when needed were fantastic. The cameras on the station were thoroughly precise with the unit having the ability to focus down and move automatically very quickly and clearly. The control of the device was through a remote containing a ball mouse, which could be set to predetermined points of interest.  The camera also has a memory function with settings for demonstrating this specific location at command. The image was in real time with no distortion in voice or video feed. It was noted the system which had also been trailed in South Africa, could operate fully to approximately 256kb without any loss of quality.  For the more adventurous who love to go ‘mobile’, CISCO has constructed mobile cameras and laptops which stay connected to the system when you are out and about.

Show and Share

Show and Share is a Digital Media Content Manager which allows video imaging to be captured and processed, exported to a website and consumed on the fly. Show and Share works on the principle of capturing the video which is immediately loaded onto a specific Show and Share website where it can be viewed, edited and saved.  Another exciting feature of Show and Share is has Meta Data indexes, which mean each time a video is recorded,  the Show and Share software has the ability to be analysed for key words which are then replicated as meta data so the consumer can click to specific times in the video when those word is mentioned. The data sheet for this is generated by the content creator and put into a bibliography. When creators do this initially, the software requests you identify the speaker for voice recognition.   The video can be split further into a graphical representation through voice recognition of the creator.  This alone provides a level of detail many free websites for video content do not. It is also important to note this video recording can be set to encode in any format so it is device ‘agnostic’

Each of the videos can be categorised and users can subscribe to these, which imports directly into iTunes. It is automatic in nature and populates exactly as if it comes from the iTunes Store. The power of Show and Share is  it can be customised to your particular set of requirements by the IT department in your school and deposited locally or globally for others to consume depending on the needs and availably of bandwidth/hosting.

Digital Signage

One of the largest marketing requirements for schools currently is the ability to have above average digital signage which can be customised and is user friendly. When discussing the ability of Show and Share interfacing with Digital Signage the options offered by CISCO, unfortunately, at this time are not up to the mark. It was also noted the Graphical User Interface (GUI) for the digital signage was particularly poor with its design and layout, a comment freely admitted at CISCO HQ. The solution is a third party company, Array Interactive, are creating a new graphics engine which will allow digital signage publishing and creation to be more user friendly,

My Thoughts

I personally think CISCO products are impressive and they have a future in our schools.  I am concerned, though about the traditional uses of video conferencing in K-12 schools. Traditionally there are a few computers connected to a system which allows for video conferencing over a computer screen.  Then we have dedicated rooms for video conferencing though software such as Skype.  Other players gained traction and we moved to in-class connections. Now it seems we appear to be moving back to the dedicated room scenario. The Show and Share video does not represent this approach, but I wanted CISCO to do more for the classroom. I had a really energetic discussion with the lead designers at CISCO about moving content and direction away from being at the presenter level and instead incorporate subject matter and student creations.

One of my ideas was for practical based subjects where ‘once off’ demonstrations could be captured. I then moved to room design and implementation of cameras and hardware which could be pre-set to capture the demonstration desk along with the general class interaction. For example, in Sci

ence, having the ability to position one camera over the top of the teacher’s desk and another one facing the room, or having one good camera mounted from the front of the classroom and then another one in a pre-set position where the camera would zoom down onto a designated proportion of the desk and record the practical demonstration. I should note the ability and level of detail the CISCO cameras could provide was truly impressive.

The use of CISCO technology to capture this type of “in class” content is where I see potential.  Not necessarily in the broadcasting of lessons all over the globe. Inevitably, of course, this would be possible, but again, it really doesn’t make sense to move away from having a designated room all set up for conferencing or teaching.

I should note also the sheer cost of CISCO products will be a barrier few schools can cross. The encoder we saw was a minimum of $8000.00 US and was at the lower end of the available hardware, handling only a small number of feeds at the same time. This is my big sticking point and I believe until this becomes achievable then I am concerned the cost benefit analysis will leave the great things CISCO is doing out in the cold. The simple ability of asking a student to film their experiment on their iPad, Phone etc… and then post to youtube with directed Meta data would result in the same video being achieved.

Again… The Show and Share is unbelievably attractive, however it may just price itself out of the market.

Technical

Unfortunately, the technical aspects of each demonstration were not well explained.  However, in lay man’s terms, each device connects to a bridge which is hosted by CISCO and forms a link between the other locations connecting to the same call. This is known as a Bridge connection and does require support by a telecommunication company for each individual connection and is a subscribed service. Of interest too, was the fact the Queensland Government purchased 6000 connections for the purpose of distance education with CISCO technology.

Show and Share from a technical point of view works by taking the video and passing it through dedicated encoding hardware (which you buy from CISCO) and selecting versions and codes which make it available to certain devices. Depending on the level of customisation the process for encoding and publishing is very quick but as you add more specifics to the process, such as processing for teletext, then the processing of that video takes longer.

The Controversy Section

Money… It makes the world go round!  However money is what it comes down to when considering purchasing technology products for schools. If the product reduced inefficiency most would be happy to support, but it comes at a cost.  When you consider the cost of outfitting a class room with up to the minute technology you are looking in the area of $5-7000.  That’s per room!  What is more important and critical is the ability of the device and the software to be in the hands of teachers… NOT the technical administrators of the school. If the technology requires a degree in IT to be able to use it then it has missed the point and will NEVER take off in a school.  CISCO has obviously seen the error of their ways and has taken note of this because they are now investing in the complete redesign of the back end for digital signage.

My final musing are; if a school is going to spend upwards of $40,000 for a complete hardware solution, the level of training, detail of the submission and commitment from the parties, in particular the Principal must be in place. Let’s not forget too, the additional cost of training and integration, and in some instances, these costs would far out shadow the cost of the hardware. CISCO is an amazing product however, with these products comes great responsibility.  Ultimately, the responsibility of providing effective classroom learning and innovation falls on the shoulders of the teachers,  Therefore,  as I mentioned before, it is critical these devices be in the hands of and not the technical administrators.