Video Conferencing is in the ‘DNA’ of The University of the Highlands and Islands.
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The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) is the only university based in the Highlands and Islands region of Scotland, and was awarded full university status in February 2011 by the Privy Council, having evolved from the higher education establishment, UHI Millennium Institute.
There are currently over 7,600 students studying both undergraduate and postgraduate taught courses, as well as research, through a federation of 13 colleges and research institutions. In addition to the main campuses, UHI also provides educational opportunities through a network of more than 50 learning centres located throughout the area.
The Highlands and Islands region of Scotland encompasses 5000 miles of coastline, and includes 90 inhabited islands, many accessible only by ferry. It is the most sparsely populated region of Europe, with no motorways and many miles of single-track road.
With its unique location the university also has a very particular target student group; many individuals living in the region that seek higher education qualifications cannot travel the great distances required to attend university in the main populated areas of Scotland, the rest of the United Kingdom and beyond. The current economic climate has added to the financial restrictions of attending distant universities.
UHI has utilised Video Conferencing (VC) in a groundbreaking way; the university was recently shortlisted for ‘Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year’ in the Times Higher Education Awards 2011 for the development of the VC service. It plays an essential role in delivering education to the students, many of whom live hundreds of miles away from both their teachers and their peers. Whilst UHI has used VC since its inception in 1997, the award of university title and an increasing student population have meant a higher dependency on VC to ensure all students, regardless of location, can access UHI’s curriculum. Cutting edge technology has played a vital role in linking students together to create viable class sizes, in creating the ability for educators to teach from wherever the expertise exists, and in all facets of university life.
Video Conferencing permeates every element of UHI, from teaching, to recruitment, even to university business meetings with the Scottish Parliament. Bob Brandie, Senior Video Conference Technician at the University of the Highlands and Islands, comments, “Throughout our history, and particularly in recent years, UHI has challenged and transformed the preconceived ideas of how higher education can be delivered to students; Video Conferencing is integral to this.”
Brandie and his team moved to upgrade the VC network, choosing High Definition Cisco products new to the market. “With Logicalis UK we fully equipped 63 studios; these are the best video capabilities available and I don’t believe there is anything currently to match it.” Bob continues; “We’ve been told that this has been the biggest VC project in the UK.”
Comprised mainly of Cisco endpoints, the video network has the benefit of uniformity, thereby reducing the requirements for multi-product training. Engineers can take central control when necessary, enabling, for example, software updates to be made from the Operations Centre. Brandie says, “The Cisco TelePresence Management Suite is an invaluable tool in maintaining and upgrading the equipment, as well as aiding technical support.” He continues “There is an ongoing update program for approximately 250 endpoints, we operate a careful deployment and maintenance program to keep everything going for as long as possible – continuing developments in software algorithms, standards and equipment design have led to better quality, reliability and ease of use.”
Currently there are over 7,600 students studying over 200 courses taught in part through the video network. These courses include Scottish Cultural Studies, Business and Management, Natural and Environmental Sciences, and Construction Management, which, for example, features practical (Surveying and CAD) sessions in addition to theoretical lectures delivered by VC. BSc Oral Health Science and Dental Therapy students use the HD cameras for remote practical work on replica heads, and there is regular use of a range of other HD equipment, for example microscopes, enabling high quality laboratory work to feature on courses even where the students cannot be in the same room as the lecturer. A dedicated VC lab has been established in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis to pilot such developments and train staff in the use and wider adoption of this equipment across the curriculum.
In the last year there have been more than 10,000 Multisite video conferences, with 250 plus ‘bridged’ classes per week. Brandie says that 65% of video usage is now for teaching, and there may be up to 14 sites involved per link.In addition to teaching use, VC is also used for meetings of the governing body of UHI, the University Court, as well as numerous committee meetings. External members of the Court have been known to VC in from Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, as well as sites across the university. So integral is video to the university experience that, as students are dispersed among the campuses, meetings of the Student Association take place on the network, along with other student body activities.
Video is also critical in the day to day running of the university, particularly in the HR function, for example; both local and international staff recruitment interviews; meetings to notify staff about policy; salary reviews; staff development and appraisals are all conducted by video. Apart from enabling the spectrum of university life to proceed normally, whatever the weather or travelling conditions across the Highlands and Islands at all times of the year, there is of course, the added benefits of cost efficiencies, as the need for extensive and expensive travel and stop-overs is reduced, and the positive environmental impacts associated with this, especially where air travel is the only reasonable mode of transport in many parts of this region. High quality VC, as provided by Cisco, is a very green way of conducting business. Brandie notes that “even retirement parties and presentations have been held by VC for staff who had worked in more than one location or whose daily routine meant that they regularly met with others based elsewhere via the network”. He continues, “Our finance committees also meet via VC - we consider it particularly important that the annual salary deliberations are not held up because people are unable to travel! In short there is no area of UHI’s activity which does not involve Video Conferencing in some way.”
As the university evolves so does the VC network; more courses means more classes, and Brandie and his team are currently developing an automated booking system to work across all infrastructures that will enable multiple rooms for Conferencing in different sites. Brandie concludes; “Video Conferencing is in the ‘DNA’ of the University of the Highlands and Islands. It is pivotal; we simply could not operate without it.”