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Rutgers Modern Legal Classroom Uses Telepresence to Connect Multiple Campuses

February 26, 2015 | Telepresence Options


Story and images by Rutgers Today

Thanks to a cutting-edge classroom, five Rutgers Law courses are taking place simultaneously this semester in Newark and Camden.

Implemented by Polycom Immersive Telepresence Solutions, a 200-inch high-definition monitor with conference connectivity, studio lighting, and surround sound unites two custom classrooms some 80 miles apart: room 323 in Camden and room 387 in Newark.

The cinematic learning experience begins when a professor calling from her live classroom location is "beamed" into center stage as if a "theater in the round" for the two sets of three sleek rows of 24 students now effortlessly part of a larger legal community.

Nicknamed the Holodeck for its technological coolness that could make a Trekkie gush, the video communications environment is impressive and relatively easy to use, though it does take some getting used to. In fact, the technology enhances reality in unexpected and humorous ways: the audio is so good that professors can hear students whispering questions at the remote site. Rutgers Law-Newark Acting Dean Ron Chen, who is teaching Federal Jurisdiction in the Holodeck this semester, was actually able to answer a question whispered between students in Camden without prompting -- much to the students' surprise.

The "wow" factor aside, the Holodeck promises to increase greatly the number of courses available to students in Camden and Newark. Whether tapping into courses that are only on the schedule in one location or offering courses on specialized topics that attract sufficient enrollment when open to students at both locations, the Holodeck expands options.

"The Holodeck has enabled me to take a class that I would not have had access to otherwise," says Rutgers Law-Camden 2L Scott Isaacson, who is enrolled in Foreign Relations and National Security, a specialized course taught by Rutgers Law-Camden Professor Beth Stephens.

Besides Chen's and Stephen's courses, other courses now offered in the Holodeck include International Commercial Arbitration Advocacy; Child Migration and U.S. Immigration; and South African Constitutional Law. Interestingly, all three of these other courses are co-taught by teachers located in both Camden and Newark, demonstrating that the Holodeck facilitates cross-campus collaboration as well.

As Isaacson observes, "Rutgers has a diverse faculty and class offerings but the logistics of trying to physically travel between campuses has made taking remote classes almost impossible. Law students are very busy and being able to select from a wider range of classes with excellent professors without any of the overhead and waste of commuting between campuses has been very positive. The Holodeck has added breadth and diversity to my legal education."

Classmates, physically beside you or virtually in front of you, all become part of the same conversation and what's being said can be connected to an actual person. "The quality of the experience has been much better than we expected," says Rutgers Law-Newark 3L Wan Cha. "It really feels like both Camden and Newark students are in the same room together." Isaacson agrees that the high definition projection system makes him feel like he is part of the discussion, not just watching a video. His fellow Rutgers Law classmates come in loud and clear.

"Not so much just the voices, but the actual image and personality of each student comes through," he says. "The experience is more like a discussion with students looking at each other rather than just a lecture by the professor. It is interesting to hear comments from students at either school that might have taken the same class but with a different focus or emphasis."

According to Cha, the exposure to the perspectives of a different student body has enriched the learning experience. In Chen's class, he explains, "we also reference current or historical events in New Jersey as a whole as opposed to limited those types of discussions to northern New Jersey."

Cha adds that the Holodeck has heightened his own feeling of connectedness to a larger Rutgers Law. "Hearing and seeing the students from the other school definitely generate a sense that we all attend the same institution. Law school is always an intense experience and to be able to share some of the experience with Camden students has already allowed us to relate to the Camden students."

The American Bar Association fact-finding team that visited both Camden and Newark in early February pursuant to the proposed merger between the Camden and Newark law schools were duly impressed by the technology as well. Following the approval by the ABA and Rutgers University's Board of Governors, the schedules in Camden and Newark will be perfectly in sync, and a far wider array of courses will be offered in the Holodeck, giving the merged Rutgers Law among the most comprehensive curriculums in the nation. Indeed, approximately 90% of second and third-year students will have the opportunity to take a course in the immersive distance education classroom.

"Law students learn to network as part of their education," adds Isaacson. "The Holodeck just opens the doors to additional contacts which in turn leads to new ideas and richer experiences."

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