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Wharton-Cisco Learning Initiative Credit: Sam Sherman , Sam Sherman

Wharton is using technology to bring students 3,000 miles apart into one classroom.

On Monday, the Wharton School and Cisco Systems, Inc. jointly unveiled for the first time the new “Cisco Connected Classroom” in Huntsman Hall with a live demonstration of the telepresence technology. The idea is to connect the San Francisco and Philadelphia campuses in a seamless manner, allowing students and professors to interact as if they were in the same space. Wharton hopes to pilot the technology this semester to hold joint conferences, with 10 bicoastal courses planned at the San Francisco location for the fall.

“One of the things that’s exciting about being at a university is the vitality of interaction,” Karl Ulrich, vice dean of innovation at Wharton, said. One of the concerns is figuring out “how to preserve, maintain and enhance the central interaction … that seems to happen here at Huntsman Hall.”

The Wharton School partnered with Cisco around 18 months ago to develop the telepresence technology for use in an educational setting, and is the first school to utilize the technology in this form.

The classroom — JMHH F90 — is equipped with a floor-to-ceiling screen at the front of the classroom, and smaller screens at the side and back of the room. As Wharton is the first school to pilot the technology, the costs are still relatively high, with up to half a million dollars spent on one classroom. However, as the technology develops, costs are expected to go down.

At the start of the demonstration, as the two campuses were connected, Ulrich waved to the screens at the back of the classroom, which showed rows of students sitting in an almost identical classroom in San Francisco. The idea is to “add the equivalent of three rows of seating in the classroom,” he said.

The technology can also work the other way, with the San Francisco classroom in teaching mode and the Philadelphia classroom in receiving mode.

In the receiving mode, a high-definition, floor-to-ceiling screen was lowered at the front of the Huntsman classroom, and a life-size image of Inder Sidhu, senior vice president of Strategy and Planning and Worldwide Operations at CISCO — who was physically standing in the San Francisco classroom — was projected on the screen.

Sidhu interacted with and spoke directly to members sitting in both the San Francisco and Philadelphia classrooms. He explained that the video feed is broadcasted in real time, with four ceiling microphones picking up and transmitting the audio.

To enrich lectures, video feeds of outside experts can be brought up on the screen to speak to the class. This will also allow Wharton to expand its community internationally, through connecting classrooms in faraway locations such as its planned facility in China.

“Any expert, in any part of the world, can be brought full high definition into the classroom,” Sidhu said.

The technology also has the potential to bring in alumni to participate in the experience.

“In San Francisco, we have almost 1,000 alumni, so drawing them back to the Wharton-San Francisco facility, to engage with students here on campus in Philadelphia is very attractive in both directions,” Don Huesman, managing director of the Innovation Group at the Wharton School, said.

Other features of this technology include one-touch recording to enable professors to easily navigate the control panel to start and record the bicoastal lecture.

Students will also be able to access lectures more conveniently. Cisco has developed a unique technology to automatically find keywords in the lectures and index the recording accordingly to make different segments of a recording searchable. These recordings are also available for students to view on various electronic devices, such as laptops and tablets.

Wharton and Cisco plan to continually improve and adapt the technology for users through this partnership. Huesman pointed to small planned adjustments, such as making the classroom settings on both coasts identical and making the audio directionally relevant, to “get people to willingly suspend this belief” that they are in the same classroom.

As a school pioneering the use of the new telepresence technology, Wharton ultimately hopes to merge communities through a shared experience.

“At Wharton I think we recognize that education in general is changing … in terms of opportunities for technology,” Tom Robertson, dean of the Wharton School, said. “We’re very much committed to that and we intend to be at the forefront of innovation moving forward.”

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