Wharton and Cisco unveil new ‘connected classrooms’

A floor-to-ceiling projection screen.

A handful of wall-mounted TVs.

That uneasy feeling of forgetting which coast you’re on.

Welcome to the business school classroom of the future, brought to you by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and tech giant Cisco Systems.

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“We just demonstrated the first ever TelePresence classroom,” said Wharton’s Karl Ulrich, “in which two classrooms, one in Philadelphia and one in San Francisco, are connected virtually.”

How it works

Each classroom is outfitted with multiple cameras that send full HD quality video with virtually no lag time. An instructor takes to the whiteboard on one coast and is then beamed, slightly larger than life, to the other, appearing on a massive projection screen at the front of the room.

At the back of the room, the wall-mounted monitors show a live-feed of the students on the other side of the continent.

Everyone can see, and hear, everyone else.

“We can take two student groups, one in San Francisco, one in Philadelphia, and give them a shared classroom experience,” said Ulrich, the school’s vice dean of innovation.

From business to academics

The technology behind Wharton’s new “Cisco Connected Classrooms” is already widely adopted in corporate America. Roughly 80 percent of Fortune 500 companies use TelePresence, according to Cisco officials.

Wharton is now the first school to deploy the technology in an academic setting, but it doesn’t come cheap. The basic classroom set-up at Wharton costs about $250,000. The connected classrooms also feature tens of thousands more in special equipment. And that doesn’t include the labor involved in getting them ready. (Update: “We would expect that adding telepresence to a classroom costs about that much [about $250,000] again, including all associated gear and installation,” writes Ulrich.)

“We’ve worked together with them for over a year, meeting twice weekly, to put this solution in place,” Wharton’s Ulrich said of the partnership with Cisco. “I think the end result is something better than if they were just to imagine what their [future academic] customers might want.”

The school initially plans to use the technology about once a week for special sessions or seminars. As faculty in Philadelphia and San Francisco become more comfortable with the new systems, Ulrich says the rooms could be used every couple of days.

The goal, says Ulrich, is to provide Wharton students with the best of both campuses — Silicon Valley’s unique brand of entrepreneurship and Philadelphia’s strengths in the world of finance.

“If we can find ways to stitch together an educational experience that takes the best from different geographic locations, we can enhance that experience for all of our students,” Ulrich said.

Based on Monday’s unveiling, that stitching appears quite seamless.

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