I am often asked what it takes to create a successful telepresence experience. Usually, I respond with requirements like: a high-speed network, great lighting, good acoustic space and the right equipment. However, after a trip I took late last year, I’m going to add “stable power” to the list, and here’s why.
In late 2011, my customer The Hershey Company – you may have heard of them – invited me to be involved with a new project they were kicking off with the goal to enrich the education of underprivileged youth in both the U.S. and Ghana. Hershey wanted to create a common, virtual classroom so 80 elementary students could learn together based on a curriculum developed by teachers in both Hershey, Pennsylvania, and Ghana. The obstacle they faced was how to connect the students, which ultimately led to my visit to Ghana.
Throughout the summer of 2012, I worked with the Hershey Telepresence support team to equip a space at the Milton S. Hershey Foundation headquarters with a C90 codec, two Precision HD cameras, an AudioScience Microphone array, a document camera and some displays. The plan was to duplicate this setup at the Assin Fosu school in Ghana. The ever-revealing reality of a “less than ideal” environment for telepresence required scaling back the Ghana design to an SX20 codec, one display, two microphones and a document camera. The endpoints at both locations were then registered to a VCS Expressway to enable firewall traversal and easy connections across the public Internet.
I’ve been on many trips that have led to great memories, but I can easily say this trip to Ghana was life changing. When I arrived at the school in Ghana, I connected my personal E20 video phone to the school’s network and made a few test calls back to Cisco colleagues and the Hershey IT director. While these initial calls were successful, the network connection sub-par for a learning experience. The next several days of the trip were spent working with the local carrier to improve the quality.
I’ll never forget the headmaster of Assin Fosu’s reaction to our first successful network connection. He was overcome with emotion seeing the students huddled around me, instantly interacting with Hershey Foundation staff back in Pennsylvania. After taking a few moments for silent reflection, he wholeheartedly thanked me for what we had just done for his students. I knew the best was yet to come.
Finally, the much anticipated day of the first class had arrived, and we got off to quite a start! The school lost power five minutes into the first session and we had to revert to a portable generator, but watching the students in Ghana and Hershey interact made it all worth it. All it took was a vision and a team of dedicated people to open doors that these students had never imagined were possible.
The attitude I had when I started this journey was that it was going to be a “once in a lifetime” opportunity. By the end of my first week in Ghana, I knew I would be returning; I just wasn’t quite sure when or how. I’m happy to report that the distance learning program has been so successful that Hershey just announced its plans to extend it through the end of 2013. This semester, teachers are encouraging students in Hershey and Ghana to lead discussions based on topics of interest that they’ve researched, creating an even more collaborative learning environment.
I am committed to continuing to work with the organizations that made this telepresence experience possible and look forward to my next visit to Ghana. Stay tuned for another update coming soon!