When Luciane Castilho declares: “Olá classe,” her students at Rutgers University-Newark crack open their books and laptops and begin conversing in Portuguese.
Some 30 miles away, students at Rutgers University-New Brunswick respond “Olá” and jump right into the conversation.
“Professor Castilho might seem like she’s far away in Newark, but as far as we’re concerned, she’s right here interacting with us in New Brunswick,” says Maximiliano Goiz, a School of Arts and Sciences senior who took Castilho’s course, "Portuguese for Business and Commerce," in the spring 2015 semester.
Indeed, from their classroom at the Institute for Global Languages, where a 12-foot-long video screen nearly covers one of the walls, Goiz and the other New Brunswick students were able to fully participate in the class as it unfolded in real time from Newark. They could make eye contact with their Newark counterparts, raise their hands and be called upon, and hear every nuance and inflection of Castilho’s expert Portuguese dialect.
This high-definition exchange was accomplished through an innovative video conferencing system set up in both locations, allowing both the Newark and the New Brunswick students to seamlessly interact with each other.
The overall effect was startling in its clarity, as if the two groups were communicating across adjoining classrooms.
“When the teacher calls your name, she’s right there, and you have to engage,” says Goncalves, a 2015 SAS graduate who minored in Portuguese.
The system, called VideoWall, was developed by the Department of Computer Science in SAS with a vision for fostering unprecedented connection and collaboration across the expanse of the Rutgers community, everything from bridging the campuses in New Jersey to helping researchers communicate across continents.
“Rutgers is not only diverse in people, we’re diverse in the geography that we cover,” says Doug Motto, a project manager in the department who helped design the system. “Rutgers is global, and what we’re trying to do is to increase interactions between groups across that global expanse.”
Motto and computer science professor Richard Martin developed the system over the last two years.
“The goal is really to make distance irrelevant,” Martin said. “Ideally, you should walk into the room and interact people and not notice that the wall is there.”
While various communications technologies have emerged to connect remote users, Motto says the Rutgers system, consisting of off-the-shelf consumer electronics tied together by sophisticated software developed by the department, is unique in its relative low cost, ease of use, and sharp resolution.
“You can just walk in and use this system,” he said. “You don’t have to wear a wireless microphone or a have a special whiteboard. It’s made for the average person.”
Castilho, who has taught languages for 20 years, said she was impressed by her experience. During the very first class of the semester, she arranged the seats in her room at Newark so that she and her students were seated facing the cameras so they would be facing the New Brunswick students.
“The way I planned the course was for New Brunswick to be interacting with Newark all the time,” she said. “Brazil has a growing tech industry, so I wanted the course to be very active, very busy, with sales presentations and negotiations going back and forth.
“With the VideoWall, this all became very realistic and very lifelike.”
New Brunswick students, meanwhile, said they appreciated the connection to Newark, with the city’s rich Portuguese and Brazilian culture. They also were able to take a course normally not offered New Brunswick, and receive credit toward their degree.
“I thought this was a great opportunity to interact with the Portuguese department in Newark," says Jenifer Elizondo.
It’s precisely those opportunities for exchange, Motto says, that make VideoWall valuable and increase its appeal across Rutgers.
This fall the Political Science Department has begun using the system in its new United Nations and Global Studies MA program, which holds classes in New Brunswick and Manhattan. This project earned funding support from the SAS Entrepreneurial Award Program. Meanwhile, the Department of Psychology on Busch Campus is using the system to hold joint seminars with the Aidekman Research Center in Newark.
“This technology gives students access to the wealth of Rutgers,” Motto says. “And the wealth of Rutgers is its people.”