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Video conferencing platform connects California university campuses

To keep up with the changing culture of video communications, California State University adopted Zoom to better connect students and faculty and create a more connected campus.

The popularity of video communication has led organizations to look for video conferencing platforms that can boost productivity and improve workflows. Higher education is no exception, as colleges and universities are looking to improve student and faculty communication.

As part of its commitment to furthering education with technology, California State University needed a video platform with a forward-thinking approach to both learning and communication for its faculty and students.

CSU partnered with Zoom Video Communications Inc. five years ago to provide video-enabled communication across its 23 campuses. CSU has issued more than 40,000 Zoom licenses to around 20,000 students and faculty using the platform across the university.

In this Q&A, Michael Berman, CSU's chief innovation officer and deputy CIO of the chancellor's office, explains how the university's commitment to the integration of technology and education necessitated a video conferencing platform that provided quality, reliability and flexibility.

The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

What issues were you trying to solve for students and staff when looking for a video conferencing tool?

Michael Berman: Choosing a new video conferencing platform came out of a need for a transition from traditional video conference technology.

CSU has a long history of using video technology, like Polycom systems and room-based technology that goes back 20 years. We'd had mixed success in the past; there were a lot of issues with location since most of the technology was room-based. Video was being used, but it was niche and, overall, unsatisfactory.

About five or six years ago, as people were moving to IP technology, there was an initiative in the university to select a better product. Our tech leaders looked at the market and, while Zoom was new, it was still the preference for most of the group.

Zoom was the clear favorite because of its simplicity. It also provided quality audio and video across a large number of platforms, which was essential knowing the many ways our students and faculty access technology.

We started with a contract for 21 of our campuses and moved to deploy it across all 23 sites. The overall goal was to support campus collaboration and replace the tools of the classroom by providing better technology.

What video conferencing platforms did you use previously?

Berman: We used a lot of different systems in the past. We had proprietary systems [and] Polycom systems. We were using Webex Blackboard and Adobe Connect, as well.

Some small pockets are still using older technology, but even most of our old AT&T audio conferencing has been replaced by Zoom.

What evaluation criteria did you use when looking for a video conferencing platform?

Berman: It needed to be easy to use with high-quality audio. We wanted something with a light footprint on the desktop that was easy to install while supporting a consistent, quality user experience.

Accessibility was another big one for us; about two-thirds of our students and faculty use Windows and one-third use Macs. We wanted something that could provide an equal user experience on both platforms. We also wanted to make sure we had the same quality experience for those using mobile devices.

On top of the user experience, we wanted something that was cost-sensitive and included enterprise tools for management, like single sign-on. We wanted a platform that would be Section 508-compliant, something Zoom worked to achieve.

How have the students and faculty responded to Zoom?

Berman: By and large, we've seen a great response. Use is growing exponentially across our campuses, and it's proven to be a very positive and well-received tool.

When I was first testing Zoom, I gave out 50 trial licenses. When I had requests to try it from more people, I sent out an email asking if anyone wasn't using Zoom and could send back the trial license. I got an immediate response from users asking that I not take away their license. It was an especially strong response from faculty and staff.

We've tried myriad different tools with students, but the response has been very quick to move to using Zoom. The commitment to online learning is strengthening relationships between faculty and students. Having a high-quality connection makes a difference for group meetings, as more meaningful and productive work can get done.

Which features are getting the most use?

Berman: Camera-on meetings are the most popular feature. Some of the tools we used previously supported video as an afterthought, which made it hard to select the right camera. Zoom is far superior in its support of video culture. Now, on conference calls, it's very common for most participants to have video enabled; very few just call in with audio.

Overall, it's created a cultural change and a quality change. With fewer face-to-face meetings needed, Zoom is improving efficiency by cutting out travel time between buildings on campus and between the campuses themselves.

We've also been able to use Zoom in emergency cases, such as wildfires and the shooting in Thousand Oaks [Calif.] When the wildfires cancelled the CSU Channel Island theater students' production of In the Heights, Zoom was used to deliver the good news that they would be able to attend a speaking engagement for [In the Heights creator] Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Many of our faculty have moved to using Zoom for their office hours, which is allowing more students to log time with their professors and is especially helpful for our commuter students. Zoom has also opened our faculty [up] to be able to have meetings during off hours.

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