Distance learning programs are rapidly increasing in popularity as colleges and universities try to reach a wider array of students. Potential students scattered around the globe generally select a school that is geographically continent because they cannot relocate simply to attend school. Additionally, part-time graduate students find it difficult to attend class on a weekly basis due to work commitments, child care coordination, and the plethora of other things that come up in their busy lives.

Unfortunately, even though distance learning programs are growing in popularity, many continue to lack the interactive experience that facilitates true learning. For example, two years ago I took an accounting class online to fulfill one of the requirements for my MBA. The class consisted of self-paced video tutorials, online message boards where we were required to discuss current events related to accounting and an online chat room where we could ask our professor questions about our homework assignments in real time.

The video tutorials were essentially PowerPoint slides with sound clips; however, I found myself having to replay sections three or four times because my mind would start wandering to other things. It is extremely difficult to focus on a static slide with a voice over because there is nothing to grab your attention. In a traditional classroom, you are able to see the professor’s facial expressions and movements around the classroom which helps focus your attention on what the professor is saying.

Furthermore, trying to ask and answer questions over chat was quite frustrating, especially for a math based class. It is extremely hard to articulate a mathematical process without a visual representation of the steps and the numbers. Often times it would take twenty to thirty minutes just to get one difficult question answered because the professor was having difficulty understand exactly what question I was asking.

At the end of the class, I was very disappointed in the experience as I felt I did not learn as much as I could have. Face-to-face interaction is a critical component of the learning experience and therefore needs to be integrated into distance learning programs before these programs can truly rival traditional classroom-based programs.

The good news is video conferencing solutions can help bridge this gap by creating a virtual classroom. With cloud-based meeting rooms, a professor can simulate a traditional classroom environment with lectures and interactive discussions. Students only need a webcam to join and can connect to the classroom with Skype, Google Video Chat or even their browser!

The professor can then easily present a topic, call on raised hands to answer questions and even see when students are not paying attention. After the lecture, the professor can facilitate an interactive discussion among students since they are able to see the professor as well as other students simultaneously.

Integrating video conferencing solutions into the curriculum can not only help address many of the distance learning challenges but allow colleges and universities to find a renewed efficiency and effectiveness within their operations.

Stay tuned for more ways to integrate video into educational programs!

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Video conferencing uses span across nearly every industry and profession. When it comes to staying connected with both internal and external contacts, there is no better way to maintain communication and provide the highest level of customer service. When it comes to sales, utilizing every avenue available to differentiate oneself is critical to closing that next big sale. Previously we have discussed the merits of video conferencing as a tool for sales professionals who work directly with customers. But another key area to apply the power of video is the internal management of sales within any organization.

Sales managers across a variety of industries struggle with similar challenges; including managing a team of sales professionals, providing timely and accurate forecast data to upper management, as well as being able to mentor and contribute to each rep’s success. Let’s look at how video can be used in these key areas.

Forecasting

One of the most challenging aspects of managing a sales team and sales effort is receiving accurate forecast data from the sales team as well as reporting the most accurate forecast to upper management. Video conferencing provides a far better way to work with remote reps on this critical business area. In many organizations, reps provide their forecasts electronically through a CRM or other tool.

These numbers may be discussed via a phone call with a manager before submittal but sometimes they only live electronically. Even in those situations where a manager and rep discuss the numbers, it can be hard to read the sales rep’s demeanor and overall confidence in the numbers. When these forecast calls are elevated to video, non-verbal cues can help the manager quickly ascertain if the forecast is based on solid information or purely on conjecture. Armed with that “truth” the manager will be able to provide forecasts that are based on reality.

Internal Teams

Another challenge a sales rep must overcome is the need to rely on different teams within an organization to provide the products and services they are tasked to sell. Especially in a technical sale, sales reps are required to call upon engineers and other subject matter experts to help explain products and services, define pricing and scopes of work, as well as give the customer more in-depth technical presentations. In many cases, these subject matter experts must be flown to different locations (thus increasing the cost of sales). With video, sales can easily communicate internally with the SMEs on what they need to move the sale forward and can also bring a customer into a video meeting to help sell the value of the organization’s technical expertise.

Sales Training

How does an organization keep its sales team updated on the latest product and service developments without taking the team away from the business of selling? Video conferencing can provide a way to do short, specific training sessions with sales reps, no matter where they are located. Instead of requiring the team to come into one location for an extended period of trainings and updates, information can be disseminated in smaller sessions, more frequently. Even better, a sales rep would only have to take an hour or two out of their schedule and they can return to selling as soon as possible.

Video conferencing has the power to transform a sales team into an incredibly efficient and profitable machine. When sales is more prepared, better connected, and held even more accountable, the results can only increase an organization’s bottom line!

Trust is an integral component of any relationship whether it’s with a spouse, close friend, colleague or business partner. It’s also an integral part of effective collaboration. Picture yourself in two scenarios; one meeting where you do not know anyone, the other where you know everybody at the table. In the first scenario, you’re a little more reserved since you’re worried about making a good first impression. You want to come off as intelligent rather than foolish and might keep some ideas to yourself since you don’t want to sound stupid.

In the second scenario, you are much more relaxed because you’ve already developed a rapport with the meeting participants. As a result, you freely express your ideas, even the ones that seem a little crazy because sometimes the craziest ideas turn out to be the most profitable. Unfortunately, building and maintaining trust in a virtual environment can be difficult; especially since the need for establishing trust is either overlooked or deemed a waste of time.

In an HBR webinar, How Virtual Teams Can Outperform Traditional Teams, Keith Ferrazzi discusses the importance of trust and how the development of strong bonds can enable a virtual team to actually outperform a traditional team. There are three different kinds of distance that can affect teams. The first is physical distance, or geographic proximity. The second is operational distance, such as different priorities, incentive structures or other projects that prevent the team from connecting.

The third, and most important, is affinity distance which is the level of familiarity or commitment among team members. Essentially, it is level of trust or the bonds developed between team members that allow them to truly connect. Ferrazzi states, “Affinity is the trump card – the thing that really matters. High affinity distance can sink a physically proximate team. On the flip side, with high affinity, physical distance doesn’t much matter.”

So how can organization enable high levels of affinity among teams?

Video conferencing plays a major role as it allows team members to see facial expressions and other nuances that can help build trust. Additionally, it is important for individuals to view their team members as actual people and get to know each other on a personal level. Ferrazzi suggests scheduling time for personal chit-chat at the beginning of a meeting or support a favorite charity like the ASPCA as a team, something that can foster a community spirit.

Relating this back to my own experiences, I work on team initiatives all of the time and have forged many relationships within IVCi. Recently a large group of our organization was in town for a meeting and I was talking to several people when we both realized we had never actually been in the same room before. We have met countless times over video and thanks to the relationship we have forged, the need to be physically present just faded away. It was rather ironic to say “nice to meet you” for the first time when we have been partners for over three years!

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, now dubbed Superstorm Sandy, many organizations are taking a second look at their business continuity plan. This storm knocked out power to over 90% of Long Island and all of lower Manhattan leaving many businesses vulnerable. New York is a major hub, as well as a headquarters for many corporations so losing power for an extended period of time can have drastic effects throughout an entire corporation.

For example, if an organization’s video conferencing and unified communications infrastructure was hosted at a site with zero power, the entire organization would have been unable to use the tools. In New York, contingency plans failed as backup generators were destroyed due to unprecedented flooding; plus a gas shortage left many without the fuel necessary to run their generators.

The results can be damaging for any organization. While customers in the surrounding area will be more than sympathetic, customers located thousands of miles away may not be as understanding. Why should a natural disaster in New York affect customer service in California or Tokyo? Therefore, it extremely important to have multiple layers of redundancy built in to an organization’s platform.

With our headquarters on Long Island, IVCi faced several challenges from flooding and impassable roads to neighborhood destruction and more downed power lines than one should ever see. However, multiple contingency plans prevented our Managed Video Experience (MVE) customers from missing a single meeting. Temporary operations centers were set up and customers were able to communicate with our MVE team via public IM or an alternate telephone number until power was restored to our headquarters location.

Cloud services provide an additional layer of security as infrastructure is typically hosted in multiple state-of-the-art data centers in multiple locations. If one data center goes down, there are still several others to handle the load of video meetings. IVCi hosts the infrastructure for MVE across the country and the world. Data centers are designed to withstand storms and power outages like those presented with Sandy. As a result of this, IVCi was able to immediately move into redundancy mode and continue to serve our customers.

Additionally, the MVE team proactively reached out to sites that were located in the North East and offered free use of our Mobility Experience which allowed individuals affected by a loss of power to connect to a video conference via their smartphone or tablet. As a result, every single meeting scheduled since Sandy terrorized our town continued as originally planned.

If your organization was in the path of Sandy, did your video conferencing go down? Were you able to continue business operations despite the storm? Bottom line, IVCi’s MVE provides a consistent, uninterrupted experience. Video conferencing has become a mission critical application within organizations and cloud services can ensure continuity no matter what the circumstances may be.

This week Apple announced that it had sold three million iPads since the launch of the iPad Mini and the new fourth generation iPad. What is particularly interesting, especially from a video conferencing perspective, is that both of these devices feature 720p cameras on the front.

With recent trends around mobile devices and extending the reach of video, many have suggested that quality can take a backseat to mobility and accessibility. Over the last year or so, the major limitations of video conferencing with mobile devices have been the camera and the network connectivity.

For example, while 3G networking has been widespread the real-life speeds are relatively slow.  Plus, the response rate of these network connections interrupts the steady flow of data hampering the transfer of high quality of video.  As a result, video calls are frequently interrupted, freeze up or simply drop out creating a frustrating experience for all participants.

While Wi-Fi increases the quality, many of these mobile devices have low resolution cameras on the front.  This also diminishes the quality of a video call by providing a grainy image instead of the clear image many have come to expect with HD video conferencing.

The release of several Android smart phones and the iPhone 5 has made 4G more prevalent. “True” 4G provides bandwidth over 10x the speed of 3G, in addition to a faster response (or latency). In many areas, 4G can actually be faster than a cable or DSL connection in markets providing a superior experience.

Wireless carries in the United States have recognized the value and increased throughput of 4G and continue to invest billions in expanding their 4G coverage. Just this week T-Mobile and Sprint announced major investments in their network infrastructure; but AT&T announced the largest with a $14 billion expansion.

So what does all of this mean to the video conferencing user? Really it’s the best of both worlds. High quality video conferencing is more accessible than ever before as mobile users now have multiple options to join video meetings. Once relegated to dialing in over audio, the road warrior can now be fully involved. Even more astonishing, is that the mobile user will no longer have to sacrifice quality to reap all of the benefits of visual collaboration.  As a result, the ubiquity of video is well on its way.