Florida International University (FIU) in Miami, Florida is a public  research university founded in 1965. Like many institutions of higher education, in the late 90s FIU pursued distance learning and video conferencing solutions to increase connectivity and access between their main campus and extension campuses throughout Florida.

Since the late 90s, FIU’s utilization of VTC solutions has grown and now encompasses the Marriott Tianjin China program- hosting a $100 million dollar facility, funded by the Chinese government- located in Tianjin. This impressive program enables American students to study abroad at the Tianjin facility, and allows Chinese students to have access to world class hospitality management faculty via video teleconferencing (VTC) solutions.

Recently, the Public Sector View editorial staff had the opportunity to talk to Professor Dale Gomez, the Director of University Computer Systems at FIU, who works closely with the school’s FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism. Here is what he had to say: 

Dale_GomezPublic Sector View (PSV): Can you talk a little bit about FIU’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management’s program- The Marriott Tianjin China Program? How many students does the program have the potential to reach, how many has it reached thus far? 

Dale Gomez (DG): Florida International University has been offering the tourism and hospitality degree since 1972. In terms of what we’ve done in China, it was initially negotiated back in 2003 between our administration and the Chinese government, specifically the Tianjin Municipal government in China, to offer a hospitality degree.

The motivation at the time was for Chinese students to earn an American degree but also to prepare individuals to work in tourism and hospitality for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. That was the initial impetus to get an American program in China. The value for Chinese students, ultimately, was to earn an American degree but also to learn from and have access to FIU’s world class instructors.

We opened the Tianjin facility in 2006. Our first graduating class had 21 students; now we have approximately 1,200 students in the program. It is one of the largest on-the-ground American programs in China at this time.

One aspect we have been trying to amplify is connectivity for an increase in speed and quality of the connections. As a result, we negotiated with China’s education technology network, CERNET. These negotiations have translated into us having access to the 10 gig pipeline between the US and China. And, with this increase in connectivity, we are able to consistently offer high quality distance learning courses.

It has been a lot of fun. Our biggest hurdle- one we will never get over- is the fact that our Chinese students are 12 hours ahead of us. As a result, most of our sessions are at the extremes of the day- either in the early morning or late at night.

15432509247_1d4fe29853_oPSV: How long has this program been running and what encouraged FIU to implement VTC solutions?

DG: Well, let’s go back a little farther than 2003.

FIU has multiple campuses in Florida. The big motivation initially for VTC was to transmit from our two main campuses to our smaller extension campuses like  our partnership location down in St. Petersburg, FL. That was the big push in the late 90s to early 2000s for videoconferencing. Then, of course, we extended that to include our program in China.

It really is a caveat for Chinese students to have access to American instructors. And, if we can’t fly the instructor out there to our location in China due to their schedule or budget concerns, VTC allows us to facilitate that need by having our world class instructors transmit their courses to China. It could be synchronous or asynchronous, where students are accessing lessons on-demand via a learning management system.

PSV: What types of video conferencing equipment do you all utilize for these connections? Is there an on-demand or mobile component for students to access class materials and lectures after the fact? 

DG: The Hospitality and Tourism program has its own buildings. Within the classrooms we run, we have 100 percent course capture capability. We can do something as simple as using course capture- where the instructor can capture their course content- to utilizing caveat systems within the building that allow us to then use a VTC solution in order to transmit.

The VTC solution that we use is Polycom. We have eight-to-ten HDX 8000 systems to transmit our courses synchronously to other VTC rooms or appliances. With the course capture capability in all of our rooms, we then provide basic delivery via on-demand.

A great deal of our faculty have taken to it. They love the fact that they can record their sessions and post them onto Blackboard, our learning management system. And, then of course we can transmit the courses. With this system, it is asynchronous streaming where just about anyone can tap into the class.

PSV: In a recent article, it was shared that FIU students were able to make a connection to Martha Stewart via VTC. Can you talk a little about the event and perhaps similar events that you all have planned for the future?

15432521697_b8e84a940b_oDG: Martha Stewart was the MC for our 2014 Food Network & Cooking Channel South Beach Wine & Food Festival (SOBE) presented by FOOD & WINE.  We tied the opening of our Wine Spectator Restaurant Management Lab with the event and Martha came out to MC. We captured her appearance and then broadcasted it to students.

We’ve done a number of events in our restaurant since then. A few weeks ago, in fact, we hosted the American Fine Wine Competition in our Wine Spectator Restaurant Management Lab. We used a smart room to connect with others in Napa Valley, CA where they had some high profile wine connoisseurs judging wines remotely. They had the wines in Napa; we had the same wines here as well. And, we had this interactive connection with high profile sommeliers. It was an incredible experience.

We’ve had other local celebrity chefs come by as well. Like Allen Susser, a graduate of our program, he owns several restaurants and has been featured on the Food Network. We’ve also had Michelle Bernstein, another Food Network star.  We’ve had some pretty high-profile guests as a result of our connection to the Food Network for the SOBE Festival, drumming up a great deal of support for FIU in that area.

The funny thing is- we are not a culinary school. We are a management school. But, we have this strong culinary management aspect that is enhanced by the festival and also our distance learning program in China. Despite our not being a culinary school, our relationships with such high class companies has enabled us to build these world class facilities, like our smart rooms and the restaurant management lab.

Additionally, student access to celebrity chefs, for many of them, culminates with the SOBE Festival. Because the Food Network is involved- all those celebrity chefs- people like Rachel Ray and Emeril Lagasse– are involved and our students get to interact with them, if not in person at the festival then via VTC.

PSV: What benefits do you see for students and faculty through utilizing VTC for these programs?

students restaurant lab-5804DG: One benefit is we can reach out to more students using video conferencing. Using these specific technologies, if students can’t be present in the classroom, they are present virtually using these video conferencing systems.

The other benefit would be budgetary. The fact that we can have faculty here in Miami transmit anywhere in the world without having to fly them out, without having to be on location; it really helps with our outreach in terms of connecting more and more students to our facility.

And, it helps with events we host as well, like the SOBE Festival and the American Fine Wine Competitions, I mentioned earlier. Those are two good examples of events that we’ve hosted where we had participants present and interacting virtually, using video conferencing systems.

Video and technology in general is changing education and the college experience is far from what it was 20 years ago. For example, a big driver in changing higher education is the concept of a flipped classroom, where instructors capture their lectures and make them available to students on-demand. Then, during class time students and instructors will work on interactive  projects and assignments together. No longer will there be a talking head in the classroom- with the flipped classroom concept.

At FIU, to explore the flipped classroom model, we built a room where the circumference of the room is wrapped with interactive  screens, and the room is furnished with modular furniture. The professor can then design the layout however they’d like and students can come in and take advantage of the interactive screens. So far, students and faculty alike are applauding  flipped classrooms and are eager to continue exploring these types of instructional models that utilize  advanced video and screen technologies.

Flipped classrooms and video conferencing are just two ways that advancements in video technology have truly changed how we interact, learn and connect- not just in the US but globally as well.

To learn more about the amazing things VTC can deliver to institutions of higher education, download our white paper, “Four Reasons Why Higher Education Institutions Should Be Investing in Video Technology,” by clicking here