New ‘Telepresence Room’ Brings World to Bowdoin

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Bowdoin has finished building a high-tech “telepresence” classroom in the Hawthorne-Library’s Media Commons to link students here to university classrooms around the world.

Last year, Bowdoin was awarded a $925,000 Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to bolster its Russian curriculum. One of the ways the College decided to do this was by using communications technology to forge a virtual connection with Yale’s Slavic studies program. But the technology’s potential for the campus reaches well beyond the Russian department.

The telepresence room has been fitted with audio-sensitive cameras, high-definition screens, and interactive whiteboards. Starting this spring, Bowdoin students in the room will be able to interact with far-off professors and other students as if they were in the room with them, according to Grace Garland, Bowdoin’s director of corporate and foundation relations

“Telepresence rooms and high-definition teleconferencing are designed to be highly interactive and scaled toward smaller class sizes,” explained Garland, who is overseeing the project. “Students [at other schools] report that they quickly feel like they’re in a regular classroom.”

While Russian will be telepresence room’s pilot program, the room will make it possible for Bowdoin students to engage in all sorts of subjects outside of the College’s current class offerings, including the study of different languages.

Associate Professor of Russian Alyssa Gillespie, who is chair of Russian Department, is spearheading the telepresence project with Rita Safariants, Bowdoin’s new Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in Russian.

Professor Laura Henry, a Russian expert, pointed out that “the new technology offers a great opportunity for Bowdoin students to participate in advanced seminars — to have the essential experience of sitting around a table, discussing big ideas in Russian, even at times when we don’t have a critical mass of advanced Russian speakers at Bowdoin.” Henry teaches in the government and legal studies as Bowdoin’s John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Government.

Interim Dean of Academic Affairs Jen Scanlon said that while the telepresence room will enhance Bowdoin’s ability to teach Russian at all levels of the curriculum, she imagines “it will also, fairly quickly, become a central component of the library’s Media Commons and of faculty efforts in innovative teaching and learning across the disciplines.”

Director of Hawthorne-Longfellow Library Marjorie Hassen said she is pleased the telepresence room will be located in the Media Commons, where it will complement and extend the technology already available in the space. “Beyond support for the Russian program, the room will be bookable by faculty for videoconferencing or other uses that can take advantage of the technology, including multiple HD flat-panel monitors and a touch-screen, interactive panel,” she said.

After the polls close on Election Day, for example, the library hosted a “watch party” for students, staff, and faculty in the telepresence room so they could follow different news stations as voting results came in.

Besides being used for language instruction, Garland noted that the telepresence room will also allow classes to hold discussions with authors, playwrights, and artists. Students might speak to scientists working in field stations in the Arctic. The room could facilitate explorations of museum collections. Political studies students learning about, say, the Rwandan genocide might communicate with students in Rwanda. “We’re a geographically remote college but we’re educating global citizens,” Garland said.

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