Like Tupac at Coachella, one professor at the McCombs School of Business is beamed as a hologram before his audience.
This semester, Steve Limberg is teaching his executive MBA class in a studio while his hologram is projected before students in the classroom. The setup allows both him and his audience to interact in real time, while minimizing their exposure to the coronavirus.
Hologram Technology Launches Classroom of the Future | McCombs School of Business (youtube)
"This is an authentic experience because I can see all the gestures and the nuances that the students are expressing, whether it be raising a hand or nodding, and as a result, it really is very much like being right here in the classroom," Limberg said in a press release.
The accounting professor is the first adopter of the new product, called Recourse, from local company Contextual Content Group.
Formed late last year, CCG is focused on creating content using 5G technology. However, when the pandemic began, the company quickly shifted its focus to solving a new problem that had emerged: how to make distance learning engaging and effective.
"We really wanted to give professors and students a choice," CEO and Chairman Jim Spencer told Austonia. "That's what we've done."
Spencer is also a lecturer at UT's Moody College of Communication. After speaking to some fellow faculty members on campus, he realized CCG could help address the issues facing his colleagues.
A hologram—enabled by 5G's high bandwidth capacity and near real-time processing speed—achieved the university's goals of keeping professors safe while enhancing the online classroom experience and allowing for the possibility of expanded use across campus.
When Spencer told Joe Stephens, senior assistant dean at McCombs, his idea, Stephens had some questions but quickly got on board.
"We know hybrid delivery is something we're going to have to work through for a while because there's no flip of the switch back to normal," Stephens said.
Armed with a contract from the McCombs School of Business, CCG began prototyping the Recourse product and developing it based on feedback from professors.
"The team works around the clock, and there's just a tremendous amount of passion and enthusiasm to try to help solve a real problem at UT," Spencer said.
In mid-August, when the fall semester began, Limberg's hologram began teaching in the classroom while the real Limberg simultaneously lectured before cameras in a safe studio. Students asked him questions and received answers in real time.
Overall, the feedback has been positive, Stephens said. In addition to helping give students a positive in-person experience, the Recourse program has helped incoming McCombs students get to know their classmates—an experience that may otherwise have been lost given the pandemic.
"It kind of has this other benefit of creating community," Stephens said.
Both he and Spencer are hopeful that more professors—at UT as well as other universities—will join Limberg in adopting the Recourse product.
"We are set up and ready to go and can accommodate more schools and classes at UT," Spencer said.
McCombs Assistant Dean Joe Stephens said he is hopeful the Recourse program can be expanded to other classes next semester as well as other campuses. (Contextual Content Group)
CCG also envisions myriad post-pandemic applications for this product, including a second version that will use natural language processing technology and artificial intelligence to allow for a hologram on-demand.
As with many pandemic-era developments, the presence of a holographic professor at McCombs transitioned quickly from a novelty to an accepted norm.
"That's good," Stephens said. "There's not a distraction about it."
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