PULLMAN – In a statewide organization such as WSU Extension, connections with customers and colleagues are critical to program success and sustainability. In the past, that has meant travel – by car, by plane, and in some cases, by ferry – to conduct business. Increasingly, however, technology – in the form of video teleconferencing – is replacing the need to fly or drive around the state for meetings.

“Teleconferencing is a winning situation on a number of levels,” said Linda Kirk Fox, associate vice president and dean of WSU Extension. “We save taxpayer dollars, reduce our carbon footprint, save employee time and still provide the statewide connections so vital to the work we’re about.”

 WSU Extension, the outreach arm of WSU, has offices in each of the state’s 39 counties. With a primary mission to bring WSU research and other programs to the entire state, WSU Extension educators located in remote areas have to stay connected to the “mother ship” in Pullman as well as to colleagues offering similar programs throughout Washington. As a result, WSU Extension has led the way in creating and expanding the use of technology as a means of connection. Working with the WSU College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, it created the Washington Educational Conferencing Network in the late 1990s and managed the system until this year. WECN now is an arm of WSU Integrated Media Services with dozens of locations throughout the state, primarily at WSU Extension offices and learning centers. The system allows individuals at a variety of locations to “meet” by video – they can see, hear and talk with each other as well as share documents, Web sites and other materials. “WSU Extension has leveraged the power of this technology for a decade,” Fox said. “It has become a critical tool in our ability to operate efficiently and effectively.”

High gas prices, and even higher airline prices, have sparked a marked increase in the number of video conferences held. The number of WECN sessions has jumped from 3,208 events in 2007 to nearly 3,700 so far in 2008 with an additional 600 events scheduled for November and December. Today’s economic conditions and tight budgets have cemented the place of videoconferencing in Extension business.

An average video conference costs approximately $90 to conduct, an average teleconference just $60. That is a fraction of the cost of flying or driving from Seattle to Pullman, not to mention employee travel time, lodging and meals. The environmental benefits of having one fewer vehicle on the road are an added bonus.

“It is important to understand the benefits and overall cost savings that video and teleconferencing provide to WSU,” said Viji Murali, vice president of Information Services and chief information officer for WSU. “The WECN facilities have seen a significant increase in usage over the last couple of months and we anticipate that trend to continue. Using this technology to carry out business across the state without the added expense of traveling means a great deal to WSU.”