Editor’s Note: Sharing of experience is sometimes tenuous. This distance learning system as established and discussed is to be congratulated. Hopefully it will be possible to expand the productivity of the system by research into other similar systems such as the Stanford University Distance Learning system and the systems in operation within California State University.
Interactive Video Conference Technology:
Rationale and Suggestions
Limit the size of the group at the remote site.
IVCT is ideally for small groups of geographically dispersed students (Canning, 1999).
Use a microphone with a homing beacon
A microphone with a homing beacon worn by instructors and that is detected by a video camera in the room allows for the ‘tracking’ of the instructor visually and auditorily. This is important because remote students need to see and hear the linked classroom and the instructor also needs to see the remote audience clearly.
Tie the microphone into the video system
Tying microphones to the video camera targeting system facilitate interaction with minimum disruption.
Design rooms to help students to enter and leave without crossing in front of the camera (Deadman, Hall, Bain, Elliot and Dudycha 2000).
Placement of Video Cameras
Place video cameras away from the line of sight of the students in the classroom - preferably suspended from the ceiling or affixed to the walls of the room.
Limit staff movement
Placing a camera and microphone at a control station limits the lecturer’s roaming to the camera’s field of view and audible range for the microphone (Deadman, Hall, Bain, Elliot and Dudycha 2000).
Training of staff should not be limited to the operations of the instruments but include how to prepare quality learning material, proper planning of sessions, ways to improve presentation/teaching skills, voice technique and how to foster interaction between presenter and audience (Field, 1995).
One benefit of IVCT to students (already mentioned in the foregoing discussion) is that it provides learning opportunities to non-traditional groups, including those in geographically remote areas or those unable to gain access to learning due to time and location rigidities inherent within traditional tertiary education courses or family commitments (Canning, 1999). Students do learn via IVCT, for it facilitates interaction (Crawford, Sharpe, Gopinathan, Ngoh & Wong, 2002). Lea (2001) points out that interaction aids students’ learning because they draw from the learning of their peers when constructing their own knowledge. Freeman (1998) also encourages lecturers to build into their lectures more opportunity for students to ask and answer questions. There is also a social dimension to communication via IVCT. Freeman (1998) states that simple interactions, like seeing and waving to their cross campus colleagues during lectures, were seen by students as valuable. Also, organised competitions between campus groups during the lecture fostered interest and concentration and a sense of cross-campus interaction (Canning 1999).
The use of IVCT also facilitates equity in learning because no student group is advantaged because it has the ‘better lecturer’ or the lecturer who is running the subject and writing the exam (Freeman, 1998). Equally important is the fact that IVCT increases student motivation and better instructor-student and student-student communication about key concepts and skills (Bello, Knowlton & Chaffin, 2007)
Freeman (1998) and Field (1995) also identified a number of challenges in the use of IVCT as it pertains to students. This includes the fact that students at the remote site may treat lectures like a television session; they may be more likely to chat and walk in and out of the lecture, and these disruptive behaviours can affect students’ concentration and learning. This is exacerbated when lecturers are unable to control the remote group and are unable to identify disruptive students at the remote site.
Another challenge to students, especially at the remote site, is the reduction of personal and physical access to lecturers. For instance after a class, they are also unable to discuss important issues privately with lecturers. Some students also avoid making a valuable contribution because of the IVCT, and sometimes projecting their images makes them feel self-conscious. In addition, students at remote sites find it difficult to initiate interaction because they are not as easily seen or heard. A solution offered to these challenges is to alternate live lecturers between main and remote campuses which has negative cost implications and /or there may be the need for a chairman or coordinator at the remote site during each class acting as a teacher assistant.
Benefits of IVCT to staff involve the fact that it reduces the inconvenience of being away from their resources and they also gain incentives to be better prepared to meet students’ learning needs, which involve thinking about the needs of students at the remote site (Freeman 1998). IVCT also encourages staff to be more meta cognitively cognizant of the teaching and learning process (Bello, Knowlton & Chaffin, 2007), and lectures and presentations can be made without being physically present at the remote location (Field 1995)
Staff, however, found some aspect of IVCT challenging. For example, Canning (1999) points out a massive increase in stress or pressure caused by the issues related to working/teaching. Specifically, these issues include: a greater need to prepare materials and plan for effectively using them, a greater reliance on other people to make a lecture work, restriction on lecturing style, being restricted to a particular spot in the lecture hall, technical problems, difficulty in gauging how a presentation is being received, and in establishing some kind of rapport with those on the receiving end (Field 1995 and Freeman 1998).
As indicated in the preceding discussion, this literature survey points to the potential benefits and challenges of the use of IVCT in higher education all over the world; however, there are no known writings about the benefits and challenges of using this technology in the local context, that is, the University College of the Cayman Islands (UCCI). Additionally, there is no known formal written evaluation of the use of this technology at the college since it was installed and implemented in 2008. Therefore, to fill this literary gap and to evaluate its use locally, a study was carried out between September and October 2009.
The University College of the Cayman Islands is the state institution which provides a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. Currently, there are approximately 1300 students enrolled in the University College (this number includes students on the main campus and the remote site, Cayman Brac or the ‘Brac’). Since 2008 the University College has used IVCT to enable students on the neighbouring island of Cayman Brac to access courses. This occurrence fulfils a part of the University College mission statement, which is to be responsive to the needs of the local community.
Lecturers at the main campus who taught via IVCT, the IT coordinator, and the remote campus director (n=18) were interviewed via the college intranet email system. The response rate to the email interview was 77%. Students (n=30) at the remote site whose classes are facilitated by IVCT were asked to voluntarily complete an online questionnaire; the response to the questionnaire was close to 50%. To begin the data collection process, the surveys were developed and placed on a questionnaire web hosting site. The remote campus administrator and director were contacted and asked to direct students to the website. The hosting site webmaster developed a data collection system that funneled response data received from the respondents to a spreadsheet that could be manipulated during the data analysis process. All information received from the surveys was held confidential. Generally, the questionnaires were completed fully and accurately. Both staff and students were asked the following questions:
What do you consider to be the benefits of using IVCT at UCCI?
What do you consider to be the challenges of using ICVT at UCCI?
The following question was added to the student online questionnaire: Is there anything else you would like to say about IVCT at UCCI?
From the qualitative data provided, the researcher identified comments that had been repeated not only by an individual respondent, but by multiple respondents. The more words, phrases, or concepts had been repeated, the greater importance they were presumed to play. These words, phrases and concepts were categorised into themes (Powell and Renner 2003). Categorical aggregation was also used, where a collection of instances was sought with the hope that issue-relevant meanings would emerge (Creswell, 1998). By triangulating the results of staff interviews and students online questionnaires, an overall understanding of what constitutes benefits and challenges to the use of IVCT at the local university college was constructed. The results are presented in the following sections.
Staff felt that there were benefits to students, the institution and themselves. For example, one member said, “Students on the Brac now have access to college courses for the first time without having to relocate…” Staff opinion differed on this point only in regards to terminology when qualifying the statement. For example, some spoke of IVCT giving students on the Brac access to ‘classes’, ‘education’, ‘course offerings’, ‘college education’ and ‘tertiary level education’.
Another perceived benefit was savings for students who would normally have to travel by aeroplane to the main campus. The institution also saves, for there was no need to employ additional faculty for the remote site. While several members of staff focussed on benefits to students and institution, two pointed out that IVCT also benefited staff, for it forced those who would otherwise not engage with IVCT and other technology to do so, and this “helps the educator to be on the cutting edge of distance education”.
Identified challenges were categorized under the following headings: technical difficulties, maintenance and other costs, teaching and learning dynamics, additional demands on staff and students, class size, and disturbances. Challenges identified were prefaced with phrases such as, “It is a pain in the neck”, “I don’t think it will ever work well”, and “I cannot think of one practical benefit for students…” All staff respondents (n=14) identified the fact that the equipment will malfunction. This is aptly stated by one member: “As is always the case with equipment, there is always a chance the equipment will fail and this may act as a deterrent to student enrolment at the remote site”. Another staff member pointed out that the unpredictability of the IVCT equipment can cause frustration, especially for those in the Brac.
Others identified the frequency of malfunctions with such phrases as, “It does not always work and this semester in particular”, “it frequently does not work”, “Last year for example, we had the issue with sound”. Also identified was the nature of these malfunctions, for example, “the sound not working”, “inability to see students on the remote site and to present a power point show simultaneously”, and “phone line down and technical glitches”. Staff also acknowledged that malfunctions impact students’ learning. One member said, “Whenever the system malfunctions, the students suffer because I need to go find help, which might not be readily available”. Another, making reference to the failure of equipment, pointed out that, “When it does happen, valuable [teaching] time is lost and may never be regained”. The IT coordinator pointed out:
Technical difficulties are 95% user error, but lecturers either ignore the error (thus ignoring the Cayman Brac students), or try to fix the error themselves, further compounding the problems. Very few lecturers seek out assistance or further training on the technology without it being forced upon them
Only one member highlighted as challenges, the high cost of the equipment, maintaining the system, and the financial and time constraints which prevent more frequent visits of staff to the remote site. Also highlighted is the fact that it can be a challenge for a lecturer to travel to the remote site for a ‘live session’ thus transforming the main campus into the remote site. One respondent stated:
Sometimes [visits to the Brac by staff] can cause more difficulty for students and lecturers. This happens when you have a huge group of students left back on the main campus, many of who are immature themselves, and the lecturer is in the Brac for the class, sometimes teaching one, two or three students.
The demands that IVCT made on staff were many. These include trying to “keep students in two different locations interested and learning” and “Splitting attention between the Brac and the local class”. A member of staff elaborates on this point when she states:
It is impossible to make eye contact with the students in the Brac. If I want to feel like I am looking at them, I must look at the camera, but I am not seeing them at the same time. [By doing so however] I try to make the students feel like they are a part of the class but it can be difficult sometimes.
Another staff member noted other demands:
Performing for the camera-being always conscious of positioning oneself so that the ‘Brackers’ can feel that they are in the loop and are being spoken with or to. Limited spontaneity - one has to plan and scan or fax off way before the class, if the students are to get the material on time. So a brainwave, fifteen minutes before the class might not work as they [students on the Brac] might be disadvantaged if the material cannot get to them pronto.
Further challenges are noted as “Not being able to interface with students for any feedback, as well as with the staff at the remote location”, and the fact that “communicating with the remote site depends on the use of other technologies such as fax, email, and the computer, and this required 'a change in gear’ for some staff”.
The maturity level of students presented yet another challenge to staff. Students just out of high school were seen as lacking the maturity to engage fully with IVCT, especially when taking foundational subjects such as English, Mathematics, Science and Spanish classes, which require a degree of individual assistance. Demands on staff also include taking on the role of managing the equipment, which is “extra work and require extra classroom management skills, extra time, and attention”. One staff member expands on this idea by stating:
Staff at the main campus needs to find extra time to plan and get material to the Brac ahead of class time and this also means advance planning, sometimes days ahead of the class (the ideal situation at all Verdana, but realistically, very challenging for many lecturers)
Staff reports that IVCT seems to restrain or, it appears, to intimidate (in some way) students on the main campus hindering them from being themselves. There is also the fear that “distance students may not receive the same attention as the local students, possibly creating a fairness issue both for the class discussions and also for testing”.
Class size was also another concern. Statements such as “bigger classes also means more noise” seem to characterise staff responses. One member said, “I find it easier to work with both campuses when the group before me is small - not more than twenty, for example”. This is of particular importance when having to deal with “immature students on the remote site, who frequently miss classes or hide by sitting under the camera so as not to be seen by the lecturer, or who arrive late for classes”. Finally, one staff member highlighted disturbance such as infrastructural failures at the remote, for instance the noise of the air conditioning unit malfunctioning and being amplified by the microphone system or the accidental ringing of mobile phones also amplified by the microphone system, and having to stop classes to remedy these situations.
Students’ comments on the benefits of IVCT focused on savings for the institution and benefits to themselves. The institution saves on airplane fare for lecturers, and lecturers do not have to duplicate lessons, thus also saving time. The small number of students at the Brac site justifies the use of IVCT. It makes obsolete both the need for additional tutors to be employed to teach such few students and students having to travel to Grand Cayman. Another identified benefit is the interaction between students on the main campus and the Brac site and especially between those who held differing cultural points of view and ideas. One student said that the use of IVCT encourages “better debates and classes feel more like a real college”.
Challenges identified by the students focused on the technical and teaching/ learning dynamics. Technical challenges identified include “electrical outages or disruptions in internet connection”, unclear video transmission and inappropriate lighting in the room at the main campus, which makes viewing the white board there difficult, and “set up and maintenance costs”. At Verdana, the sound quality becomes distorted, thus affecting their ability to concentrate during lessons. Challenges in the teaching/ learning dynamics involve not being able to turn in work at the same time with students on the main campus. Students point out: “Class notes must be emailed to you and you cannot receive immediate response”. Also, there was a relational challenge, as one student points out, “You do not develop a one-on-one relationship with your fellow students or teacher”. Asking questions during sessions were difficult for some students. One said, “It feels like you’re interrupting the class [at the main campus], if you have a question”. Another said, “Sometimes it is uncomfortable because when you participate it seems amplified”, still another said, “the discussion part of the class is the challenging part because I don’t know when to talk. It feels like I am watching the class rather than part of a class”. Despite these challenges, students thought that the use of IVCT should continue, and there was the need to offer additional classes via this method. Some thought IVCT is workable, but just needs to improve or keep up with technological changes. Others expressed a genuine appreciation that they are able to have classes at the remote site.
The obvious benefits of IVCT identified by students and staff were course accessibility for students on the remote site and financial savings for the institution. While these findings are not surprising, they lend support to the established literature on IVCT, from a country not yet explored by other researchers, namely, the Cayman Islands. Also, while financial savings is a benefit, there is the need to periodically scrutinize expenditure on logistical support, maintenance and soft and hardware upgrades. Saving in aeroplane fares and accommodation for lecturers to visit the remote site must be balanced against significant new expenditure (Forster & Washington, 2000). This is important in the present economic climate, where there is a focus on being thrifty.
The study also brings into sharp focus (as a benefit) the fact that IVCT at UCCI forced lecturers who are normally anxious about technology to engage with cutting edge technology. One way of reducing staff anxiety in this area is to provide training in the operation of the IVCT. However, training of staff should not be limited to the operations of the instruments, but include how to prepare quality learning material, proper planning of sessions, ways to improve presentation/teaching skills, voice technique, and how to foster interaction between presenter and audience (Canning 1999 & Field, 1995).
Technical difficulties and malfunctioning of equipment were major sources of irritation to both staff and students. While there seems to be a general agreement that power outages, periodic disruption in internet connection, and issues with sound and video are inevitable, the frequency of these occurrences is of grave concern. What is required is greater vigilance and availability of technical staff, especially during the Verdana when the IVCT is in use. Another solution would be to provide specific training to staff in how to ‘troubleshoot’. This idea is supported by staff, one of whom wrote: “There is a need for specific training of instructors who use the system, not just the brief sessions in how to use the equipment…” This would reduce the demand on the technical team, especially when classes are held outside of regular working hours. However, additional training may be viewed by staff as extra work (considering all they are required to do in a given day), therefore, extra training should be provided only on request by staff members. Another option is to use the first class or portions of each course using IVCT for the training of both lecturers and students in the workings of video conferencing - where to sit, how to interact, how to get the students or lecturers’ attention.
The impact of IVCT on the teaching and learning dynamics was another area of challenge for both staff and students. For students, the main challenge was the lack of physical interaction between themselves and the lecturer and their inability to build one-to-one relationship with fellow students and lecturers. The literature in the foregoing discussion identified this as a challenge, especially for students at a remote site. A solution is to alternate live lecturers between main and remote campuses and arrange for students from the remote site to visit. However, this needs careful thought when being implemented especially when they may be immature students involved at the main site. In such situations, the solution may also include having a chairman or coordinator physically present and in the session at the remote site.
Also mentioned were the demands that IVCT made on staff with regards to the teaching/learning dynamics involved in trying to maintain students’ interest at both sites and having to split their attention between both. The fact that IVCT limits staff spontaneity was highlighted as well. Further, communicating with students at the remote site depended on the use of other technologies such as fax, email, and the computer and these technology-related activities, coupled with the need to be well prepared and the inability to be spontaneous required a change in lecturers’ thinking and behaviour. This required change was also a source of stress (Canning, 1999). These observations highlight the fact that technology does influence thoughts and behaviours (Hoffman, Patterson, Carrougher & Sharar 2001, and Robillard, Bouchard, Fournier, & Renaud, 2003). While these challenges may seem formidable, training and continued engagement with IVCT will improve the ability of the staff to cope. One should also consider the fact that the inability to maintain students’ interest could be attributed to a number of factors, but the underutilization of appropriate teaching methods should not be over looked (Downing, 1997).
Another challenge reported by both staff and students was the fact that IVCT seems to restrain, or appears, to intimidate students in some way but especially those at the remote site. A student respondent clarified this by stating, “It feels like you’re interrupting the class [at the main campus] if you have a question”. Freeman (1998) encourages lecturers to build into their lecture more opportunities for students to ask and answer questions and Canning (1999) encouraged the use of organised competitions between campus groups during the lecture as this fostered interest and concentration and a sense of cross campus interaction.
The maturity level of students presented a unique challenge to staff, especially where students were viewed as having just left high school and lacking the maturity to engage fully with IVCT, particularly when taking courses such as English, Mathematics, Science, and Spanish which require a degree of individual assistance. Freeman (1998) and Field (1995) in their study help to clarify this point when they highlighted the kind of behaviour exhibited by students. For example, they may treat lectures like a television session. They may be more likely to chat and walk in and out of the lecture, and these disruptive behaviours affect students’ concentration and learning. As indicated in the preceding discussion, this situation is exacerbated when lecturers are unable to control the remote group and are unable to identify disruptive students at the remote site.
Here, too, a solution may be having a chairman or coordinator physically present at the remote site and to arrange individual virtual face-to-face time for students needing assistance, via the IVCT. This however, will need to be built into staff teaching time and schedules and could be difficult to schedule when others need to use the equipment for other classes.
Table 2 provides a summary of the challenges and solutions of using IVCT at UCCI. This gives ease of reference to those who would use the data to influence policy and action. For it is by addressing these challenges that the fulfillment of the underlying reason for the study will be realised: an improvement in the use of IVCT as a teaching and learning tool at the University College of the Cayman Islands.
Frequent power outages, periodic disruption in internet connection, distorted sound & video equipment.
Greater vigilance and availability of technical staff.
Provide specific training to staff in how to ‘troubleshoot’.
Teaching & Learning dynamics:
Students: inability to physically interact with lecturers and to build one-to-one relationship with fellow students.
Alternate live lecturers between main and remote campuses and arrange visits to the main site for students from the remote site.
Students: IVCT restrains or intimidates students
Provide more opportunity for students to ask and answer questions.
Staff: maintaining students’ interest at both sites.
The use of various communication instruments requires a change in thinking and behaviour.
Training and continued engagement with IVCT will improve the ability of staff to cope with these challenges.
Staff: students lacking the maturity to engage fully with IVCT and needing special assistance with selected subjects.
Chairman or coordinator being physically present at the remote site. Arrange individual virtual face-to-face time for students needing assistance.
The challenges brought on by the use of IVCT at UCCI are many and affects both staff and students. Additional demands are placed on staff members to change their modus operandi, manage the equipment, and to be sensitive to the camera and the students at the remote site. Students are mainly challenged by the technical aspects and the teaching and learning dynamics. In light of these and other challenges, it behooves institutions considering the use of this technology to carefully consider the problems and solutions identified in this, and other similar studies.
Also of significance is the fact that this study was carried out in the early years of the use of this technology at the local college. It would be of interest to the local University College to carry out this same process in a few years to ascertain whether the currently identified benefits and challenges remain or have changed. The degree to with which staff have matured in their use of the tool, and students’ continuous engagement with it are important factors when considering the effectiveness of IVCT as a teaching/learning tool. Also, future study could examine the impact (if any) of being physically located on the Brac and the degree to which studying ‘at home’ positively affects students’ learning. This could be compared with students from the Brac who are studying on the main campus. Finally, the small sample size of this study suggests that the findings should not be generalized but the ability to generalize the findings was not the original intention of this study.
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Dr Mark A. Minott is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Teacher Education at the University College of the Cayman Islands.
His research interests include Reflective Teaching, ICT in the classroom, teacher education and the Arts in Education. His writings are found in journals such as the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, Professional Development in Education, Current Issues in Education, International Journal of Music Education, Journal of the University College of the Cayman Islands and the Journal for Research on Christian Education.