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5. Does the technology cause barriers for learning?

So far this report has discussed technology and learning and looked at how technology is being used to support learning. This section will look more closely at the psychological umplications for technologically-mediated learning. Figure 4 illustrates the potential for barriers as messages are coded, transported and decode by technology. This process is in addition to coding and decoding being carried out by the communicators.

Figure 4 : Transporting Communication

An important question, still to be answered, is the extent to which video conferencing, with two-way video, can provide the psychological attributes of face-to-face encoun ters. If the richness of communication and a genuine sense of group that accompanies face-to-face encounters can be attained through telecommunication, then the conse quences for education and training will be profound.

However, we can not simply assume that a ‘virtual’ situation will be the same as a face to face situation. If it is not the same we must find out how it differs and if these differ ences have a significant effect on the communication and learning process. The dynam ics of educational and interpersonal interactions are dramatically changed when medi ated by technology. To understand the nature of the changes we must investigate

5.1. Inter-communication delays

Timing of visual signals is known to be important for effective face to face communica tion and it is also known that ISDN technology with 128 kb/sec transmission rates car ries signal delays, what effect does this delay have on performance? Inter-communica tion delays causes performance degradation on a collaborative task in both audio and video conditions (O’Malley et al 1994). This is particular obvious in the ability to inter rupt, as the speaker has already continued with the next piece of information.

5.2. Interpersonal Interactions

Audio conferences have been used in distance education for a number of years. These are difficult to manage and learn with. Much attention must be paid to turn taking, involving everyone, identifying the speaker and speaking clearly. The natural advance, when the technology became available was to move to visual and audio communication, after all face to face interactions had been shown to be more effective than audio-only interactions (Boyle, Anderson & Newlands 1994). However, the adding visual images to distant conferencing does not appear to confer the same benefits of face to face. Another situation where people have been dragged behind advances in technology without understanding the implications. It was just assumed that seeing the speaker would be better. However research is now showing that the case is not as clear cut.

In audio-only interactions, the lack of visuals is compensated for by clearer enunciation, more thoughtful communication with less monologues. Adding visuals in the form of audio-graphics appears to maintain the need for clarity of interaction with explanation of the visuals being presented. Adding visuals in the form of “a view of the speaker” as mediated by video conferencing, does not lead to replication of the communication patterns and styles of interaction observed in face to face scenarios (Schiller & Miller 1992).

5.3. Information transmitted and received

It is naive to believe that the inclusion of a visual channel into a remote conferencing situation means an ‘ideal’ fact to face situation will be attained. The ability to see the remote teacher or peer groups does not automatically lead to increased levels of interaction, that is two-way communication. Many studies have shown that two way video conferencing cannot serve as a direct replacement for face to face (including Edigo 1988, O’Malley et al 1994). Other studies (Gensollen & Curien 1985, Bruce, 1994) in looking at video conferencing as compared to audio conferencing point out that technologically mediated communications filter out and distort many of the, often unconscious, signals which are used in face to face situations. These signals include lip reading, body movement, gaze and eye contact. Such signals are used to regulate, maintain and progress verbal interactions. Paradoxically the existence of a visual channel may encourage lecturers to be far less attentive to distant groups and not take as much time to elicit questions and answers as might be expected in audio conference. This may mean that the visual channel is being used to verify the class is still there.

Video conferencing is difficult to investigate as it does not only add visual contact with the speaker but also the sharing of visual information in the form of overheads, slides, 3-d objects or even microscopic objects. It is still not clear which is more important. When we are in a lecture, we do not watch the lecturer all the time, we watch the materials being presented. The quality of this material has an effect on the communication process as is suggested by the number of guidelines on producing good visuals for presentations.

5.4. Management problems

The problems of communicating via video conferencing is also dependent of the geographical separation of the participants and the number of separate sites involved in the interaction. Obviously, the more sites the greater the problems of managing the communicational and educational process. Multipoint video conferencing is particularly problematic. Often the session is voice-activated, with the person speaking being visible to all participants. This means, as speaker, you see yourself not your audience! It can also lead to many problems as who ever makes the loudest noise grabs the camera, and thus people interrupt unintentionally.

5.5. Geographical set-ups

If the teacher is actually present in one of the classrooms, it takes a lot more effort on their part to remember to involve the distant class and for both groups to feel equal. Ritchie & Newby’s (1989) study showed that students in a distant classroom without an instructor felt less involved and did not enjoy the experience.

With different pedagogical scenarios, e.g. groupwork and peer tutoring it may be possible to eliminate the teacher from all these situations.

The more groups involved, the more complex the interaction and the technological and managerial problems grow. Such problems may distract from the learning process.

How many students can be managed, is the same as how long is a piece of string. Though it is dependent on the technology and the style of presentation adopted. Satellite with non-interactive lectures v’s intimate one to one desktop. 100’s v’s up to 25

It is much harder to manage a virtual meeting than a real one. The educator must consider

Considering the problems of technology, it may be that video conferencing is best suited for non-interactive lecturing to large groups, when students can not be physically present. This is especially so when detailed visual material is to be presented, for instance slides in microbiology. In small group discussions, the case is less clear. Some researchers suggest that the visual channel for eye contact, and sense of social presence will give more efficient performance (Taylor 1991), but newer research suggests the case is less clear (Bruce 1994). It is also not clear whether the barriers imposed by the technology can be overcome with appropriate training. It is clear that it is not possible to generalise the effectiveness of video conferencing out with the context in which it was carried out; the educational scenario, group size, role of tutor, number of sites and role of visual materials and motivation of the participants are all compounding variables.
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