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The Use of Videoconferencing in Higher Education
The following sections provide lessons learnt from the survey and possible future directions for VC in higher education.
4.1 Lessons learned, patterns of use and pointers to success
The main lessons that have been learned are:
The main pattern seems to be a differentiation between the management and use of computer-based desktop VC and that of larger scale VC:
- More support and information is needed when setting up medium and large scale VC than was previously thought. Skills are needed in a number of very different disciplines.
- The importance of network reliability has been recognised along with the need for good technical support to maintain the infrastructures. (Following from this, it has been learned that the choice of suppliers and service providers must be made carefully. Often institutions can find themselves "tied" to a particular company because of the initial choices made.)
- 'Improvements' can cause more problems than they solve. Major changes need careful planning.
- The technology is there but it needs to be respected. There is a need to be realistic about expectations.
To achieve successful management at a strategic level, it is necessary for those involved to have a good understanding of:
- Computer-based desktop VC systems require less financial cost and also require less in terms of management and support. They are likely to be funded and used by a single department for research or collaborative work purposes using services such as the Mbone. As the cost of both ISDN lines and dedicated 'dial-up' personal VC systems fall, it is likely that these also will be used more and more like PCs as a departmental or group resource for applications such as interviewing or meetings with overseas colleagues. Use of these systems has changed little over the last few years, except that there are more of them and they are being used more frequently. The prediction is of improved quality and reliability for computer-based systems and hence a pattern of greatly increased use.
- Larger-scale VC has required shared funding and has provided shared resources being beyond the budget of single groups or departments. (This situation is likely to continue well into the future.) These systems were set up for different purposes in different ways depending on need, available resources, funding opportunities, individual vision etc. The pattern seems to be one of limited use to begin with during a learning period followed by identification of existing limitations and new potentials. Significant changes to equipment and infrastructure have taken place in the sites that have been using VC for a number of years, not always with the expected results. The predicted pattern of change for these larger-scale VC services is that there will be expansion in terms of available networks, sites and applications.
It is rare to find all the above in any one department or service group and the most successful cases seem to be the ones which have either achieved co-operation between departments with shared management responsibilities and resources or where a specific VC service is set up and includes all the relevant skills and experience. If a single specialist group undertakes VC responsibilities (e.g. audio-visual services) it must be prepared to admit when it lacks skills and must be prepared to ask for assistance.
- Audio-visual technology
- Computing technology
- Managing and evaluating services
- Users' requirements (e.g. an understanding of the nature of research, teaching and learning etc.)
- Specific VC knowledge and experience (e.g. to be able to understand the potential of the technology, how traditional skills may need to be adapted etc.)
4.2 Looking to the future
As in the 1994 survey (Butters et al.), technical support from network and equipment suppliers was patchy with reliability still a major issue needing to be addressed before VC can really be the 'medium of the future' that it has the potential to be. Fortunately, the network service providers are investing in enhancements to the infrastructure and we can realistically expect that the situation will continue to improve.
As was stated in section 3.5.3 of the results, it is possible that the perceived cost and educational benefits of using VC for teaching and learning could drive the installation of new ATM networks and increased network connectivity. One of the field sites, although not really using VC for teaching yet, is planning for the future and is running skills training courses for lecturers who could soon teach via VC. The courses cover three main skills:
- teaching in front of a camera
- visual aids for VC
- handling interactive VC (e.g. students questions).
This kind of forethought will be essential if the most is to be made of the technology. Although the impetus towards improving the VC capability for teaching could be financial cost benefits as well as educational ones, it is likely to be important to remember the lessons learned about VC from industry. From the personal experience of the author, case studies reported anecdotally have concurred with the notion that although VC is often justified in the commercial world on the basis of cost savings, in reality these savings (in terms of decreased travel and subsistence costs etc.) often do not materialise. However, VC can pay for itself in terms of increased financial income due to increased efficiency, better decision making and competitive edge etc. If this pattern is mirrored in higher education, it may be important to think in terms not only of potential cost savings but also in terms of increased income, for example the ability to reach students that may not otherwise register or the ability to offer a flexibility of learning that is not provided elsewhere. This could influence the kinds of courses considered suitable for VC teaching.
In conclusion, there are those who predict that the future of VC will be desktop and only desktop but the impression gained from this small study is that although the use of desktop (both computer-based and dedicated) will certainly increase, this does not mean that use of studio-based VC will diminish. On the contrary, new networks, along with a possible need to reach new student markets, will mean that applications requiring good quality studio/auditorium facilities will increase.
Virtual Environments Visualisation