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The Use of Videoconferencing in Higher Education

3. Results

3.1 Introduction

The results presented here originate from two main sources: the email questionnaire (n=17) and the site interviews carried out with both service providers (n=9) and users (n=4) from five different sites. Both the results of the email questionnaire and the site interviews are integrated in the following section, unless otherwise stated. The results are divided into four main sections: (i) technical aspects, which details the type of equipment and networks used; (ii) applications, which describes the usage of VC; (iii) management, giving an overview of the structures and procedures in place; and (iv) subjective views of users and service providers on VC.

The aim behind the study was not to present a comprehensive picture of VC in higher education in the UK, indeed the sample size is not sufficiently large to make such generalisations or statistical analyses. Therefore caution should be taken in interpreting the results. Moreover the aim was to present a longitudinal picture of VC usage within a small group of users in the UK. To this end observations are made about the group results.

It was difficult to get responses from those people who responded to the original study made 18 months ago (Butters et al. 1995). The sample group (who also included respondents who were not involved in the previous study) were therefore asked about any changes that had taken place in the previous 18 month period. Where changes to the pattern of use are not noted, it should be presumed that there have not been any significant changes over last 18 months. At the end of each section, the results are summarised providing comment, particularly on the changes having taken place over the last 18 months and comparisons across institutions.

3.2 Technical aspects

3.2.1 Network & Main equipment

The following tables present an overview of the combinations of the types of equipment and networks used by respondents in the study. Four main types of network were in use by respondents, the SuperJANET ATM network, the JANET Mbone mainly used to support computer-based desktop VC, BT ISDN network, and a dedicated Megastream network.

Network SuperJANET ATM Bandwidth 2 Mbps Examples of GPT codec, Manual patch panel (allows audio/visual signals equipment used from 5 conference rooms to be imported), GPT MCU and codec, Sony and Panasonic video equipment
Network JANET Mbone Bandwidth 100-500 kbps Examples of Sun SPARC workstations 2, 5, IPX 1+ with SunVideo/ Videopix/Parallax, equipment used Silicon Graphics Indy workstation with VINO/ Galilleo, Macintosh LC-III
Network BT (ISDN)/ Dedicated Megastream Bandwidth 128-384 kbps/ 2 Mbps Examples of BT VC 4600, BT VC5000 series codecs, BT VC6000 MCU, BT VC7000, equipment used BT VC8000, Olivetti desktop videophone, Videoserver MCU and codecs VC2300 codecs, Rademac robotics, Picturetel 4000
Figure 1- Examples of network and equipment configurations

There seems to be a move towards ISDN-30 with some sites investigating Mercury Switchband (i.e. Manchester University and Nottingham University), which allows the site to pay only for the bandwidth that it uses.

Figure 2- Distribution of VC equipment installers (n=12)

In the remaining five cases the equipment installer was not identified by the respondent.

There have been some changes to the usage of the systems over the last 18 months. At one site the number of people using the system has increased, and at two further sites installation of additional networks has facilitated connection to more sites and international dial-up. In the cases where the site does not have direct access to ISDN it is possible for them to route a conference through another SuperJANET site that does have access. This latter site will then effectively act as a gateway to the outside world. One site had a system upgrade which caused a temporary drop in usage due to technical problems. Many sites reported either a very similar amount of usage or conservative increases.

Generally service providers indicated that the system was bought for the applications they were currently using it for. There were a few exceptions however; one site reported more diverse use than they had anticipated; one further site reported that they had no idea of the level of uptake between teaching and administrative use. One site knew before implementation that the system would have to be used for meetings as well as for teaching in order to pay for its way.

3.2.2 Additional tools and equipment

The most common type of additional equipment cited was a dedicated camera for documents, OHPs and slides, indeed several sites had one. Some sites had VCRs to record and playback images; one site had full tablet-controlled robotics allowing control over the main camera at other sites. Computer-based desktop VC users had access to a range of software tools allowing shared editors, whiteboards and applications, and multicast text tools used to support video sessions. The expectation from the last study (Butters et al. 1995) was that other peripherals were going to be added (e.g. connection with on-line PC), but this had not happened. Most additional facilities that have been added are for sharing hard-copies of information, particularly graphical information.

3.2.3 Technical support

Technical support depends to a certain extent on who originally installed the equipment; often there is a service contract involved between the site and the body who installed the equipment. In this case it is impractical and uneconomical to change such a service agreement with a supplier mid-term. Some Service Providers were having problems, but had no direct opportunities to do anything about it, commenting that they were 'locked' into a service agreement. Only one site using studio-based VC had in fact changed their supplier since the last study; they commented that the reason behind the upgrade was in fact to change to a new direct supplier.

3.2.4 Summary / comment

The most noticeable change in the technology since the 1994 survey is probably the greater variety of networks available and the greater interconnection of different networks used. UKERNA is currently piloting an ISDN gateway in Manchester. This allows any site with an ISDN compatible codec to connect with the SuperJANET sites. Some sites have access to their own and other national and international sites using the Internet. For higher quality applications they may also have access to local sites using their own ISDN or ATM network (or MAN), SuperJANET pilot sites using the SuperJANET, or international sites using SuperJANET and an international ISDN gateway. This provides great flexibility and will probably become commonplace as more and more networks become cost effective and accessible.

Although the results indicate that there is slightly more computer-based desk-top use compared with the situation in 1994, there are still problems with the audio and video quality with computer-based systems and also with reliability. These problems are almost certainly because of the network limitations. In the higher education environment, it is understandable that those wishing to videoconference using their PC or workstation should use JANET to do it. The only costs involved are a camera, a video card if not already supplied and shareware software. It is possible to use ISDN to videoconference with a PC but of course the costs are much higher both in terms of initial installation unless an ISDN line and ISDN video card are available but also in terms of call costs. It may be worth some academics taking this more expensive route if the requirements for quality justify it.

If the quality and reliability of low bandwidth networks can be improved, however, it is likely that there will be a growing market for desk top videoconferencing in higher education. Apart from the costs being low compared with studio based systems, there is another major advantage: physical proximity. One of the factors influencing usage of VC was ease of access with some users reluctant even to make a 15 minute walk to use the facilities.

3.3 Applications for VC

There were differing numbers of respondents to each application section, since respondents could be using VC in several or just one of the areas. The graph below depicts the number of respondents to the e-mail questionnaire and gives a picture of the applications for which VC was being used in the present study.

Figure 3- Number of respondents to email questionnaire using VC, by application

3.3.1 Personal communications

Four respondents used VC for personal or informal communications. VC was being used for both point-to-point and multi-point communications, mainly to contact people from the same or other academic institutions on a mixture of topics, from technical issues to demonstrations. Two users used their facility a few times each week, a further one using it a few times each month. The frequency of use had not changed much since 18 months ago, although an exception to this was increased usage by a user of the Mbone network for computer-based desktop VC. There does not seem to be a typical call length, it ranges between 15 and 120 minutes.

Respondents stated that particular advantages of VC were the provision of visual information, ability to share drawings and to illustrate in real time (Mbone user), and interaction (one user stated that he got more useful work done when communicating with VC).

The provision of tools for viewing 3-D objects, more integration with other types of tool, particularly the WWW, and the ability to control the remote camera's direction of view and zoom were expressed as additional things that respondents would like to be able to do now, that were not considered 18 months ago.

3.3.2 Presentations

Five respondents used VC for both sending and receiving presentations to other academics, colleagues and clients, both internally and externally. It seems that there is now a slightly wider range of recipients of presentations compared to 18 months ago, particularly regarding external contacts. Many of the contacts are multi-point. The typical content of presentations consists of multi-media, often video and audio, and sometimes OHP or slides presented separately via a shared whiteboard. Most of the respondents used pre-recorded video during the presentations, although it was indicated that full motion video was not amenable to transmission over the Mbone network.

Frequency of use was typically between a few times each week and a few times each month, with a slight increase in use since 18 months ago. One respondent observed that this was due to his clients becoming more informed about VC. Typical call duration was between 30 and 60 minutes, although there were shorter and longer calls.

Lack of time, client inhibitions and reluctance to use VC were stated as barriers to increased use, although this second reason may have decreased somewhat since 18 months ago. The perceived advantages of VC compared with traditional ways of giving or receiving presentations were that it gave more impressive, dynamic presentations, which were more flexible, allowing interaction over a distance. Another advantage was that participants could easily record material to refer to later.

Increased pressure and anxiety due to equipment performance, a general lack of VC users, the need to observe strict personal discipline and lack of remote camera control were perceived as disadvantages when using the medium for presentation purposes. One particular need reported was that some respondents would like to be able to share document files and applications over the network.

3.3.3 Teaching/learning

Five people stated that they used VC for teaching or learning applications. However only two respondents answered the questions in the section, and reported using VC for activities, including vocational education and the study of distance learning teaching techniques. Information about using VC for teaching and learning was also obtained from the field sites visited. The teaching was conducted in a variety of manners; one to one, one to distributed individuals, one to a group and one to distributed groups. Multi-way audio and video were used in one case, and recorded videos were used in another. An example was a student teacher showing a video of herself teaching, to a tutor across the network. Questions from students were generally dealt with live, rather than pre-recorded. The facility was used from a few times each week to a few times each month, with frequency increasing in one case over the last 18 months. Typical call length was between 30 and 60 minutes.

The advantages were seen as the possibility to reach students who are at a distance and the variety in participating groups, but the main drawbacks were related to less human contact. One user interviewed said that the students found it intimidating and that they needed to get used to VC. He observed that one disadvantage over traditional methods of teaching was that eye contact couldn't be made, so a particular student couldn't be asked a directed question. At another site a user commented that students claimed to be disadvantaged by not having the lecturer physically present. She further commented that the problems lie in the technology rather than the administrative aspects of the VC service. One other institution reported the desire to use VC for teaching expecting to use it for this application in the future.

3.3.4 Research purposes

Six respondents stated that they used VC for research purposes; four full responses were received to this questionnaire section. The respondents reported using VC for research into telematics, networked information retrieval and discovery, and video coding and related algorithms. VC was used for communication with colleagues, for watching presentations and attending meetings, and for generating network traffic that is then monitored. The nature of communications using VC for research purposes was very varied, reflecting the diversity of this application. A mixture of point-to-point and multi-point was used. Most of the respondents used VC a few times each week and only one reported increased use of the facility compared to 18 months ago. Typical call length varied from 5 to 120 minutes. The time required to set up the connection and the availability of equipment for potential partners were given as barriers to further use.

The ability of the VC medium to allow access to information was given as the main advantage over traditional methods of research. Email discussions could be read, the WWW could be searched, and shared data files could be accessed during research. Respondents felt that there were few disadvantages, these mainly related to other people's reluctance to participate in VC. One respondent expressed a need for remote control of the camera at the other site.

3.3.5 Collaborative work

Collaborative work was the main application of VC amongst respondents in the email questionnaire; ten respondents used VC for special interest group meetings, committee meetings, trouble shooting, engineering and software projects. A wide variety of people within the HEI site and external to it, including other bodies (e.g. UKERNA) were contacted. The type of work carried out by each site had not changed in most cases. VC was used from a few times a day to a few times each year, with no typical pattern emerging across sites. In only two cases VC use had increased slightly since 18 months ago, in other cases remaining the same. Typical call length was generally between 30 and 120 minutes. Mainly multi-point communications were used, although there were also some point to point communications.

Reduced travel, ability to share documents and drawings in real-time, the ability to go to meetings that wouldn't otherwise have been possible, cost viability and dynamic involvement of conferees were given as the advantages of VC. A reduction in face to face meetings and all of their associated advantages (e.g. usefulness for brainstorming, informal talk) were sited as disadvantages. There were certain things that respondents couldn't currently do and would like to be able to do. These included better control over what is seen at the remote site as well as what is transmitted, more integration with other tools such as the WWW, better spatial resolution and better booking provision without the time associated with contacting service providers

3.3.6 Interviewing

Only one respondent reported using VC for point-to-point interviewing, and had experienced VC just once for an interview lasting between 30-60 minutes. The accessibility of remote participants was the principle advantage stated, and there were no perceived disadvantages over traditional methods of interviewing. One of the service providers reported a case of interviewing at his site although he was not personally involved (this was a PhD viva with an external examiner based in Australia).

3.3.7 Currently not using VC

Two respondents reported that they intended to use VC sometime in the future. One site expressed an interest in using it to provide remote tutorials, but suffered from a lack of funds and insufficient benefits for their needs to justify investing in the necessary equipment. They reported that they would look into it again in six months time. The other site intended to provide a consultancy service to external companies and university departments. Again the source of funding was the central issue and they were not sure when the facility would be installed.

3.3.8 Summary / comment

The profile of use was very similar to that found in the survey 18 months ago with uses being identified in all the application categories offered. This is also a similar picture to that reported in a survey of users of the University of Wales Video Network where Committee/Meeting use (including research) accounted for 77% of use compared with teaching (23%) (Cannon, R. & Martin, J., 1995).

The dominant use was for meetings to facilitate collaborative work. Where VC was used for collaborative work or for research purposes, the work was often in the field of VC or its associated technology. This was also the case in the previous survey and although this is only a small sample, it was expected that by now, the use of VC would have spread much more to other academic areas.

There is some evidence that computer-based desktop VC is beginning to come into its own for research and especially for participation in virtual conferences and other such ‘events’.

There are still some universities that are not using VC for teaching even though they use VC for other applications. It is a specialist application with particular requirements for the technology (e.g. high reliability and high network bandwidth) and for personal skills (e.g. specialist teaching techniques). Where teaching is done, it is spoken about enthusiastically by those involved, with very positive comments being made about value for money and usefulness. Although teaching is done across organisational boundaries, a particular application is teaching within the same institution but across campuses. This can require as great a degree of co-ordination and co-operation as teaching from university to university because individual campuses/colleges can be quite autonomous. However, being able to link separate sites within the same institution has obvious advantages, in particular, the ability to offer more courses to more students and therefore there is great motivation to succeed.

As the use of ISDN grows, interviewing by VC may also get more popular, particularly over great distances (e.g. the USA or Australia) but it would be interesting to investigate the psychological aspects that may inhibit the use of VC for interviewing. (In a survey of commercial organisations using VC across Europe, one of the applications that was thought not to be so suitable for VC was interviewing [Clarke, Pomfrett and Richardson, 1992]).

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