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The Use of Videoconferencing in Higher Education


3.4 Management

Management was dealt with in most detail during the field site interviews and this is reflected in this section, although results are also included from the email questionnaire.

3.4.1 Structure

The Universities examined in this study each have different and unique management structures, and it would be impossible to develop a single model to cover them all. Perhaps this is not surprising, considering the diverse uses to which VC is put. For example, the University of Wales uses VC mainly for teaching and meetings between its five campuses. There are management representatives at each of the five sites who have equal 'status' in supporting the service, and meet twice a year as a steering committee. In contrast, Edinburgh University's SuperJANET studio is used less frequently, mainly for technical meetings with UKERNA or other VC bodies, and is run solely by the Computing Services department.

Probably the most striking finding, and one that has not changed in the last 18 months, is the wide variety of university departments who are involved in managing their VC services. This range includes computing departments, educational services, estates, audio-visual services and dedicated multimedia support centres, and often a combination of two or more of these. This can lead to tension between departments, and also confusion on the part of the users over who to go to for information and support. There are also cases where two different departments of the same university simply do not know what the other is doing. On the other hand, good collaboration between two or more departments can be a major factor in the success of the service.

3.4.2 Funding and financial management

The way in which the capital costs for VC are funded varies significantly between the sites studied and includes both UK and European sources, as well as internal university resources. For example, UKERNA provided partial funding to all SuperJANET sites. Some of Loughborough and Essex’s equipment has been funded by JISC, SERC and EPSRC project grants. Initial finances for Ulster’s service came from an EC project. Most of these and other VC services also receive some support from central university or departmental funds.

Probably the only common theme is that most institutions can only successfully support a VC service through funding from a number of different sources. The only recent change in the capital funding situation has been in certain institutions who, having received initial funding from one of the external sources mentioned above, are now required to bear the full costs internally.

The provision of running costs is also virtually unchanged since 18 months ago. Most VC services have their costs mainly supported by central university sources. Others receive some UKERNA support for running national services.

At each of the four interview sites which used VC (Cardiff, Ulster, Edinburgh and Nottingham), university departments and individuals were not charged for their use of the service. Situations in which users at Nottingham and Edinburgh did have to pay, was for calls involving links to external ISDN lines via a gateway held at UCL. It is normal for sites that have a gateway from SuperJANET to the outside world to charge for such a service; this enables Nottingham and Edinburgh to provide the service required by their users. Cardiff also had a commercial service which charges users and makes a small profit to support the service, and Loughborough is predicting that up to 85% of the use of its facility may be by commercial users. This latter strategy would allow the service to pay for itself within 3-5 years. Loughborough is also exceptional in that it would expect to charge individual departments for their use of VC.

3.4.3 Booking procedure

Each of the interview sites had a slightly different strategy for booking VC sessions, as follows: All of the field sites mentioned above (with the exception of Loughborough, who did not have a studio-based VC service) felt that their booking procedures were quite successful. Central booking through a single person allowed use of the system to be maximised and meant that this individual could identify new users who needed technical support or training. On the other hand, allowing booking by a number of co-ordinators had the advantage of increased flexibility. None of the sites had changed their booking procedures since their systems were implemented.

3.4.4 Future policy and strategy

Universities generally have a committee who meet to discuss changing user needs, future policy and strategy. At Cardiff, a Network Services Committee meets twice a year. Ulster has informal meetings between site representatives for minor decisions, and formal meetings of the central Educational Services Committee for major strategic changes. Edinburgh's strategy is handled under the Vice-Principal for IT services. At Nottingham, informal meetings take place between members of the Audio Visual & Educational and Computing departments. On a national level the JISC Advisory Committee on Networking meets to advise JISC on future networking procedures.

Despite these bodies, there appears to be little formal evaluation of the services to check whether users are satisfied and identify any changing needs. Users' feelings are generally gauged through informal personal contacts, which excludes less frequent users or those who have no personal contact with the service providers. Also, many potential users do not know of the existence or capabilities of their institute's service so are unable to provide useful feedback to the service managers.

It is interesting to note that the success of strategic management depends largely on the success of the technology. At one site, there were regular evaluations of the service through short questionnaires prior to a recent system update. Since the update, however, the service has been beset by technical and network problems, and this has prevented re-establishment of the evaluations. In addition, the service has not been advertised to new users for fear of instantly losing their confidence through technical difficulties.

3.4.5 Training and user support

Training of new users generally only takes about 10 minutes, via an informal talk or hands-on demonstration by the service provider. Alternatively, new users might just be given a single sheet of instructions on VC etiquette. Some of the sites with more complex equipment have additional written instructions for the user to refer back to after the initial training period. Most, however, report that their equipment is so simple that users have little need for extra support after their first session.

Basic technical support is usually on hand, in the studio building or via a phone-call, should any problems arise. If there is a network problem, the user or service manager would have to contact the network provider (for example, BT or the Edinburgh SuperJANET co-ordinators).

3.4.6 Summary / comment

As with the survey conducted in 1994 one of the most startling results was the variety of ways in which management of VC is organised. It seems to depend very much on the culture of the institution, the history of the various departmental groups within the university, the original funding source, individual vision and the perceived reason for starting VC in the first place.

Clarity of strategic policy also varies. Although most site facilities were grossly under-utilised, management is often not putting a lot of effort into getting new users involved. It is not very clear why this is. Because of the pilot nature of some of the sites, it is possible that managing VC is seen more as a research exercise rather than as providing a professional service such as producing slides or running the mail server. The two field sites that have been using VC for over 5 years did seem to perceive the management of the facilities more in terms of providing a professional service and so it could also be a function of experience and confidence. There could be some nervousness about creating a demand that is not easy to supply or about creating a demand for something that is not well understood and may have unattainable expectations associated with it. There was a policy of prioritising use at one university where for example, teaching use has top priority but this level of policy making was not evident generally.

The funding structures vary widely across institutions but within any one university have remained fairly stable over the last 18 months. UKERNA have and still continue to support the academic network both in financial and practical terms but cannot fund every institution to the point where additional capital and running costs are unnecessary. The pilots can however help to point the way towards viable models of VC. Co-operation between institutions will probably be a key to the future of VC in higher education but it is difficult to see how this can be easily achieved in the current competitive climate.

3.5 Subjective views of users and service providers

3.5.1 Current situation

The sections below give users’ and service providers’ personal experiences and views of VC, based on the results of the questionnaires and interviews.

Does VC provide value for money?

Unreservedly, all users of VC for personal/informal communications, teaching/learning and research considered that it gave value for money. Most of those who used it for receiving presentations or collaborative working also thought it provided value for money, although one commented that as his department was not paying for the system, this was not really a consideration. In many cases VC was managed as a centrally-funded university resource, so it is necessary to consider these responses in this context. One user of desktop software commented that VC would definitely provide value for money if it worked well, however he experienced problems with the transmission of audio and video, breaks in connections and reliability of the network.

How useful is VC?

Interestingly, all users of VC felt positive about the usefulness of VC for their application. All respondents for teaching/learning or research purposes replied that the facility was 'very useful'. VC for personal/informal communications, presentations or collaborative work was considered to be either 'quite useful' or 'very useful'. It is possible, however, that only those users who were enthusiastic about the technology would have responded to the questionnaire.

What do you think of the cost structure, and costs of equipment/facility?

The running costs for most users of the SuperJANET service are funded either by central university resources or by a department (e.g. educational services) that pass costs on to all other departments through the central administrative system. Therefore cost structure was not an issue for many users, although indirect costs such as additional technician support was a requirement in some cases. For computer-based desktop users the general consensus was that VC incurred relatively few additional costs, as users already had workstations available to them (funded by non-VC sources) that were capable of handling Mbone. They only needed to buy additional equipment such as cameras, microphones and video capture cards, but in comparison to studio-based VC these costs were considered viable. Running costs were absorbed into university support of the Internet, and any technical support was generally handled by the individuals themselves.

How do you rate the internal technical support?

The perception of technical support was to some extent dependent upon the application for which VC was being used. One user (for teaching) commented that he first attempted to fix any problem himself by trying a combination of buttons and switches. If that was unsuccessful, he would call a chief technician. In this instance, technical support had to be provided very rapidly, otherwise the lecture would have to be cancelled and rescheduled.

Many users' actions would be to call either a technician or a system administrator who would try to fix the equipment problem. However, most mid-conference failures tended to be caused by network problems, and the network provider (e.g. SuperJANET or BT/Mercury) would have to be contacted. Dependent upon a number of factors (e.g. the particular mix of equipment, network, how long the equipment had been installed), different users had differing experiences of technical support. One user had not had many technical problems, despite the fact he had been using the facility quite regularly, so could not comment.

One computer-based desktop user commented that the network links were very unreliable and he would stop broadcasting and use a telephone if the link went down. Problems were nearly always network based and he felt that such breakdowns could not be solved sufficiently quickly.

How do you rate the external network support?

Network and equipment support, in the cases where the equipment was provided externally, varied tremendously across sites. The range of comments included poor, very slow and unresponsive, erratic, varying, moderate, fine and good (although only one service provider commented that the support provided was good).

None of the three computer-based desktop users experienced any problems with external support providers; they supported their own equipment and were generally technically competent in their field.

Would you recommend your facility to others?

The strength of personal recommendation for VC depended upon the application to which it was being put. Of those who used VC for personal uses, two subjects recommended their facility and one did not. Computer-based desktop VC via Mbone was more positively received than SuperJANET for this application, due to prohibitive costs and the distance of a dedicated suite.

All users for presentations said that they would recommend their system, with some reservations. One wanted to try alternative systems and another wanted modifications to his existing system. A computer-based desktop user felt that this form of VC was fine for receiving certain types of presentation, because high visual quality was not a high requirement.

Users of VC for teaching/learning were unreservedly positive. They would recommend VC as it allowed them to reach more students, and provided a new teaching experience.

All users for research purposes recommended VC; one commenting that it allowed more frequent interactions.

For collaborative work, two users said that they would not recommend VC. One studio user commented that the maintenance was too expensive and that many meetings would be served as well by good and cheaper desktop systems. Two computer-based desktop users were very enthusiastic, although one mentioned that the potential user would have to be aware of the limitations of the current technology.

Has VC lived up to your expectations?

Generally VC had lived up to both service providers’ and users’ expectations. Where it did not, this was generally due to a failing of technology/service support, rather than the concept of VC in general.

Is there any advice that you would give others considering the use of VC technology?

This question was asked about each individual application of VC, and some of the advisory comments are listed by application below:
For personal/informal communications... For presentations... For teaching/learning... For research... For collaborative work...

3.5.2 Future uses

Although most sites who responded to the questionnaire were quite happy with their overall VC set-up, many mentioned extra tools and equipment which they would find useful. Two wanted to be able to control the camera at the remote site and another wanted better control of the local camera. Two respondents felt that better resolution codecs or networks would be beneficial. Other studio equipment felt to be useful included file, document or graphic-sharing facilities, a video recorder and a modem. One subject wanted to be able to instantly set up multi-point links without the help of a service provider, and another felt that the variety of potential links, via ISDN and SuperJANET lines should be increased.

Having said that, few VC service providers had the funds to purchase any significant new equipment in the near future. Manchester were looking into providing further studios across their campus and UCL were planning to upgrade their existing equipment if and when funding became available. Ulster were considering the purchase of a whiteboard for their main system, as well as other aggregators, matrix switches, PCs and software. Nottingham had ordered a document visualiser.

Looking a year into the future, some institutions felt that their use of VC would be much as it is now. A few felt that there would be some expansion for specific applications; teaching at Ulster, distance learning at Nottingham, conferences at UCL and collaborative work and meetings at Loughborough. Any significant developments would be as a result of reaching wider networks; for example, Cardiff predicted that they would use a local MAN to reach other higher education institutes and Nottingham hoped to install their own ATM network plus ISDN links to facilitate VC teaching.

In five years time, the most significant predicted changes involved linking to a much wider range of international sites and a proliferation of multi-point rather than point-point conferences. Together with an increase in picture quality and facilities such as file-sharing, this would also increase the number of users and the range of potential applications. Four or five respondents suggested that the future of VC was at the desktop software level; users would be more likely to use a desktop computer-based system for uses such as meetings involving multi-point links.

The barriers currently preventing users from implementing the above changes included the cost of equipment or network time (5 respondents), the unavailability of certain network connections (3 respondents), the unavailability of equipment or software (2 respondents), network reliability (2 respondents) and the relatively small number of ISDN users (1 respondent).

The site interviews examined service providers’ predictions for the future of VC in their institutions and in higher education generally. The two universities who currently used VC mainly for inter-campus meetings and teaching, both felt that the frequency of external and international calls would increase significantly. This, of course, relied on extensions of their internal networks to allow access to MANs, SuperJANET, and other ISDN connections. Additionally, one felt that non-teaching applications, such as interviewing and keeping in touch with distant students, would grow. The ultimate goal of VC was ‘connectivity and ubiquity’; that is, the ability to connect everywhere from anywhere.

Edinburgh were unsure what would happen to the SuperJANET network after the current pilot project ends in 1997. One of the service providers at Edinburgh felt that the future of VC was in computer-based desktop systems only, and that the widespread use of VC would depend on reliable desktop software, faster network links, and good quality standards. A contradictory view was held by another service provider/user who felt that the future of VC was definitely not in desktop use alone. Another, who currently used desktop VC software discussed the benefits of a closer link between VC and the WWW; for example, a user would be able to bring up a web page and simply click on a button to initiate a video conference.

Many service providers were unsure of the future of UKERNA’s involvement with VC and the future of the SuperJANET network. Despite this, however, most institutes were excited about the future of VC, at least for certain applications and certain types of system.

3.5.3 Summary / comment

Although teaching was not the application with the highest usage, it was the one that produced the most positive subjective responses with users believing VC to be very useful and providing good value for money, happy to recommend the technology to other users. It is also probably the application with greatest potential for driving the installation of new ATM networks which will then facilitate other applications.

The general feeling about the future seemed to be that change would take place fairly slowly with the most significant advances in the near future being the interconnection of networks to allow access to additional sites.

Predictions for the long term future were a continuation of this to include more international destinations and easier multi-point and file sharing capability along with a growth in desktop use.

The pattern of perception of the future of VC seems to have changed from a focus on equipment and facilities that would be added or upgraded to a focus on new networks and applications.

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