Case study of IP video conferences with Professional Doctorate in Design students, Taiwan
This paper reports on an investigation of the effectiveness (educationally and technically) of digital video conferencing over IP across two geographically separate locations, Melbourne and various sites in Taiwan. The study looks at the processes required to set up effective communications with students using digital video conference media. It identifies the hurdles that needed to be overcome and looks at the educational values of such link ups. It also addresses some of the technical problems as related to IP video conferences. The study is part of a PhD investigation of the use of digital video as applied to education.
Flexible provision of higher education may be afforded through the employment of various strategies, including the use of learning and teaching techniques and technologies such as CD-ROM, online materials, online communications, print materials, face-to-face tuition, distributed face-to-face sessions, video-on-demand, videotape/audiotape, video conferencing, teleconferencing, TV and radio (Ling, Arger, Meulenberg 2002). The mainstream of video conferencing technologies has been focusing largely on linking up via ISDN and, to some extent, ATM. Now, however, there is a growing trend to use IP as a main transport vehicle for such video conferences. It initially took one year to develop the first version of H.323 standard for duplex video over IP. It took another year to get the new standard approved. Now, some 5 years later, H.323 is still being improved. Version 4.0 of the H.323 protocol has just been produced by RADVISION. The industry continues to push large organisations to send video, audio as well as data over IP. Educational Institutions are also jumping in all over the globe. Swinburne University of Technology is pushing the boundaries a little further by insisting that their overseas Professional Doctorate in Design (DDes) student use it to link up with their supervisors.
Background DDes (international students)
The Professional Doctorate in Design is an innovative program of advanced study designed to meet the professional needs of experienced designers in industry and education. Its focus is upon the new emergent electronics media and their creative application within the fields of design. These have wide application across the entire range of Design professions, and are equally relevant to professionals working in, for example, Industrial Design, and Interior and Exhibition Design. Its project-based structure allows the designer to pursue a research goal appropriate to his/her discipline, while using technology to better achieve that goal.
Research approach and methodology
The research applied was practical. As each video conference project is different a more individual approach was taken here. It followed a structure set by similar projects in video conference research, in particular the 'Information Technology Enhancement Program, Desktop Video conferencing' (Thompson 1997). The Professional Doctorate in Design commenced with eight weeks of intensive study at the Prahran Campus, Melbourne. Part time students then returned to their respective countries to continue to study.
Case study methodology
15 students were involved in the project. The study follows their experiences with video conferencing from concept to realisation. The first students commencing the program were from Taiwan. Of the 15 students, 12 decided to study part-time, and 3 full-time. All of the students are currently employed as lecturers in educational institutions in Taiwan. The Taiwanese government has made a requirement for these lecturers to obtain a PhD. If not, their prospects for promotion are very limited. The part-time students are required to have regular meetings with their supervisors (once per month). The strong visual aspect of their research required visual sighting of their work, hence video conferencing was considered.
ISDN or IP?
Video over ISDN
Initially we looked at standard video conferencing over ISDN (Latchem et al, 1994).
Positives and negatives
On the positive side we could expect good quality video and audio and trust we were applying a reasonably reliable medium using conventional technology. On the negative side there would be significant call cost incurred. The average duration of each meeting was estimated to take one hour, a total of 13 hours in total for all students. The total costs for these regular video calls were considered to be prohibitive. A further problem was the logistics of booking video conference facilities at the Prahran Campus, as the facility is heavily booked, thus making regular meetings, and indeed spontaneous meetings, difficult to organise. Additionally, students at Taiwan did not all have access to ISDN video conference facilities nearby. The 64 % average reliability factor of ISDN connections was also not acceptable (Henkel, 2002).
Video over IP
Positives and negatives
On the positive side we would have no call costs for parties involved. Calls could be made from various locations, provided that high-speed Internet facilities were available, eg. at the office or from home (Aber, 1997; Taylor, 1997). Additionally, no facilities needed to be booked, either at Prahran Campus or in Taiwan.
On the negatives side students needed access to a desktop video conference facility either at work or at home. This was possibly not available to each student. Video and audio quality was likely to suffer in low bandwidth situations and, as such, the reliability factor of using IP video conferencing across ISPs was unknown. The decision to accept IP video conferencing was made by comparing all the pros and cons, with the main deciding factors being accessibility of the systems to each individual as well as the relatively low cost of IP video conferencing as compared with ISDN.
Research was conducted to determine the most appropriate video conference equipment. Many systems were considered, such as: Tandberg, PictureTel, RadVision, Sony, Polycom, Aethra Vega2.
In the investigation a whole range of other IP softwares and systems are also available now, or on trial [http://myhome.hanafos.com/~soonjp/vidconf.html]. Some were investigated and a few were tested.
The final choice of equipment was based on ease of use, quality and reliability of the product, keeping in mind that the project's main aim was not to test particular equipment, but rather to look at the educational and technical outcomes of using the media over IP. We opted to accept the IP video conference using Polycom ViaVideo products, as this was offering QOS and it was affordable as a desktop unit.
First orientation for participating students
In order to inform students about the video conference requirements and to make them familiar with the technology, an initial presentation was given to the group of 13 students in their first weeks at the Prahran Campus. The reasons and benefits of remaining in contact using desktop video conference facilities over IP were explained. In brief the benefits were:
In the orientation a demonstration was given of the Polycom ViaVideo desktop video conference system. Links were established to other ViaVideo systems within the University as well as to external locations in Australia, as well as the USA. Additionally, a link to a Polycom Viewstation was established, which allowed for remote operation of the far end camera (zoom, pan, tilt). Furthermore it was shown that powerful diagnostics were within easy reach. It was stressed that by linking two Polycom systems, excellent video and audio links would result, making this a uniquely suitable system for their purpose (provided that use could be made of Ethernet, Token Ring, DSL, LAN, FDDI, FRAME, T-1, ATM or Cable networks, networks and/or ISPs with at least a minimum of broadband access to the Internet, capable of at least 128 Mbps upload and 128 Mbps download (preferably not shared). Because of the critical visual element of the links, it was essential that only Polycom systems were to be used, as this would increase QOS. It was also pointed out that their respective places of employment (colleges, universities) could fund the purchase of such a system at around AU$1100. Students were asked if this would pose a problem to any of them. No noticeable objections were made.
- Access to powerful visual media would aid their visual presentations.
- For very little financial outlay, cost free video conferencing could occur.
- Supervisors/students could be called upon any time whilst in their office (on demand).
- Video conferencing facilities did not need to be pre-booked.
To re-enforce the importance of establishing a video conference link with their supervisors a second presentation took place a few weeks before the students returned to Taiwan. Identical information was repeated and re-enforced. Also the following documentation was handed out:
Some students raised the possibility that their networks and/or ISPs might not be fast enough; however, by inquiring about their network specifications all said they had access to broadband Internet. These fall within the minimum specs and were acceptable to the research project. No student raised any other possible issues; however, a slight uneasiness was sensed. We were unable to ascertain why this uneasiness existed.
- A handout covering the reasons for the video conference links, minimal technical specifications of PC's that should be used, procedures and a contact IP address.
- Reason for the research.
- A letter explaining confidentiality of the data and identities involved.
- A letter of agreement that students would need to sign
- A letter setting out procedures on how to lodge an official complaint if necessary.
- A data sheet that students needed to complete with student contact details.
- An information sheet explaining procedures on how to access required diagnostic data from the Polycom systems in operation.
Up to this point everything had gone reasonably smooth; however, some difficulties arose. Students were uncertain about their workplaces purchasing a Polycom system. Additionally, upon return to Taiwan communication with students proved difficult, even via Email. We experienced severe technical problems such as Firewall and Bandwidth issues.
Students were uncertain about their workplaces purchasing a Polycom system
A subsequent meeting with two students and the supervisor followed after a few days. In this meeting it became clear that there were issues to be worked out further. Possibly the purchase of Polycom systems was seen as problematic, as their workplaces were not likely to purchase these.
In this meeting SUT invited a representative of the International Student Unit with a Taiwanese background whom also could speak Mandarin. She was also familiar with the local culture.
After addressing the group it soon became clear that the following factors needed to be taken into consideration:
As we, at this stage, could not expect the students to outlay the required funding themselves for the required equipment we suggested the following alternatives:
- It was unlikely that their respective places of employment would support the purchase of equipment valued at around $1100.
- It was unlikely that individual students could afford a Polycom system from their own pockets.
- It seemed that other (low end) IP video conferencing systems were much more within reach as indeed some already existed at their workplace or at home.
Option 1 would be inconvenient to the students, as most of them would have to travel to the location of the shared desktop facility. Option 2 was considered, but large group systems were not easily at hand. Also, significant call costs for each video conference call would be incurred either to the students or to the University. These were likely to be twice the cost of a timed telephone call. This would be a costly path to take. Furthermore the logistics of arranging both video conference facilities at simultaneously suitable times was seen as prohibitive. Option 3 would diminish the video and audio quality of the medium. It was expected that the Taiwanese end would receive a good picture from the Swinburne University; however, Swinburne University would receive poor quality images from Taiwan because of the low-end desktop technologies used there. Significant packet loss of audio as well as video was to be expected resulting in broken audio and video freeze.
- Students could divide themselves into groups that were within acceptable distance of a central point in Taiwan. Each group, as a whole, could obtain access to one Polycom system that could be shared by the individuals making up that group.
- Students could try to obtain access to a conventional video conference system within each of their areas.
- Use could be made of existing (low end) IP video conference units that already existed at their workplace or at home. If linking up with these units was not satisfactory to the supervisors involved, students would need to upgrade to a Polycom system after all, either as a group or as individuals.
Much discussion ensued to flesh out possible choices. Students then made up their minds as follows:
|Total students enrolled in Doctorate of Design||13|
|Total students studying full time in Australia|| 2|
|Total students studying part time in Taiwan||11 (needing access to VC facilities)|
|5||Group A (sharing Polycom)|
|1||Small camera via IVisit|
|1||Buys new camera, perhaps Polycom|
|1||Small IP camera from home|
|1||Large VC system work, will also try small IP camera at work|
|2||Small IP camera from school|
Upon return to Taiwan communication with students proved difficult, even via email.
Students went home and appeared to hope that it would all go away. But it didn't. A week in October (2001) was set aside in which students were expected to establish contact with a test unit at SUT. All students were issued with two IP numbers, one to a ViaVideo unit and another to a ViewStation. According to their choices a total of 6 calls were expected - 5 calls from individuals using smaller cameras, 1 call from group A using a ViaVideo. None came. After reminding all students via email a new date was set. No calls came in again, some students emailed that they were busy doing other things. A new date was set again, now a total of 2 weeks later. In that week 3 calls from individuals were received as video calls with mixed results. 2 students rang in using smaller cameras running it from their homes via NetMeeting on an ADSL network. 1 student rang in with a small camera using software on a Macintosh computer.
Video conference trials were not what was desired
The first 2 calls delivered poor quality video with lots of visual freezes. Audio was sporadic and almost non-existing. These calls were made during daytime hours in Taiwan. Students reported that ADSL networks are usually very congested at this time. It was suggested to shift the calls to early morning Taiwan time 8 am (10 am Melbourne time). This provided some improvement. Video and audio contact was established. Packet loss still occurred. Only two students ringing in with the small camera, via NetMeeting, made calls that came through best. Packet loss was least both in audio and video.
The video frame rate was as follows for all calls at 8 am:
|Tx fps (from SUT)||Rx fps (from Taiwan)|
|Student 4||Not received|
|Student 5||Not received|
|Group A||Not received|
One student suggested to use Ivisit software since this also worked with Macs; however, when tested the systems were not compatible as Polycom works with the H.323 standard and Ivisit uses H.263.
First Polycom link-up
As these initial tests were only partly successful, and none had made use of a Polycom system, we decided to send one ViaVideo system to an IT literate student. This would at least provide us with the possibility of testing the Polycom system. It would also provide the basis for the argument to either urge the other students to purchase a Polycom system OR it would prove a fruitless exercise if the quality was not improved. The ViaVideo was set up and suitable times for linking were arranged, early in the morning Taiwan time to avoid Internet congestion. The student was asked to wait for our call but a connection could not be made. Communication was difficult. A lot of email (non-synchronous) communication went backwards and forward, often missing each other. Several attempts were made until time ran out and other commitments needed attention.
New appointments were made with similar outcomes; however, the student could make local (intranet) calls and SUT cold make other (internet) calls successfully. Soon it was realised that outgoing calls (external to the University) could be made but not received (external). I checked with the University ITS department who informed me that a new Firewall had recently been installed. They just had not informed us. This explained why incoming calls were not coming through. A request was made to set up individual access permissions for all Polycom systems in the project. We now needed to specify each IP address at SUT that expected incoming video conference calls. This would allow us to open individual ports for each of those locations to allow traffic to flow in. The firewall in question is a Cisco pix firewall running IOS 6.1.1. Whilst that was being worked on contact with the Taiwan based Polycom system was finally made. The result was acceptable.
|Tx fps (from SUT)||Rx fps (from Taiwan)|
Bandwidth issues: First supervisor links
The first supervisor link was established before the successful Polycom test occurred. Although a Polycom system was not used the connection was successful; however, the picture appeared intermittent but was adequate. The sound was acceptable, although not without the occasional break-up problem. 3 supervising staff were involved. Although conditions were not ideal, supervisors felt it worked well enough and certainly achieved its purpose in having a sense of direct contact with the student. As the Polycom test had proved successful, we now needed definite information on the bandwidth availability at each Taiwanese location. It was known that SUT had a 34 Mbps ISP pipeline, which was exceptionally suitable for video over IP to anywhere in the world. Other places would most probably have significantly less. Students were asked to provide simple feedback on their Internet pipelines. The results were as follows:
|Swinburne University||34 Mbps|
|Student 1||T2 for school, T1 for proxy server|
|Student 2||ADSL 512 kbps downlink, 56 kbps uplink (home)|
|Student 3||ADSL 512 kbps downlink, 56 kbps uplink (home)|
|Student 4||36 kbps uplink|
|Student 5||Not received|
|Group A||Not received|
Subsequent link ups with students 1, 2 and 3 showed that the T1 access was acceptable but that the ADSL access was very unreliable. Early morning link ups to avoid 'traffic' on the networks made some, but insignificant, difference.
Cultural and language issues
In Western culture we take for granted a communication style that basically consists of relatively straightforward question and answer. In most cases questions that are raised, either formally or in casual conversation, will be answered directly. We may, at times, not like the answers to our questions, but as a rule this is accepted. As this is the Western way of communicating we may assume that this is the case elsewhere. In other cultures, however, this may not always be the case. In some cultures it may be better to answer a question differently if the answer might put a person in an embarrassing situation (culturally). Eg. asking for road directions in some countries, to a person unfamiliar with the neighbourhood, will still attract a happy explanation of how to get there, as it is more polite to answer the question positively than to answer it with a negative reply. In some cultures it may be better not to answer an email when the answer might be negative or unknown, as this could possibly save face. On other occasions a culture might place family commitments first. According to Whitley (1991), 'In Chinese society, commitment to one's family overrides all other loyalties, and individual prestige is based on family standing rather than being organisational or occupational'. As our Taiwanese students were combining full-time work with part-time study as well as family life, a few were complaining about "having not enough time" for the project. Additionally English is not always fully understood, even though students may appear to. This may also stems from the belief that it is better not to disappoint. When not aware of such customs and behaviour, frustration (in our culture) could (and did) occur.
Some of these issues might have played a part in our communications with the students.
The investigations for the report "Video conferencing in Higher Education in Australia" (Mitchell et al 1992) informs us that the aspects of video conferencing lecturers like best are as follows:
The Taiwanese video conferences certainly created the feeling of visual contact at the meetings. Body language was clear enough to be useful. Visually, participants needed to be reminded of proper camera placement in order to obtain better eye lines. Visuals were useful in as much that design work could be displayed with relative ease, even though technical problems were part of most link ups. The Taiwanese video conferences attracted the following comments from staff involved:
- Video conferencing is easier to prepare for than other distance delivery modes.
- Distant students like seeing their lecturer.
- The medium enables a lecturer to offer stronger support to their students.
- The medium provides opportunities for real time action.
- The medium provides students with opportunities to interact with peers from other sites.
- The visual medium, used appropriately, is very effective.
- You are 'aware of the technology', eg. you are aware of its shortcomings when the frame rate is low and the audio drops out. This is not good!
- You are never certain that a connection can be made as there are so many technical issues seemingly standing in the way. This resulted in either connections not being able to be made, or at least connections being too poor and thus unsatisfactory.
- One supervisor commented that the picture was too small and could not be enlarged (a problem with NT).
- It was hard to concentrate on the conversation as too many technical issues were occurring.
The following recommendations for process and do's and don'ts are provided as a guideline. They are based on linking up with participants from non-English speaking countries, but can be applied to other mainstream video conferences as well.
- Test and select the appropriate Video conference equipment for your situation.
- Train students and staff in all facets of video conferencing.
- Ensure students obtain access to identical video conference equipment.
- Ensure language barriers are cleared before the video conferences commence.
- Beware of cultural differences before commencing projects and find a way to work with it.
- Adhere to a rigid timetable, preferably at less busy network times.
- Use MSN Messenger, or similar, for synchronous backup communication.
- Ensure your IT department is aware of your program.
- Ensure firewall issues are cleared, preferably on both the far and local end.
Main problems encountered
- Obtaining the same video conference equipment.
- Poor communication with students, once overseas.
- Time restraints of students overseas (Part Time).
- Firewall issues.
- Bandwidth issues.
- Cultural and language differences.
What to do
- Insist on using the same standard VC equipment, this will make problem solving easier.
- Obtain bandwidth information at all locations from IT staff, before commencing the program.
- Keep close contact with key IT staff in your organisation.
- Keep the first video meetings short, increasing duration once expertise has developed.
What not to do
- Do not assume performance specs as supplied by equipment suppliers are 100 % accurate.
- Do not assume your English is understood.
- Do not assume participating students will respond to your email requests.
- Do not assume email alone is a good way of communicating.
- Do not assume students are ok with the technology, even after instruction and training sessions.
- Ensure to check appropriate equipment is set up and camera alignment (eye lines, eye level).
- Audio takes priority over vision (microphone close to source, away from speakers).
- Use an additional camera or zoom lens for detailed or large visual displays.
- Use a reasonably lit room.
- Do not have bright objects in frame.
- Seek neutral background settings, with no backlight.
- A bright screen takes longer to transmit than a normal lit screen.
- Be aware of technical limitations.
- Be aware of human limitations.
- Be aware of educational limitations.
Although we expected the focus of this program to be on Education and Technology, the outcomes have clearly indicated that the psychology and behaviour of the participants have been major factors in the program thus far. Although the supervisors meetings have been somewhat disrupted by this process, the results are encouraging enough to persist only with the few links that conform to the required technical standards.
The author wishes to acknowledge contributions to the research reported in this paper made by Professor Allan Whitfield, NSD, Swinburne University of Technology.
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|Author: Paul Meulenberg is Assistant Director, Centre for Learning and Teaching, Instruction and Curriculum (CeLT, IC), Swinburne University of Technology (SUT). Ph. (03) 9214 8458. Qualifications include: Cert Teacher Training (Hawthorn Institute of Education), M.T.S Architecture, (Amsterdam), BA Film & Television (SUT), Commenced Masters/ progressing towards PhD in Design by research (SUT). He is experienced in the application and design of video conferencing systems across educational institutions.
Please cite as: Meulenberg, P. (2002). Case study of IP video conferences with Professional Doctorate in Design students, Taiwan. In S. McNamara and E. Stacey (Eds), Untangling the Web: Establishing Learning Links. Proceedings ASET Conference 2002. Melbourne, 7-10 July. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/2002/meulenberg.html
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