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The use of interactive video conferencing in education and training: Recent developments in Victoria

Peter Jamieson and Keith Rees
Victorian TAFE Off Campus Network

How are things down on the farm?

On March 21, 1989 several dozen Victorian farmers drove to a number of isolated rural sites to discuss their concerns with a leading national taxation authority.

Greeted by a local tutor at each site, and provided with printed support material and a teleconferencing terminal, they were ready to begin.

At that moment, hundreds of miles away in Melbourne, a crew of three was using simple VHS equipment to televise the presentation by Mr Geoff Nielson to the farmers.

The program was delivered live via satellite and participants spoke directly to the presenter by way of a telephone conference.

Simultaneously, in Mildura several hundred observers (teachers, students and interested community members) packed the reception site at Sunraysia College of TAFE (SCOT) to witness the inaugural Sunraysia Project video conference into Victoria's remote north west.

Video conferencing configurations

As it has developed in Australia, video conferencing for education and training can be configured in a number of ways according to the requirements of the learning program.

The most prominent systems are:

  1. Two way conferences linking designated campuses. Using optical fibre lines, these systems are generally used to deliver regular on campus accredited courses on a continuing basis. These systems can also be used effectively for administrative purposes between campuses. Both the sound and visual image are received simultaneously at either point via the television receiver. This two way communication of sound and video is accurately termed video conferencing. The two remaining systems are often discussed under the same banner, but are not strictly video conferencing.

  2. One way video/sound to a single point usually delivered by optical fibre lines (satellite is an expensive option to single sites). Conferencing is achieved by providing a separate sound link from the reception site back to the teaching point - usually a telephone link. This system is best suited to programs which are about "one way" teaching / instruction, but require interaction via the audio link. The teacher does not require a visual image from students at the reception site. Generally the reception site is located on a campus and is devoted to the provision of accredited on campus courses at a distance.

  3. One way video/sound via satellite to multiple points, interaction being provided by a telephone conference linking all sites. As with the previous system, this one is used where one way visual instruction is required alongside two way audio. With this system it is possible to use all or some of the V-SAT(Very Small Aperture Terminal) and TVRO (Television Receive Only) sites according to need. Significantly, flexibility can be increased through the provision of mobile sites which can be set up for single programs, unlike fixed facilities on campuses. The number of participating sites is limited to the capacity of available telephone conference bridging equipment (recently increased from about 20 lines to 60 or more through Telecom's new Conferlink service) which provides the audio feedback link. This system provides widespread coverage beyond a campus and is suitable for a range of programs.

The Sunraysia Project

The Sunraysia Project's telecommunications system has been configured according to this final model as it reflects the broad ambitions of the project.

The project, which has been a joint venture by the TAFE Off Campus Coordinating Authority in Melbourne, Sunraysia College of TAFE and the Gordon Technical College in Geelong, has focused on the use of video conferencing for off campus delivery. A Commonwealth Government grant was provided to establish satellite transmitting and receiving facilities and to pay for an initial block of satellite time. The project presently consists of a network of 16 sites.

A major emphasis has been on the provision of access to education and training opportunities where these would not otherwise be available, or could only be presented by less effective means.

Had a terrestrial link accommodating two way conferencing to Mildura been available at the outset, it would not have met the project's requirements. Such a link will soon be established but it will only enhance, and not replace, the method of satellite delivery to outlying locations.

The Victorian government's expanding terrestrial (fibre optic) telecommunications network (VISTEL) linking Melbourne with regional centres will provide a less costly system of delivery which can be integrated with the satellite delivery system according to the needs of a particular program.


The Sunraysia Project is a response to the very real need to overcome the isolation of a large community from existing government services due to the absence of effective and efficient methods of delivery.

In part, the project has trialed the delivery of regular on campus courses into the Mildura campus of SCOT However, it has largely been concerned with encouraging, and then training and supporting, a variety of program providers to deliver a range of programs to largely off campus locations.

A number of the video conferences have been one off, fee for service programs which have complemented a broader study package. In the case of the inaugural 'Taxation for Farmers' program described at the outset, participants could enrol for the video conference presentation supported by a local tutor and study notes (cost $20), or they could include it within a larger course of study (cost $60). This program reflects the project's aim to provide integrated study packages featuring the video conference component. Each of the programs has proceeded on the important principle that it would not constitute a stand alone, low level technology television program.

Programs transmitted under the Sunraysia Project have included a professional workshop on the disabled in employment and education, social science and business studies programs, and a VCE English exam preparation seminar for country secondary students.

The most recent transmission was a program on ergonomic furniture and the application of ergonomic principles to office procedures. This program was transmitted from Melbourne to the Sunraysia College of TAFE and five prisons around Victoria, each of which had installed a satellite dish (temporarily relocated from other Sunraysia Project sites).

Technical obstacles

The Sunraysia delivery system has presented certain problems in a number of programs. Overcoming these limitations has become a project priority.

The most regularly frustrating technical problem has occurred with the teleconferencing. Often one or more sites have encountered difficulty for part or even an entire program.

Frantic efforts are then required as the program continues, to improve or restore the telephone signal to the affected site(s) to enable full interaction. Where the problem has continued throughout a program, those participants have still been able to receive the inward video/sound signal and have heard exchanges between other sites and the teacher through the television receiver. In these circumstances interaction and therefore active student involvement has been lost.

Generally, these problems occur at the point of the telephone conference bridging equipment and Telecom is being pressured to address this issue. To date, no interference has occurred with the live television signal at any site during any program. The general practice of transmitting a visual/sound signal prior to the actual program allows all reception sites to tune their receivers if necessary.

All programs transmitted under the Sunraysia Project have been conducted at a band width of 2MB. This has resulted in surprisingly good quality images, and has been more than capable of meeting the demands of 'talking heads', use of graphics and charts, prerecorded video, demonstrations of practical skills and the operation of technical equipment.

Video conferencing principles

Lessons we have learnt through the experience of transmitting the Sunraysia Project programs suggest to us a number of important principles to be observed in planning and conducting video conferences. Attention to these principles (which are by no means exhaustive) should save future users of video conferencing considerable time and anxiety.

Presentation style

Sticking rigidly to a detailed script leads to a very wooden presentation. A script/lesson plan should necessarily be a flexible guide.

Despite the mix of programs and content areas covered under the project, all of the teachers and presenters (often non teaching professionals in a particular subject) have shared a common ability to conduct themselves in a confident conversational manner.

Composure before the camera is essential.

Staff development

A consistency in presentation (which in itself is vital) has been brought about in the Sunraysia Project by a program of staff development for teacher(s)/presenter(s) conducted by staff from the TAFE Off Campus Coordinating Authority. The experience of previous programs is shared with new presenters and experience has established a number of basic television presentation techniques which assist any presentation.

Prior to the program, ideally at a rehearsal if this is at all possible, the novice presenter is made to address, among other things:

  1. Overall appearance and suitable dress (glasses can create distracting reflections).

  2. Vocal dynamics, ie avoidance of a monotone

  3. Methods to involve student activity in the program.

  4. Telephone conferencing protocols and procedures (essential for a system depending on audio only interaction).

  5. Structuring the program to maximise student interest and the effectiveness of the medium.

  6. Capitalising on well produced, relevant graphics.
These concerns may be thought of us as the "down" side of using what is normally an exclusive technology. However, most of these basic skills can be acquired readily once the presenter has been made aware of them.

Television protocols

The presenter and crew involved in a video conference cannot ignore the fact that the television camera is an intrusive instrument and that students/participants are extremely literate in basic television programming protocols. Although video conferencing cannot, and should not, attempt to compete with the standards of broadcast television, it is directly related to that medium. Each student will bring to a video conference an expectation of what television "looks like". Abiding by the basic television protocols may prevent a student becoming distracted from the program content.

Basic protocols include:

  1. Presenter looking into the camera or to a chairperson/interviewer (not somewhere in between).

  2. Graphics should be legible and designed (and redesigned if necessary) according to the needs of the student rather than the prior knowledge of the presenter.

  3. If two (or more) people are on camera, shots should be matched in terms of camera angles and the size of people in the frame.

  4. Dress should be appropriate for the program content and the expectations of the audience. Stark white, all reds, fluorescent colours, and fine checks etc, should be avoided.

  5. Lack of variation in camera shots induces boredom. A close up engenders more intimacy and involvement and can instantly convey a presenter's sense of commitment and self assurance, (but equally, extreme nervousness is instantly and painfully obvious).
The most important skill any presenter can master is the art of looking confidently into the camera and therefore at each student. Where there is no group of students at the presentation site to teach to, it can be useful to position someone alongside the camera to develop a sense of audience and proper eye contact.

The project's most effective programs have been those where the presenter is able to develop a sense of personal dialogue with one or more participants at each reception site. This technique can help to avoid embarrassing silences when questions are put to groups of anonymous students.

Teleconferencing protocols

In any program, the presenter's first task is to confirm that all sites are receiving the video/sound signals and are linked to the telephone conference. It is at this point that a system for taking questions from sites can be established by the presenter. During this initial round up of sites, the presenter should take the opportunity to break the ice by encouraging a quick exchange in each instance, thereby making later participation more likely.


The Sunraysia Project has established the important role of a chairperson/host who can introduce the program, conduct the telephone conference, contribute to the exchange of information by putting questions to the presenter where necessary, and generally allow the presenter to concentrate on the program content. This is an even more critical role when multiple reception sites are involved or where technical interference occurs with the telephone conference.

Tutor support

Providing integrated study packages, not merely television programs, has serious implications for the provision of human and other resources, as well as for the coordination of the entire delivery network.

This approach necessitates the establishment of a coordinated network for the efficient distribution of any support study materials and advertising brochures or enrolment forms; for fees collection (if required) and the provision of on site tutorial support; as well as the operation and maintenance of the V-SAT and TVRO facilities.

Much work has gone into staff development activities to promote the specific role of the local tutor for video conferences. At isolated reception sites, the local tutor functions as the host for students and must necessarily perform a number of tasks. Chief among them is to prepare students for the style of program they are about to receive; that is, it is not broadcast standard, and in contrast to passive viewing of regular television, in video conferencing participation is the name of the game.

The local tutor also has a crucial instructional role and is vital in the identification of key issues, the clarification of different points and in prompting valuable questions from the group. The tutor's role is absolutely vital when the live video presentation is divided into separate segments separated by on site activities and study between transmissions.

Economy of effort

Video conferences are generally more successful when several of the production/ technical/ instructional design roles are performed by the one person. The rigid distinction between production roles and the understandable concern to produce a quality product, must be weighed against the certain impact on cost resulting from large crews.

Major issues in video conferencing

Lack of flexibility in "real time" programs?

In the eyes of its critics, video conferencing is rigidly scheduled, thereby denying students any flexibility for study and negotiating convenient access according to the personal circumstances of distance education students.

Certainly, unlike telephone conferencing which is particularly convenient, video delivery requires students to assemble at a specific location and at a prescribed time.

The concept of flexibility (access) is not, however, simply one of time and space. The Sunraysia Project has successfully provided access to resources, education and training which would not otherwise be made available, or would be provided in a less satisfactory form. Through its programming, the project has established that interactive video conferencing can be an effective and preferred method of program delivery.

A hidden problem for staff development

Some months into the project, a fundamental flaw in the entire operation was exposed. Considering the possible opportunities for involvement, through management and project committees, and as presenters and production crew, there had been very few women involved.

The Sunraysia experience points to the need to actively provide opportunities for women to participate in order that they may have an effective role in the application of this significant technology, and in determining policy and procedures governing its use in education and training.

The project sought to redress this imbalance by actively cultivating the involvement of women production staff, hosts and presenters of programs. Such a staff arrangement was responsible for an examination preparation program for country VCE students in October, 1989. Subsequently, women have played key roles in several programs.

It is intended that a resource base of experienced women be established to assist with, and actively encourage, the increasing participation of women in future video conferences, both behind and in front of the camera.

Need for coordination

One of the successes of the Project has been the cooperation between the various sectors of tertiary, TAFE and secondary education which has taken place in a number of programs.

In turn, this has highlighted the need for the coordination of any further developments in video conferencing in Victoria (and between other states) beyond the Sunraysia trial.

Staff development, resource allocation, programming and the accessibility of programs are all factors which should be coordinated by a responsible authority.

If this occurs, it becomes relatively easy for an interested educational institution, government agency, or industry or community group to mount a program.

However, failing proper coordination of video conferencing, individual institutions will continually face the gulf between the potential widespread communications network available to them, and the limitations on their own resources to maintain and utilise that network.

Given the cost of video conferencing, many programs may only be effective when access is guaranteed to a wide range of reception sites. (A reception site fee or individual student fee may help to recoup costs).

Teachers and video conferencing

It is particularly instructive that almost everyone involved in the Sunraysia programs comes from an educational and not a technical background. Key staff have generally combined teaching experience with significantly less expertise in television production. The comparative success of the Sunraysia Project is due in large part to this factor.

A range of approaches may be adopted for video conferencing productions. Very simple programs may be transmitted by one person in a suitably equipped "studio" using a panel of buttons and switches remotely controlling a fixed single or multi camera set up. The Sunraysia College of TAFE has developed such a facility ("SCOT COM") which may also be used in more complex programs where the basic console is linked to supplementary equipment and operations.

The decision concerning the degree of production complexity built into a program should be an educational one. That is, do what is required to achieve the educational aims. All Sunraysia Project programs have been produced using two (cheap, VHS portapack style) cameras, with a small vision mixer and standard lapel microphones. Most programs have used a crew of three people.

The crucial point of this discussion is that video conferencing will be most effective when it is in the hands of appropriately trained teachers. It does not require significant expertise in television production. In the course of the project, generally the greatest resistance to video conferencing as a learning medium (especially criticism of its low grade production levels) has come from qualified television production staff at educational institutions.

Any attempt to hand over responsibility for video conferencing to production staff in the "white elephant" television studios common to many campuses should be resisted strenuously.

Video conferencing has little to do with television beyond initial appearances. Principally, it is about teachers/instructors doing what they do best; that is, providing real time learning experiences to students (sometimes in a classroom, sometimes at a distance). That a relatively exclusive technology is employed should not overly concern any of us. It is simply another learning medium.

The future of video conferencing

In Victoria, a range of future programs is planned in support of accredited off campus courses in real estate studies and further professional development for real estate practitioners. Trialing the state wide delivery of professional training and development of officers in the Victorian ambulance service is also planned.

Beyond the lifespan of the Sunraysia Project, the future of video conferencing is less clear. It may be picked up by commercial organisations (IBM has just installed its ISEN system for training using two way video conferencing). In educational institutions video conferencing will be an important part of flexible delivery strategies, if the technologies associated with the range of flexible delivery strategies are adopted and used in mainstream programming.

The basis of the infrastructure is in place. But the main battle will be to change the attitudes of teachers and administrators to allow existing recurrent funds to be redirected to support video conferencing and other educational technologies. It would be a pity if video conferencing were confined to the fringe of educational programming for short range or "one off" fee paying activities. It has great potential as an educational medium to be used in conjunction with established technologies and teaching practices, as well with as the emerging computer and associated telecommunication technologies. It is not a universal panacea, rather one of a large number of educational options.

Authors: Peter Jamieson, Educational Technologist/Project Coordinator and Keith Rees, Head, Educational Technology, Victorian TAFE Off Campus Network.

Please cite as: Jamieson, P. and Rees, K. (1990). The use of interactive video conferencing in education and training: Recent developments in Victoria. In J. G. Hedberg, J. Steele and M. Mooney (Eds), Converging Technologies: Selected papers from EdTech'90, 163-170. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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