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.
The most prominent systems are:
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.
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).
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.
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.
Prior to the program, ideally at a rehearsal if this is at all possible, the novice presenter is made to address, among other things:
Basic protocols include:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech90/jamieson.html