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Educational video conferencing enters the Australian schooling sector

Seamus O'Grady
Catholic Education Office, Sydney

Students in five inner western Sydney Catholic secondary schools are participating in the Australian school sector's most advanced application of educational video conferencing. Using state of the art PictureTel equipment, students are being linked by two way audio and video for classes in key learning areas such as languages, humanities and mathematics.

Video conferencing is being used to conduct classes in subjects where there are a small number of students at different schools linked to a specialist teacher at one of the schools. Particular student groupings include the gifted and talented, special education and school leaders. Network meetings of subject coordinators and programs for the professional development of teachers are a further two key applications of the video conferencing network known as VIDSAT.

The VIDSAT network uses Telecom Australia's ISDN cable technology for the transmission of the live, interactive television. Transmission costs, at a few dollars per hour, enable the schools to use this technology as often as they need each day. This paper traces the origin of the project: accessing Commonwealth funding, winning school and system support for the innovation and managing the implementation process, and reports on some early findings on the effectiveness of learning by video conferencing in the school context. It explores the claim that video conferencing can enable schools greater access and equity in curriculum irrespective of their size, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. The author is the founding director of the project.

Photo: A video conference in progress


In 1992, as Consultant on behalf of the Catholic Education Office, to five inner western Sydney Catholic secondary schools, I floated with the Principals the idea of using technology to share curriculum resources among their schools.

The Principals had been grappling with the problem of trying to extend their curricula to meet the needs of students with a wide range of ability, ethnicity and socio-economic status, particularly in the areas of languages and post compulsory years education.

The schools ranged from a small, struggling boys school of 250 students through to two large single sex schools of over 800 students each. The five schools were located within a radius of five kilometres in a densely populated part of Sydney facing an overall slow decline in student population.

In addition, a number of selective and special function schools in the area were making the competition for students even tighter. With stable or falling enrolments, our schools, especially the smaller ones, found it difficult to generate funding to expand their curriculum offerings to compete with the curricula offered by these schools.


St. Thomas High
Christian Brothers College
Domremy College
Bethlehem College
De La Salle College
Five Dock
Boys 7-10
Boys 7-10
Girls 7-12
Girls 7-12
Boys 7-12

Table A: VIDSAT participant schools

The network of Principals thus established ("The Inner West Cooperative") achieved a degree of cooperation regarding enrolments, sharing some staff and certain curriculum subjects (eg, a hospitality course mounted by De La Salle was made available to neighbouring Bethlehem College). In terms of technology, the network discussed the emergence of CD-ROM and the concept of "virtual library", interactive satellite television broadcasts and video conferencing.

DEET funding: The QCATSE element

Coincidentally, in September 1992, the Commonwealth Government through its Department of Employment, Education and Training, introduced a new element into its capital works program: Quality, Competencies and Technological Support Element.

With regard to the use of funds, it pointed out that:

"Proposals must be directed to capital projects which will:
  1. enable a school to improve the quality of schooling and to meet the needs of the increasingly diverse school population and of new education and training initiatives, by enhancing and broadening its curriculum offerings

  2. enable teachers to raise the quality of their support to students, for example, by improving areas for the preparation and delivery of materials

  3. enable schools to use advances in technology and to raise the technological standard of facilities so that curricula can be effectively implemented

  4. encourage links between schools and other education sectors and the workplace."
    (Commonwealth Programs for Schools Administrative Guidelines 1994, p.42)
"The following list is indicative (but not exhaustive) of the types of projects that are eligible under this Element:
This document arrived too late in the term to be addressed by the Principals, but presuming on their stated desire in the network to seek ways of sharing curriculum resources, I applied on their behalf for a Commonwealth Grant of $167,000 towards a budget of $239,000 (the schools contribution being the difference):
To establish an Interactive Communications Network among a group of Inner West secondary schools to enable individual schools to access a range of curriculum offerings held collectively by the group.

The establishment of video conferencing facilities at each of the five schools enabling any school to transmit, interactively, lessons to other schools.

The establishment of an "Earth Station" at each of the five schools to access interactive satellite television broadcasts..."
(taken from the original submission to DEET, September 1992)

Amid some degree of surprise and excitement, the grant approval was obtained in February 1993.

Winning school and system support

In general, the Principals and Catholic Education Office staff had little problem accepting the concept of interactive satellite broadcasting although none had experienced it first hand. Video conferencing, however, was totally outside their experience. Two demonstrations by PictureTel (at the time managed by AAP) at their Glebe offices left Principals with reactions ranging from "very enthusiastic" to "unconvinced" as to its potential for learning in the school situation.

Their growing awareness of its use in TAFE and Higher Education in Australia was reassuring but there was, as far as we knew, no application in the school sector from which to learn.

At this point, one Principal decided to withdraw his school from the Project, citing his concern that it might well become a "white elephant". Fortunately, other Principals had heard of the Project, and the place was quickly filled by a two school campus at Lakemba with a shared library facility.

SchoolSuburb TypeEnrolment

St. John's College
MacKillop Girls' High
Boys 7-10
Girls 7-10

Table B: VIDSAT replacement schools

The receiving satellite antennae were installed at all five sites by ACESAT with minimum fuss, and connected to the Schools' COMMANDER AUDIOVISUAL SYSTEMS to distribute the broadcasts to classrooms. This equipment works well, the library staff are being trained in using it and teachers are becoming aware of the programs available.

  • PictureTel Model 150E with 27 inch monitor, keypad, PTZ Camera, L64E/SG3 Dual Software, ISDN Terminal Adaptor and Dual X.21 Interface.
  • Document camera.
  • Mobile cart.
  • Picture in picture.
  • Installation.
  • On site training and consultancy, including documentation.

Table C: Video conferencing equipment provided to each of the 3 sites
(initially Lewisham, Five Dock, Lakemba)

Both the NSW Open Training and Education Network (OTEN) and Direct Broadcast Network (DBN) are aware of the interest of schools to have more programs produced for the school curriculum (limited at present to some primary languages and TAFE sponsored courses). While the cost of installing a satellite dish and the associated black boxes is relatively inexpensive (somewhere between $2,500 and $5,000), the cost of production and broadcasting programs in an interactive mode is not cheap. The broadcast needs to be taken by a large number of students (schools) to be cost effective. It is not my purpose in this paper to discuss the costs for schools of using interactive satellite television, but to point out the contrast with video conferencing.

Diagram 1

Diagram 1: Essential elements to establish a video conference

ISDNthis is the digital network required to carry the signal between the two or more conference sites.
NTIis the physical interface that the Microlink service terminates on, and to which the TA is connected.
TAthis is a device similar to a modem which is used to interface the ISDN network. It enables the codec to transmit and receive information over the ISDN. The TA is used like a modem to call the desired number to connect each end and hence establish a video conference.
CODECThe word CODEC is used to describe the action of this device. Its name is made up of two components, CODE and to DECODE, hence the name CODEC. This device takes all the inputs from the conference room: Audio, Video and Graphics, generating a digital signal which it transmits to the codec at the other conference site, which in turn decode this digital signal and converts it into a signal which can be utilised by the monitors and speakers. The same process operates in each CODEC simultaneously enabling the live video conference to proceed.

Table D: Some terminology

The lowest tender for our video conferencing requirements was just below $69K per site in June 1993. At this price, we were able to purchase only three sets of equipment instead of five, and work towards a time sharing arrangement with the five schools in the project which by now had adopted the title of VIDSAT (The Inner Western Regions Video conferencing and Satellite Network). This was a less than desirable change to the Project and resulted in a reduction in the applications that could be attempted in the initial phase.

PictureTel has recently advised me that over the past 12 months, a similar installation could be achieved for around 20% lower price. Telecom recommended and provided access to its Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) via a Telecom Microlink in the project schools. This Microlink service provides two 64K channels which when combined together in a Codec produce the required minimum band width to facilitate a video conference of acceptable quality within Australia (and overseas).

Microlink access annual charge
Dual port*


* included in the quotation from PictureTel

Table E: Capital costs: Telecom Microlink (August 1993)



$4.00 per hour
$63.00 per hour
(maximum, eg. Sydney-Perth)
$380.00 per hour
(eg. Sydney-USA)

Table F: Typical call costing (at 128k) (August 1993)

I have spent some time dwelling on the cost factor, because, although I expect the cost of video conferencing is still beyond the reach of most schools, it has dropped significantly in the past two years and once the initial capital cost hurdle is overcome, the running costs are low. This latter consideration means that teachers, in exploring its potential for the classroom need not be too restricted by finance. McBeath and Atkinson (1992) argue that

"the predominant limitation handed up to the instructional design and curriculum development layers (of an educational institution) arise from the high cost, high risk nature of the technology". (p.127)
Video conferencing presents as a classic chicken and egg dilemma - how can teachers adequately assess its value in a school setting unless they have free and ready access to such a unit (and links with at least one other school)? VIDSAT attracted DEET funding through QCATSE because one of its key goals was to promote the extension of the curriculum for students in the post compulsory years. (vocational education and training). But the potential use for video conferencing in the classroom extends from K-12. There is a pressing need for governments and systems to support experimentation with video conferencing (and other technologies that enable curriculum sharing and extension) in a broad range of school settings.

Besides the government grant and school contribution, two other avenues for financial assistance have been explored:

Further support for this project came with the official launch by the Hon. Ross Free, Minister for Schools Vocational Education and Training, in March 1994. A four site video conference (Five Dock, Lakemba, Lewisham, and, for a special segment, the Tanami Aboriginal Network in Central Australia) brought together educational administrators, researchers, teachers and students for an exciting interchange of greetings, ideas and hopes for a technology that can cross boundaries of culture, socio- economic status and geographical distance. This launch attracted considerable media attention, all of which helped to arouse the educational community to the potential of extending the classroom walls by the use of two way compressed digital video conferencing.

In the pilot year of 1994, several sessions have been held to allow educational administrators, Principals, teachers, parents and students to assess its potential for school use. VIDSAT has published a brochure for a wide audience, a Newsletter for teachers and made press releases for significant developments.

Managing the implementation process

From the outset, we applied current knowledge of effective change management theory and practice to the implementation phase:

Philosophic and conceptual level (the Policy Group)

The participants in this Group need to take a 2-5 year perspective and to consider fundamental, long term issues such as: why use video conferencing; is video conferencing appropriate and effective for the region; how can it be funded; are the appropriate policies in place; how can it be used better? This level involves the Secondary Consultant and the School Principals and it ensures that cooperation between all stakeholders will enable the project to proceed smoothly.

Strategic and management level (the Reference Group)

This level requires the participants to take a 1-2 year perspective and to develop appropriate strategies to achieve project aims; to develop operational procedures; to implement training; and to oversee student learning and support issues. The Reference Group is appropriate for this level. The Reference Group will ideally comprise a representative of the Policy Group and the Project Director. It is important that the Project Director accesses all three management levels.

Operational level (the Project Operational Team)

This level requires the participants to work on daily, weekly and monthly issues such as 4. programming, booking and the technology. The Project Director will need to work with these designated staff at each school." (Policy and Procedures Manual, 1994, p.10)

Throughout, we have emphasised that VIDSAT is essentially a CURRICULUM Project. We wanted it to be used by all teachers, not just those with a 'technology bent'. Thus our Reference Group membership is heavily biased in favour of Curriculum Coordinators from the participating schools and Catholic Education Office Curriculum Advisers.

An early task for the Reference Group has been the development of five Manuals to document work of our project:

Some of our learnings in this phase have been:
  1. The value of calling VIDSAT a "pilot" process. While having access to video conferencing is stimulating and exciting for students and teachers alike, the responsibility for exploring its potential in school education can be daunting. Knowing that it is a "pilot" project with no pre-determined outcomes has freed teachers and students to experiment with the medium, to trial activities and provided reassurance when goals and strategies have had to be revised.

  2. The importance of evaluation both continuous and summative. An attempt was made by the site coordinators to ensure that every video conferencing session was evaluated by participants. Some trials, eg. the Technology and Design Coordinators Network, participated in a more elaborate evaluation process. At the end of 1994, a summative evaluation will be conducted by John Mitchell and Associates.

  3. The value of the external consultant. The experience and objectivity of the external consultant were highly prized by the three levels of management. His expertise in shaping up the documentation, setting timelines and providing support and direction for the project cannot be underestimated. Acutely aware of the transient nature of educational personnel, he strongly promoted the "institutionalisation of the innovation", that is, establishing the network in such a way that others could take over from the original project participants.

  4. The importance of the Project Director, Reference Group and Operational Group in driving the technology into the day to day life of the schools. Ownership of this project began with the Principals, was quickly assumed by the Reference and Operational Groups, but then the challenge was to encourage as many teachers as possible to participate. Exposure to the technology was followed by training, before readiness to experiment was undertaken. While in any innovation, there are early adopters, the aims and objectives were quite wide in range and required us to train as many teachers and students as possible to meet them.

Project aims and objectives


  1. To broaden curriculum offerings available to each school by sharing teaching and learning resources (video conferencing) and accessing programs offered by outside agencies (satellite education).

  2. To develop students' appreciation of the role of a variety of interactive communication technologies in their present and future endeavours.

  3. To promote tolerance and reduce insularity by exposing all in the school community to a wide range of attitudes and values amongst a variety of ethnic groups, educational institutions and industry.


  1. To use interactive communication technologies to provide staff development opportunities.

  2. To increase communication between and amongst schools of different ethnic gender and Socioeconomic mixes.

  3. To introduce cost effective methods of conducting meetings, training sessions, for staff, students and parents with geographically disparate groups.

  4. To enable effective use of interactive communication technologies, for educational purposes by staff and students.

  5. To integrate the use of these technologies into the normal delivery program.

  6. To access/interact with a range of target audiences eg. schools, TAFE, universities and industry for educational and training purposes.

  7. To provide the opportunities for as many different groups as possible to experiment with these technologies for educational purposes. (Policy and Procedures Manual, 1994, p.4-5)

Learning by video conferencing in the school context

Our external consultant cautioned us against attempting to mount "courses" in the first year of the Project. Staff and student training were to be a priority and then the staging of a number of "learning events" encouraged. So far, these events have included:
  1. Meetings of the Policy, Reference and Operational Groups.

  2. A meeting of the Team of Directors of the Catholic Education Office, Sydney.

  3. Meetings of Principals, Assistant Principals and other school executives.

  4. Meetings of teachers/coordinators in Key Learning Areas.

  5. Meetings of Student Leaders in the schools.

  6. Learning Activities for Gifted and Talented Children.

  7. Learning Activities for Special Education Students.

  8. Extension classes in the Senior Curriculum (Geography, History).

  9. Classes for Languages other than English.
At this early stage, two clear strands have emerged: These strands can be further categorised into:

Some early findings

Our early experiences confirms many of the findings of researchers in the higher education/TAFE sectors with regard to learning by video conferencing:
Most students felt the video conferencing was fun, exciting, challenging and necessary in order for them to be able to be part of a class made possible through grouping sites via video conferencing, or to have access to a specialist lecturer not available in their college". (Schiller and Mitchell, 1993, p.45)

A major conclusion from this exploratory study is that video conferencing, using compressed digital video, requires a different teaching methodology.... (Schiller and Mitchell, p.50)

All participants commented that ISDN video conferencing was an effective means of increasing the equity of access to educational programs for rural and remote personnel and for continuing vocational and professional development. No statistically significant differences in student learning outcomes, compared to regular scheduled courses, were observed as a consequence of participating in video conferencing". (Treagust, Waldrip and Horley, 1993, p315)

New technologies call for new ideas and greater adaptability. Team work, shared practice and cooperation are more necessary than ever before to keep our educational and training courses competitive and relevant in rapidly changing markets". (McBeath and Atkinson, 1992, p129)

It is worth noting that the research on video conferencing has been focussed on its use The VIDSAT Network is providing evidence of its effectiveness or otherwise It is early days yet but already we have qualitative evidence of the value of video conferencing.
  1. In breaking down barriers between schools of differing ethnic and socio-economic status.

  2. In extending the resources of the classroom. "Teachers - initial impressions are favourable. Most see the opportunity to 'import' expertise to their class. - A desire to link with 'exotic' locations such as the Tanami Desert sites." (Lakemba Report, May '94)

  3. In students assuming greater responsibility for their learning. "Involving the students is very beneficial; a. having them interact with other site; b. helping prepare graphics for the Document Camera; c. Students operating the Document Camera; d. Students rotating access to the keypad (after training!)." (Lakemba Report, May '94)

  4. In teachers establishing frequent, short and effective links with colleagues for professional development. "Sessions have also been arranged for between school sites interaction. The first of these was the language faculty from Lakemba who video conferenced with the language coordinator at Domremy. This was felt to be very useful and centred on subjects taught and the possible sharing and acquiring of suitable resources for these subjects. Further sessions are planned". (Five Dock Report, May '94)

  5. In sharing staff expertise between schools. "This interaction at faculty level, I believe, is a very potent use of the equipment. It enables teachers to achieve 2 aims - professional development to enhance their teaching in curriculum areas and familiarity with the equipment in a peer situation, with everybody learning together.

    This learning experience was also evidenced in the Inner West Technology and Applied Science (TAS) meeting which was recently held via VIDSAT. Domremy hosted 2 presentations by Design and Technology teachers with half the group at Domremy and the other half at Lakemba. One of the presentations was a practical demonstration of folk art - a small project was demonstrated from start to finished product using the document camera, so that all present at both sites could easily see the folk art techniques being demonstrated. The second demonstration showed a variety of wooden products completed by students and all were easily able to be seen via the document camera". (Five Dock Report, May '94)

  6. In interacting with a range of target audiences outside of the school for educational and training purposes.

  7. In developing students' understanding and appreciation of the role of technology in their learning present and future.

Early difficulties include:
  1. Timetabling parity between schools.

  2. The lack of time available for teachers to prepare an effective video conference.

  3. Getting used to the voice time lag.

  4. Time sharing of 3 units among five schools. (No school wants to surrender the unit once installed!)

Future developments


As familiarity with this medium grows and costs fall, many schools will be attracted to installing a video conferencing unit for educational purposes. Our hope is that this exciting technology will enable greater equity of access to a curriculum suitable for all students, irrespective of the type, composition and location of school attended; that schools will share teachers for the benefit of the students of each school particularly those with fewer resources; and, that by enabling students and teacher to gain information from "live" sources, they will gain greater control of their learning environment.


Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET) (1994). Commonwealth Programs for Schools Administrative Guidelines. Quality, Competencies and Technology Support Element (QCATSE), 42-43.

Direct Broadcast Network (DBN) (1993). Languages Other than English (LOTE) - for all Primary School Students. Brochure published to promote the launch of Primary Japanese by DBN.

McBeath, C. and Atkinson, R. (1992). Curriculum, instructional design and the technologies: Communicating the educational message. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 8(2), 119-131.

Open Training and Education Network (OTEN), NSW Satellite Education Service (1993). Interactive Satellite Programs, Information Guide Semester 2.

Schiller, J. and Mitchell, J. (1993). Interacting at a distance: Staff and student perceptions of teaching and learning via video conferencing. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 9(1), 41-58.

Treagust, D. F., Waldrip, B. G. and Horley, J. R. (1993). Effectiveness of ISDN video conferencing: A case study of two campuses and two different courses. Distance Education, 14(2), 315-330.

VIDSAT, Catholic Education Office, Sydney (Inner Western Region) (1994). Policy and Procedures Manual, 4-10.

Author: Seamus O'Grady, Catholic Education Office, Sydney, Eastern Region, 33 Banks Avenue, Daceyville, NSW 2032; Telephone: (02) 314 1244; Fax: (02) 314 1612

Please cite as: O'Grady, S. (1994). Educational video conferencing enters the Australian schooling sector. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (eds), Learning Environment Technology: Selected papers from LETA 94 200-207. Canberra: AJET Publications.

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