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.
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
De La Salle College
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.
With regard to the use of funds, it pointed out that:
"Proposals must be directed to capital projects which will:Further,
- 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
- enable teachers to raise the quality of their support to students, for example, by improving areas for the preparation and delivery of materials
- enable schools to use advances in technology and to raise the technological standard of facilities so that curricula can be effectively implemented
- 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):
...communication systems and networks to facilitate communication between separated and distant locations (permitting, for example, new teaching patterns, extension of curriculum, better access to information resources); and the funding of equipment and facilities to enable the use of such systems."
(Commonwealth Programs for Schools, Administrative Guidelines 1994, p.43)
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.Amid some degree of surprise and excitement, the grant approval was obtained in February 1993.
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)
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.
|St. John's College
MacKillop Girls' High
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.
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: Essential elements to establish a video conference
|ISDN||this is the digital network required to carry the signal between the two or more conference sites.|
|NTI||is the physical interface that the Microlink service terminates on, and to which the TA is connected.|
|TA||this 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.|
|CODEC||The 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.|
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
* included in the quotation from PictureTel
|$4.00 per hour|
$63.00 per hour
(maximum, eg. Sydney-Perth)
$380.00 per hour
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:
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.
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:
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)It is worth noting that the research on video conferencing has been focussed on its use
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)
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)
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. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet8/mcbeath.html
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. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet9/schiller.html
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. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech94/mp/ogrady.html