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Video conferencing applications in distance education: The extended classroom

Jan Charbonneau
Open Learning Institute of Hong Kong

Craig Cunningham
Athabasca University, Canada

The paper outlines the instructional effectiveness and operational efficiency of video conferencing in a distance education environment. It describes an experimental application of interactive compressed video, referred to as video conferencing, in an undergraduate marketing course at Athabasca University. The experiment had the dual purpose of testing the suitability of the technology as a supplement to conventional print based distance education, and as an alternative to face to face instruction in multiple campus situations requiring instructor travel or teaching teams.

The paper discusses the economic and pedagogical outcomes of using video conferencing as an instructional medium, with a focus on the impact on both learner and instructor.

The educational setting

Athabasca University (AU) is Canada's open university, focusing primarily on independent study through print based instructional materials and student initiated telephone support. To meet increasing demand for tertiary level business education, AU was awarded a special government grant in 1991 to offer a Bachelor of Commerce degree through its Edmonton and Calgary learning centres. The main university campus is located in Athabasca, Alberta. Edmonton is 150 kilometres and Calgary 450 kilometres south of Athabasca.

AU's challenge was to provide consistent quality instruction to two homogeneous groups of students in these remote learning centres. On site classroom lectures were employed for designated core courses. The delivery method for elective courses was either traditional home study or guided independent study which combined print materials with a limited number of lectures, audio teleconferencing, or computer mediated communication. For the core courses, AU professors travelled between the two sites weekly. The distances involved required that travel be by air.

Athabasca, University, in conjunction with Alberta Government Telephones (AGT), undertook a pilot project from October through December, 1992 to test the instructional and economic viability of video conferencing as an alternative to face to face delivery. AGT's video conferencing facilities in Calgary and Edmonton were used for the project. Three of thirteen classes in AU's Principles of Marketing course were taught via interactive video conferencing to students in Calgary and Edmonton. Calgary was used twice and Edmonton once as the originating site to allow all students exposure to the dynamics of being in a remote site.

The technological environment

Video conferencing enables groups in two or more remote sites to visually and orally interact in an environment which appears to be real time. Sites are connected by two telecommunication lines (regular dedicated telephone lines), one each for audio and video. The audio component is virtually real time, with a negligible time delay. The video images are digitised, compressed and transferred electronically through a telephone line to the receiving site, where they are decompressed. The process is extremely fast, giving users the impression that the broadcasts are live. Although synchronisation of audio and video is nearly perfect, delays in receiving the full motion video are sometimes noticeable and, interestingly, are often interpreted by participants as audio problems.

Each studio is equipped with hidden ceiling mounted cameras and two large monitors, a video monitor to view the remote site, and a graphics monitor to project images from a graphics tablet or videotape player. Control panels in each site enable the instructor and students to control both their own monitors as well as the cameras in the opposite site. This last feature allows the instructor to zoom in on a participant or pan either the originating or remote site. A special ceiling mounted camera, called a graphics tablet, relays handwritten messages or preprinted graphics, either live as an 'electronic blackboard' or still, to both sites on the graphics monitor. In addition, pre-recorded videotapes can be broadcast to both sites simultaneously on the graphics monitor. Finally, the video conference sessions themselves can be, and were, recorded in VHS format.

Goals of the study

The pilot project had both economic and pedagogical goals. Economically, the primary goal was to seek ways of minimising course delivery costs while maintaining the same level of quality as comparable classroom lectures. Direct travel costs and instructional time were specifically targeted for reduction. as were the indirect costs of reduced productivity associated with instructor down time and travel fatigue.

The main pedagogical goal was to test the effectiveness of the video conferencing medium in a distributed classroom setting. The effects of the medium on inter-group socialisation, interaction, and competition were studied. A related goal was to assess the effectiveness of various teaching techniques.

The field test was intentionally limited to three video conference sessions of three hours each primarily due to the relative inexperience of the instructional team. As a result of this limited field study, some of the economic and pedagogical outcomes cannot be considered conclusive. However, many of the favourable outcomes, both anticipated and unanticipated, warrant further investigation.

Economic outcomes

Three types of savings were immediately evident: the elimination of travel costs, a 50% reduction in direct instructional time and costs, and apparent improvement in faculty productivity due to the elimination of travel stress and down time.

Video conferencing enabled the instructor to teach two groups simultaneously from one location, resulting in substantial savings in in-class instructional time and costs. The more sites involved, the greater would be the savings.

A final indirect economic benefit was the reduction of stress and fatigue associated with frequent travel and reduced down time, resulting in higher productivity and more time to attend to other academic responsibilities.

Technology costs

These savings however, must be considered in light of the capital requirements. The minimum cost of base level hardware is approximately $50,000 (CDN) per site, increasing with improved broadcast quality and auxiliary audio visual equipment. The acquisition of video conferencing hardware is economically viable only if a substantial number of courses and students are involved at each site. Similar observations were made by Phillips (1987) at Pennsylvania State University.

The alternative to acquiring video conference facilities is leasing. The AGT video conference studios rent for $275 per hour at the current commercial rate. Although leasing would be reasonable for certain applications such as conferences or meetings where extensive travel is involved, the costs of leasing in this study would have exceeded the cost savings identified above. In Canada, video conferencing is considered a broadcast technology subject to the regulations and prescribed rates of the Canadian Radio and Television Commission, a government agency. Special rates for educational uses are currently being negotiated, which will reduce delivery costs.

Pedagogical outcomes

The economic benefits noted above are not unique to video conferencing. The cost savings are actually greater using conventional audio teleconferencing, as only one dedicated telephone line is required, the capital infrastructure is less expensive to acquire or lease, and the same benefits of reduced travel and instructional time are realised. However, audio teleconferencing lacks a visual component.

Accordingly, to justify the use of video conferencing, the added pedagogical benefits must compensate for the higher set up and delivery costs. In this pilot project, various instructional techniques were employed in testing the video technology, and the impact of the video conferencing environment on the learner and the instructor were studied.

Instructional strategy

Marketing education poses various instructional problems which have not been effectively solved by conventional distance education strategies. Economic conditions, consumer behaviour and marketplace strategies are dynamic. This is problematic in distance education courses which rely heavily on print based instruction which require longer preparation and revision lead times.

Marketing practice, like many aspects of business management, involves team work and group decision making. The case study method, where groups of students solve marketing problems in real life simulations, is often employed to emulate marketing practice and the marketplace's competitive nature. This methodology cannot be employed in distance education courses which focus on independent study.

Marketing lends itself to the use of multimedia. For instance, in demonstrating a media mix for product promotion, a multimedia approach is required to illustrate the effectiveness of print, radio, and television advertising. Although multimedia materials and actual products may be included in a course materials package, cost and currency become an issue.

In the field study, the objective was to apply proven classroom techniques, such as case studies, competitions, and multimedia presentations in a distance learning environment where student groups wore geographically separated. Video conferencing was viewed as the vehicle for providing the 'extended classroom'.

Non-interactive lecturing, or the 'talking head' approach, was deliberately kept to a minimum as it was not felt to be an effective use of the technology. In a pilot project at the University of Minnesota involving 276 participants in a variety of courses, Kolomeychuk and Peltz (1991) noted that a high level of interaction is important in teaching and learning in order to increase attention and motivation levels, especially in the remote site. In disciplines where non-interactive lecturing is more appropriate, lower cost media such as audio teleconferencing should be considered.

Both the instructional strategies and the video conferencing environment had a variety of impacts on the learners and the instructor.

Impact on the learners

Each session was videotaped for both sites and all students were surveyed with a course end questionnaire. Students were asked to comment on the quality of the technology, its educational applications, and their personal impressions as participants. None of the students had prior exposure to video conferencing although most had participated in audio teleconferencing.

Quality of technology

With respect to the quality of the video conference broadcasts and facilities, 75% found the quality of the full motion video, still image graphics, and the physical facilities to be good or very good. As in the University of Minnesota study, however, the audio quality was rated much lower, with only 38% of the students rating it good or very good. Several audio transmission and reception problems occurred over the three sessions.

One concern was whether the technology would be unobtrusive or distracting, even with the hidden cameras. 46% of the students indicated they had prior anxieties, but in all cases these were relieved by the end of the first class. 50% of the students noted that the technology was 'invisible'; several indicated that only several minutes of exposure were required to become comfortable. The remaining 50% found the technology distracting, primarily due to audio transmission problems.

The students gave high ratings to the innovative use of the graphics monitor. As an 'electronic blackboard' for illustrating concepts, 92% of the students found the technology effective or very effective. Similar high ratings were given for other uses of the graphics monitor: sharing product packaging examples (85%); highlighting material in the textbook (85%); and presenting examples of print based(92%) and television advertising (92%).

When at the remote site, 58% found the video conferences less effective than a traditional classroom lecture, primarily due to technical (audio) difficulties. When at the originating site, 38% found the video conferences more effective, 31% less effective (again primarily due to technical difficulties) while 31% noted no difference.

Various methods were used to encourage peer interaction between the sites and students gave high ratings to the following activities: inter-site product logo quizzes(85%); inter-site games and competitions (88%); and a Pepsi/Coke 'taste test' (69%). In terms of inter-site peer interaction, 38% did not hesitate to interact; of the 62% who hesitated, the majority felt uncomfortable because they had never met participants at the other site, highlighting the need to incorporate peer social interaction activities into the instructional material. It is felt by the researchers that, with additional focus on peer social interaction activities and more sessions, collegiality would be fostered through use of the medium.

85% of the students felt there were sufficient opportunities to ask the instructor questions, and most students (61%) did not hesitate to interact with the instructor at the other site. Those who did hesitate blamed audio problems. When asked about their level of class participation, 54% noted no difference, and 42% indicated they participated more in the classroom lectures.

Educational applications

Although 70% indicated that the video conferences made the lectures more stimulating, interestingly, 58% stated that the video conferences did not enhance their understanding of the subjects taught.

81% of the students felt that Principles of Marketing was an appropriate course for video conference delivery. 81% were generally satisfied with the method of course delivery, with 73% indicating that they would recommend a video conference course to others or take another themselves. However, 65% of the students indicated that they would have concerns about the instructor not being on site if video conferencing was used for the entire term.

Although 81% stated that they prefer traditional classroom lectures over video conferencing, 69% indicated that they prefer video conferencing over independent study courses.

Students' impressions

When asked what they enjoyed most about the video conferences, students provided a variety of answers, from the opportunity to interact with peers to the opportunity to explore a new technology. In terms of dislikes, the answers were equally varied. The majority focused on technical problems, such as set up time, audio problems, and the synchronisation of audio and video. Concern was expressed by many about the length of the sessions. The consensus was that the standard three hours, with a fifteen minute break, is too long for a video conference session.

Impact on the instructor and the educational environment

In the field study, the objective was to apply proven classroom techniques, such as case studies, competitions, and multimedia presentations, through the use of the video technology, in a distance learning environment where student groups were geographically separated. Consistency of instruction was an obvious outcome of having one instructor simultaneously teach both groups of students.

While reducing travel stress, video conferencing may create new stresses for the instructor as greater preparation and rehearsal time is needed.

In addition to leading the session, the instructor is constantly operating cameras in both sites, alternating between video/graphics monitors, and videotape systems. Timing and sequencing are crucial factors, as participants can be easily distracted from the subject matter if time lags occur due to the operation of the technology. Rehearsal is essential to master the technology, which has a steep learning curve, and the natural tendency to question which images are being transmitted. The obvious solution is to use an independent camera operator. However, the researchers believe that the camera is a crucial instructional tool, necessary for assessing and fostering group dynamic and interaction and must be used as such by the instructor.

In the video conference sessions, the 'extended classroom' encompassing students in both sites, resulted in a different set of teaching dynamics for the instructor. There is a natural tendency to either focus on the originating site or over compensate by focusing constantly on the remote site.

When innovative presentation techniques or interaction are incorporated, an assistant is required to help coordinate activities and control the technology at the remote site, adding to the cost. This requires effective teamwork including coordinated planning in advance and synchronised use of the technology during the session. It must also be noted that having an assistant in the 'extended classroom' changes the group dynamic. These tasks, which were performed by one of the researchers, could be done by on site support staff or designated students.

In the pilot project, several technical factors complicated the instructor's delivery strategy. As in teleconferencing, the instructor must speak into a microphone, requiring a toning down of 'teacher voice'. In a video conference session it is more difficult to adjust as the instructor faces both the local student group and the remote group on screen. There is a natural tendency to project to the group at the remote site, causing some audio interference. On site noise, such as air conditioners or fans, must be minimised. Extra attention must be paid to acoustics in both originating and remote sites as even slight noises such as paper shuffling were often magnified in the audio transmission to the other site.

The positioning of the video monitors caused unexpected problems. In the originating site, the instructor was in the traditional position at the front of the classroom, with students at both originating and remote sites facing forward. However, if the students in the originating site wanted to see the students at the remote site, or view the graphics monitor, they had to turn away from the instructor. This caused audio problems as only shared unidirectional microphones were used, requiring the student to be facing forward. Establishing eye contact, monitoring body language, and facilitating interaction in the 'extended classroom' posed a problem, either due to movement in the originating site or the relatively small video image of the remote site. Multi-directional or individual lapel microphones would solve many of the audio problems experienced.

To alleviate these problems, the instructor projected her image on the graphics monitor in the originating site. However, this created its own problems. The students could see the instructor's image at the front of the room but had listen to her 'displaced' voice coming from behind. Furthermore, while the instructor viewed the students at the remote site on the video monitor, she was distracted by seeing both her own image on the nearby graphics monitor and the backs of the students' heads in the originating site.

In the pilot project, one group was substantially larger, and as a result some students could not be viewed on screen, despite the zooming capabilities of the cameras. It was noted that these students quickly became non-participative, even in group activities. The researchers feel that it is essential that all participants be within camera range.

Instructional materials must be visually appealing and engaging, appropriately matched with the delivery medium. Presentation of static linear text, similar to slides or overhead transparencies, is not an appropriate use of the medium. The same impact could be accomplished with conventional teleconferencing combined with printed handouts. To maximise the presentation potential of the technology, graphics should be dynamic and animation or full motion video should be used where appropriate.

The instructor noted that other technologies might effectively augment video conferencing and perhaps reduce delivery costs. For instance, the video component is not always necessary for the entire session. Occasionally, communication by facsimile, telephone, or electronic mail is sufficient to link the sites, especially when students are engaged in group work requiring minimal instructor input or assistance.

Conclusions and future directions

Although the pilot project was limited in scope, it provided valuable insights into the economic implications and educational applications of video conferencing. As an instructional medium, video conferencing produces substantial direct cost savings and indirect savings through reduced faculty stress and fatigue. However, capital and operating costs of the technology remain prohibitive unless student and course numbers are high.

From a pedagogical perspective, video conferencing is an effective medium for delivering courses in a distributed classroom environment or as an enhancement of conventional print based distance education. It is particularly useful in courses where group interaction and dynamic visual presentations are crucial elements of the teaching and learning process. While not specifically studied, video conferencing may have potential applications in the private sector in the areas of training and development, especially in areas requiring a high visual or group interaction component.

From the students' perspective, the medium provided a stimulating learning environment and, generally, the technology was 'seamless'. However, the study pointed out the need for improvement in the quality of the audio/video transmissions, the need for greater interaction among peers between the sites, and the need for appropriate training in the effective use of the technology.

From the instructor's perspective, proficiency in the use of the technology is crucial. The most effective use of the medium is interaction and multimedia presentations, and the instructor must design new instructional techniques compatible with the technology. The delivery medium is particularly rewarding for dynamic, innovative educators seeking creative ways of solving instructional problems.

In future studies, the researchers hope to experiment with new technologies, such as desktop video conferencing. Real time group conferencing, by definition, poses place constraints. With desktop video conferencing, like audio teleconferencing, the place constraint is removed as students may participate in conferences from the convenience of their home or workplace. As the technology is refined, the costs and instructional benefits of PC based video conferencing may prove very attractive to distance learning institutions.


Kolomeychuk, T. & D. Peltz (1991). Assessing the Effectiveness of Interactive Compressed Video at the University of Minnesota. Telecommunication Development Center Research Report No. 20, December 1991.

Phillips, D. (1987). Video conferencing at Penn State. Technical Horizons in Education Journal, 14(8), 52-54.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the support of both Alberta Government Telephones and Athabasca University.

Authors: M. Jan Charbonneau, Senior Lecturer, Marketing, Open Learning Institute of Hong Kong, Rm. 1234, 700 Nathan Road, Mongkok, Kowloon, Hong Kong. Tel: 852 789 6861; Fax: 852 789 1170 Email: jcharbon@oliv1.oli.hk

Craig Cunningham, Associate Professor, Accounting, Athabasca University, Box 10,000, Athabasca, Alberta TOG 2RO, Canada. Tel: 403 497 3421 Fax: 403 675 4222 Email: craig@cs.athabascau.ca

Please cite as: Charbonneau, J. and Cunningham, C. (1994). Video conferencing applications in distance education: The extended classroom. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Second International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 83-87. Perth, Western Australia, 23-28 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1994/bc/charbonneau.html

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