Hitting the Right Note with Video Conferencing

The proliferation of the Internet and growing availability of course management systems (e.g., WebCT, Blackboard) are challenging traditional notions of teaching and learning. Whether on campus or half-way around the world, students and their instructors can be in contact with each other and share knowledge beyond the conventional classroom environment. This is enabling collegiate degree programs to be available over the Internet as well as enhancements for in-class instruction.

However, even the best-planned courses, with high-quality, archived video lectures and course notes, still face a major stumbling block: student-teacher interaction. While e-mail and forums allow for some level of two-way communication, only the chat room works in "real time." Yet it can be tedious to use chat for lengthy discussions, as it provides little opportunity for illustrating ideas that inevitably arise during a semester's coursework.

Effective teaching involves using multi-sensory methods for conveying and verifying knowledge acquisition. Invoking as many of these methods as possible can enhance a learner's ability to see and comprehend what they experience. A science experiment is impressive when observed; it reinforces what is discussed in class or read from a textbook. While streaming Internet video can provide this level of presentation, the student's ability to replicate the experiment is also important. It provides recognition to the teacher of learning and for the student about lessons learned.

Interactive Instruction
Videoconferencing is a resource that can compensate for this limitation. The opportunity to see and hear students as well as include data files during the session has the potential to change how we teach and students learn.

Initiatives for videoconferencing began to appear in the 1980s, born out of commitments by state governments and consortia involving school districts, local communities, and businesses. Aided by the availability of ISDN, microwave, optic fiber, and satellite technology, the last major obstacles to televised instructional delivery were overcome. While cost constraints often limited interactive televised instruction (ITV) to compressed video or one-way video and two-way audio, there were systems that provided the desirable two-way video and audio that emulated the teacher-student interaction of the classroom.

ITV offers the closest emulation of live instruction, as students can attend regularly scheduled classes with on-campus peers but in locations closer to work or home. Coupled with instantaneous student-teacher interaction, this offers a new horizon for mutual discourse. The lecture format, which can often be turgid in a live teaching situation, is deadly over the television screen, so student-teacher interaction is essential. The medium forces all users to rethink what and how they want to work over ITV. A new pedagogy is now beginning to surface for those who placed a priority on student-oriented learning through the television medium. Workshops, reports, and a few published texts point toward ways that more effective use of television and the Internet for teaching can be achieved.

Collaboration in Videoconferencing
Building the infrastructure of collegiate institutions to support this level of distance learning is at least as important as the pedagogical practice itself. One example is the University of Northern Iowa (UNI), which took advantage of a developing statewide fiber optic system in 1993 to create ITV programs at the school. In that case, the university provided training and television classrooms for professors interested in developing coursework over the system, called the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). This required the collaboration of the Information Technology Services unit, the Division of Continuing Education, the University Library, the Graduate College, and the department or school administering the ITV program.

UNI currently has 13 ITV graduate programs, including educational technology, library science, and music started in 1993. According to Jim Bodensteiner, dean of continuing education, program enrollments approximate 1,630 overall and 550 per semester. Meanwhile, the ICN has expanded from 103 classrooms 10 years ago to 755 (all of which have identical basic equipment), with the majority in K-12 schools (www.icn.state.ia.us).

There are similar ITV networks in other states, although they are much smaller in size. While the ICN is probably the most comprehensive state ITV system in the United States, it also has some shortcomings. As a fiber optic network, it cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build and maintain. It was not designed to readily connect with ITV systems in other states (a common problem between networks elsewhere). As a videoconferencing network that could be used for teaching, its sound reproduction quality is monophonic and focused on conversation, not musical or multimedia presentations. Video resolution for Web sites or text information can be poor, because such information has to be converted from digital (computer) to analog (television) formats to be viewed on screen. Nevertheless, the ICN represents an important bridge for distance learning that enables learners to interact with teachers instantaneously, as well as to provide expertise to regions of the state that do not have access to it.

The ICN model has not been replicated by other states. The competing interests and costs for devising this kind of network in many states would not make it viable. Yet the model d'es support the interactive facet of teaching and learning that makes it desirable for distance learning. The next prospect for providing this capability and one that transcends state and national boundaries is the Internet.

Videoconferencing and the Internet
The Internet holds the greatest promise in videoconferencing for teaching and learning, whether with large audiences or face-to-face consultations. Its universal presence makes it the next logical vehicle for videoconferencing.

In recent years, companies specializing in videoconferencing systems have begun to exploit the greater bandwidth capabilities available to educational institutions and businesses. Connecting to television monitors or computers through an Ethernet connection, teachers and students have a choice of videoconferencing products (e.g., Polycom, Tandberg, or VCON). Using common transmission standards they can be connected to another site with similar capabilities virtually anywhere. Most of these units do not draw from the processing power of the computer. Therefore, one can use application sharing, file transmission, whiteboard, abd chat room resources or course management systems while in the videoconference.

A drawback of these systems resides with the levels of service provided by consumer-based Internet providers. Many online students are still relegated to 28.8K and 56K telephone modems, which cannot process video data quickly. Even where cable, satellite, and DSL connections are available, companies may allow enough bandwidth to receive incoming audiovisual information to the customer's desktop, but restrict the outgoing signal unless a substantial fee is charged. Therefore, students must have access to an Ethernet connection, which usually means a public school, collegiate institution, or business to take advantage of two-way videoconferencing over the Internet.

Streaming Video for Teaching Music
Real-time streaming video and audio represent a compromise for the current state of consumer bandwidth. At Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), the School of Music's Master of Science in Music Technology program uses a hybrid system that includes streaming video and audio from the teaching site. It displays for the online student not only the teacher and on-campus students attending class, but any information that appears on the teaching station desktop computer, recorded music and video, and electronic keyboard sounds. Online students can participate with the class through a chat room that all of the students and instructor can see and to which they can respond instantaneously. The software that enables this process to occur is called ClassCast. It is used along with a course management system developed at Indiana University called OnCourse.

To retain a sense of course continuity and class association, on-campus and online students meet at prescribed class times for their courses through the year. All streamed video classes are archived in OnCourse for future viewing. Like its commercial course management counterparts, OnCourse is a scaffold for course information, student grades, test administration, and assignments, with its own e-mail, forum, and chat room capabilities. Online students come from out-of-state (e.g., Oregon, Michigan, New York, Georgia) as well as within Indiana.

The Future: Internet2
Videoconferencing for teaching and learning over the Internet requires greater bandwidth than is generally available. This is particularly true for disciplines like music that demand high-quality audio. The Internet2 (I2) network, a consortium of more than 180 universities in the United States and 40-plus similar networks worldwide, is the next frontier for high-quality videoconferencing. Using IP and MPEG formats, the School of Music at IUPUI has conducted more than two dozen videoconferences with other states and countries, involving lectures, demonstrations, and performances using I2.

In February 2002, an instructor taught all of his music classes by videoconferencing from Perth, Australia over a two-week period to students at the IUPUI campus using the high-speed Internet capabilities in that country and the United States. This process included sharing music and video files, viewing and responding to student presentations, and providing instructional information during regularly scheduled class times in the same rooms used for weekly instruction—all moderated from a desktop computer in a local professor's office. Except for the inconvenience of time differences for the instructor, the stability of transmission and the ease of working in the videoconference demonstrated that this was a resource to be considered seriously for distance learning over the Internet.

Currently, professors at the IUPUI School of Music are working simultaneously with colleagues in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, Kansas, Finland, and Australia on multiple projects over I2 to explore techniques. The goals are to build collegial networks and share knowledge on how best to use this resource for music teaching and performance.

While many educators do not have access to Internet2 as of yet, it is likely to become available in some form for most collegiate campuses and school districts in the years to come. Likewise, consumer Internet connections should improve enough to support desktop videoconferencing. Knowing how to work with these resources remains both a challenge and an opportunity for the dedicated teacher. However, the eventual integration of videoconferencing through the Internet will play an important role in bringing the online student just a bit closer to campus and the instructor in the way we cherish on-campus instruction.

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