Distance Learning | Viewpoint

Maximizing the Instructional Impact of Videoconferencing

The spread of cheap and powerful videoconferencing tools had led to widespread adoption of the technology in an effort to lower costs and put resources to better use. But Education Consultant and Executive Director of Academic Programs and Faculty at Daymar Colleges Group Ruth Reynard argues that it can improve teaching and learning as well.

As videoconferencing technology has improved and become ubiquitous, the financial and technological barriers to using it in the classroom have all but disappeared. Though it's easier and cheaper than ever to use, videoconferencing still presents unique instructional challenges and opportunities.

Foundationally, videoconferencing facilitates the meeting of individuals and participants in real time and in different locations. While this is also possible using various software programs, the inclusion of video increases the sense of  "presence" and bridges well the expectation of physical attendance and physical distance. The technology itself has changed over time and now is Internet-driven, which increases access but at the same time means that there are other challenges that must now be addressed. Early videoconferencing that used actual video connections required expensive technological overhead for both sending and receiving. That is no longer an issue given the accessibility and immediacy of the Internet. What is still evolving is the quality of real time picture and sound connections and group-to-group visual scans. When video cameras were used, the picture capture was manipulated and controlled by a camera technician and then automatically controlled by the meeting host. Now with accessible cameras in commonly used device such as iPads, phones, tablets, and laptops, the visual is immediate but not necessarily extensive. Therefore, the sense of group requires additional technology to make it inclusive, which the newer platforms are offering. The instructional uses of videoconferencing have also evolved over time.

Challenges of Distance
In the earlier days of distance education the potential barriers of location were overcome by mediation technology and resources such as workbooks, audio recordings, video recordings, and telephone connections, among others. Distance itself ceased to be the sole concern of what then became known as online learning given the advent of the Internet. Therefore, distance education discourse began to discuss differences in distance that included time as well as lgeography and mediation included every aspect of the learning environment. Online learning addressed both and began to increase the integration of connection software and both real time and asynchronous connections. Throughout this evolution, videoconferencing developed from a high maintenance technology to the personal, accessible, and Internet-driven technology it is today. The instructional benefits have also evolved from a technology that simply connected students and teachers in different locations with a visual as well as an audio connection, to one that now increases interaction, collaboration, project work, and group activities. It is also an amazing tool for sharing resources and establishing study partnerships internationally. In fact, new conferencing systems such as Teem are changing the use of the word "conference" to "collaboration platform."

The actual technology itself is maximizing not only the accessibility of the Internet, but the  "webbed," or multiple, connections now possible. These newer systems utilize video, audio, text, and study or project groups that can be working on one project simultaneously, but as categorized groups and subgroups. Voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) and cloud technologies have increased the immediacy and sustainability of the connections without increasing expense or infrastructure. The newer collaborative platforms integrate social media and shared tools such as interactive whiteboards and chat.

Thinking of the potential for instruction immediately includes more styles of learning as well as developing skills in collaboration and application throughout. Therefore, while geographic and temporal distances can still be overcome, the skills being developed with the use of the technology can benefit all learners and in many different instructional contexts.

Instructional Uses
An AT&T-sponsored Web site noted that, "There are many reasons for using videoconferencing with the most basic being; participants simply cannot travel to the  'remote site.' Videoconferencing allows users to meet even if they are on the other side of the ocean, or to visit places that normally are not open to the public." The site also includes suggestions for videoconferencing uses in instruction:

  • Students can take classes not offered at their school;
  • Schools can offer classes outside of normal hours;
  • Schools can offer classes to students who can't take traditional classes;
  • Schools can "team up with businesses to offer employee training or certification;"
  • Team teaching with remote instructors;
  • Meetings between students and tutors for "enrichment, remediation, or a helpful bit of personal attention;" and
  • Virtual library tours.

The essential instructional benefits, then, support the development of learning communities locally and internationally as well as expanding knowledge bases and new thinking and ideas--all of this is central to effective teaching and learning. Therefore, the instructional focus can be on knowledge building rather than simple activity-based tasks.

Instructional Challenges
With early versions of the technology, many instructional sites could not afford the technology purchases needed. When they could, many instructors did not want to spend the time needed to train to use the technology. It required skills in camera use and timing and scripting of lessons so that camera movements could be planned and anticipated.

As already discussed, those technology overheads are no longer an issue and the technology is more user-friendly, user-directed, and accessible. Challenges, however, still remain with teacher education. That is, changes in pedagogy and delivery methodology are still difficult to manage and with test-based curriculum, teachers are under more pressure than ever to remain content-driven rather than develop opportunities for collaboration and the building of learning communities. In other words, while the technology might be used in locations where there are logistical or budgetary reasons to increase and share resources, the potential for developing richer learning environments is not being explored as much as it should.

Several years ago I was teaching a class of teachers at a university in their teacher education language endorsement program. I was teaching the teachers about language acquisition theory and practice and in order to emphasize the importance of the authentic language speaker and language uses, I arranged a teacher connection with the group of local American teachers and a class of middle school children in China. As neither we nor the school in China had videoconferencing equipment, we used what I now consider to be the initial versions of VoIP and Web-based conferencing software. We used a combination of Skype and instant messenging to connect in real time and to actually hear the voices of the children, see their faces, and for them to hear the American teachers speaking English to them. Being the earliest forms of these technologies, we struggled with lag time and audiovisual clarity. The concept, however, was there and the outcomes were wonderful. In order to facilitate the setting up of these classes, I had to prepare and design the content, supporting visuals, and language practice exercises with the teachers in China and the teachers in the United States. Preparation was made to have the children practice the language they would hear and to increase their vocabulary knowledge of the words they would use during the conversations with the U.S. teachers.

During one of the sessions, one of the U.Ss teachers made an idiomatic exclamation that was completely authentic but utterly unknown to the Chinese children. They immediately took note of it and asked to hear it again, several times, and then asked what it meant. I could have lectured for a month on the benefits of authentic language exchange but in one real time session, it was clearly demonstrated to both students and teachers that language is dynamic and fluency requires a level of both competency and proficiency. The learning community was expanded and the resources shared. Additionally, however, the learning was enriched and made more relevant and interesting than anything that could be transmitted in a regular teacher education classroom.

The challenge for me as an instructor was to design a flexible enough instructional plan that would move with the student needs and interests and maximize the dynamic characteristics of a real-time connection. When instructional design is content-driven, moving with the dynamics of the learning environment is not always possible and most definitely minimizes the potential of a real-time connection.

While the technology is more accessible and flexible than earlier versions, the challenges to instructional design and delivery are increased. Similar to any online environment, the new videoconferencing and collaborative platforms require teachers to think through the learning outcomes and plan the instruction to be learner-centered and needs-driven. New technology increases self-direction and user-customization and, as students entering classrooms are more familiar with the technology and with those accompanying expectations, teachers are challenged to integrate more mediation technologies and dynamic instructional designs. While increased accessibility decreases overheads, instruction itself must support more elaborate systems of communication and networks of learners.

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