My teacher's square and flat

April 14, 2000

Video-conferencing should be a valuable teaching tool. Philip Fine asks where it has gone wrong.

At different points in the 90-minute class, one student was fast asleep and three others were having a debate over whether orange rind and orange peel meant the same thing. The odd joke told by their professor, Peter Jones, to try to liven up the class on human nutrition, fell flat. When he asked if anyone had a question, the room, replete with 30 normally involved science students, fell silent. Welcome to the electronic classroom.

Along with Jones's tinny voice and his distant, faded image fixed on no one, these moments from a Thursday afternoon class at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, are unlikely be part of the next publicity drive for video-conferencing.

Even those who love the technology and know how to use it well concede that past expectations had been too high and that the now ubiquitous teaching tool has shortcomings.

When large and small-screen televisions began flashing the faces of professors to remote classrooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many participating faculty did not bother to change the way they structured their courses. If they had lectured to students for 45 hours a semester, now they would simply lecture for 45 hours on television. "Not only is that extremely boring, it is also extremely expensive," says Barry Willis of the University of Idaho, United States. He has written extensively on video-conferencing and has used distance education for 19 years.

Willis knows that a lot of academics who were initially excited about the technology have become disillusioned. He says video-conferencing is ready for a resurrection - with some qualifiers. It is neither a good lecturing tool nor is it a good provider of content, he says. For his classes, he will use his time on television mostly to interact with students. He will question them before exams to see how well they have learned the material and always try to involve them. Most of the course content is provided to the students via text.

Even the corporate sector, which occasionally comes to him for counsel, has found setting up a television camera in the multinational boardroom to be weak for decision-making and negotiating situations. "You can only see what the camera gives you. So you may have the person on camera nodding but you can't see the third person to his left shaking his head or another person off-camera slipping a note to him," Willis says.

Part of the problem with the technology of university video-conferencing has been the alienating wedge it seems to shove between lecturer and student. One recently published study from Laval University in Quebec City, which tried to measure the traditional classroom's effectiveness against the electronic one, came up with a result that sounds odd but proves to be typical of student reaction to video-conferencing. While the remote students scored better in end-of-semester exams than those who were in the same room as the lecturer, they made it clear they were so unsatisfied with the class and its technology that they did not wish to repeat the experience.

Willis says it is vital that everyone feels as comfortable as possible with the technical set-up, and that professors change their methods so that the teaching and not the tools are to the fore. "The most effective technology is transparent to the outcome," Willis says. One of the ways to help students feel at ease with the technology is to make initial contact with students before anything goes over the airwaves. He tries to meet his students one-to-one at the beginning of the semester, which usually means a 400-mile drive across rural Idaho.

At the McGill lecture, one student said putting a television in the classroom turns the student into an inactive viewer. Others admitted they were too intimidated to press the question button in front of them for fear of the close-up shot that follows.

There have been successes, though. Even the most vociferous opponents of distance education - such as David Noble, a professor of history at Toronto's York University who wrote a series of internet papers known as Digital Diploma Mills - believe that rural communities have benefited from tools such as video-conferencing - insofar as it is their only choice at the moment. The Commonwealth of Learning, a Vancouver-based international education agency that lends support to developing nations, has had some successes with video-conferencing. David Walker, who implements CoL's educational technologies, says many aboriginal people, whose culture is very visual, have found success with video-teaching, including the Tanami in Australia.

In Canada, video-conferencing has found proponents in the far-flung regions. Two isolated small French-speaking colleges have also benefited from the technology. Others, such as Montreal's Concordia University, have found themselves using the technology mostly to set up career and placement interviews with potential employers outside the city. Scores of other universities have a smattering of video-conferencing classes.

But Amanda Sheedy, at the end of her class at McGill, felt cheated by the experience that had just brought her teacher's image from the agricultural campus 40 minutes away to her downtown campus. "The time to meet with your teacher is already so small. The one opportunity to have contact is here. And they are depriving us of that."

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