Picture this: a way of learning that brings down traditional barriers of place and time

June 4, 1999

Videoconferencing is getting cheaper. It also has someunexpected uses for educators. John Warner reports.

Videoconferencing: unstoppable or non-starter? If PictureTel vice-president Tim Duffy is to be believed, the deployment of videoconferencing in higher education is "pretty well unstoppable".

But is this the over-optimistic opinion of a company with a vested interest in the new global information economy, or a valid prediction of a new dawn of visual collaboration?

Videoconferencing can hardly be described as an overnight success. The technology has been available for more than ten years, but its application in academic programmes, research and collaborative initiatives has been the exception rather than the rule.

At a recent distance learning forum held at Sheffield Hallam University, however, staff and leading practitioners set about making the case for videoconferencing in focused applications beyond the always-cited medicine and dentistry.

It is seen to provide a response to restricted budgets, pressure to deliver more at ever higher quality, competitive pressure from peers and changes in student expectations.

Sean Cavan, head of lifelong learning at Sheffield Business School said that staff were "banging on the door" seeking support for the introduction of videoconferencing, something that did not happen in previous university-wide communication technology initiatives.

This has come after videoconferencing was applied successfully in academic programmes in the UK and in the business school's international market for MBAs in Europe, the Gulf and the Far East.

The investment in robust systems that feature auto-tracking cameras, near broadcast-quality images, data-sharing facilities and enhanced audio capabilities, has ensured that videoconferencing is now a reliable tool, working unobtrusively in the background to eliminate the barriers of geographical distance.

"We have identified a number of unexpected benefits," Mr Cavan says.

"For example, videoconferencing is contributing to our equal opportunity strategies.

"Staff and students who, historically, have been precluded from participating in programmes that require extensive travel - because of family commitments or physical disability - can now take a full part."

As elsewhere in computing, the pace of change is accelerating and technologies are merging.

Companies are preparing for the greater bandwidth offered by the next-generation internet, cable modems and XDSL (a group of technologies that push telephone-line capability to the limit) and are developing products that could have significant implications for distance learning.

One of these developments was demonstrated during the forum. Using internet protocols, PictureTel's StarCast product incorporates streaming video and high-quality audio suitable for delivery of a lecture.

This is supported by a PowerPoint slideshow, converted to a stream of GIF images so that the viewer need not have PowerPoint software. Unlike videoconferencing, the sound and vision are one-way, but a text messaging facility allows distant viewers to communicate with the lecturer.

The server-based product lends itself to a one-to-many application and may be accessed by thousands of people simultaneously.

Picture quality and frame-rate is determined by the capacity of the viewer's connection, with the highest quality of delivery going to those with the widest channel.

It looks good on a local area network, but a modem running at 28.8 kbps is unlikely to do justice to the system.

At present, this product appears to be a solution looking for a problem. But it could find a niche with universities seeking to "narrowcast" to large numbers of students.

What it lacks in "whites-of-the-eyes" contact is made up for in its multi-site capabilities. Whites-of-the-eyes contact with trainees was reaffirmed as an essential requirement by Alan Fairbrother, head of training research and development at the Department for Education and Employment. He is evaluating StarCast in the light of a recent Pounds 500,000 upgrade of all the DfEE's videoconferencing facilities.

He says that he has an open mind about the impact this development may have in the department.

But he has few reservations about the success of point-to-point videoconferencing installed in its four main sites.

He says that government cuts have reduced the time available for conventional training and development.

The requirement is for training that meets specific professional needs, provides access to latest thinking and examples of best practice, is readily accessible on demand, and can be delivered locally to avoid unnecessary travel.

A 35 per cent increase in the use of the videoconferencing systems in the past six months suggests that staff at the DfEE perceive this approach as addressing their training requirements.

With recent DfEE statistics indicating that 82 per cent of large companies are planning to deliver training online, videoconferencing may indeed be unstoppable.

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