Volume 23 Numbers 1 & 2, 2013
Videoconferencing: A Technology with Promises and Challenges – Case Study with IVC in an Undergraduate Course
B. A. Olaniran
Videoconferencing (VC) consists of a communication medium that allows for real-time and video cues among users who are often separated by geographical distance. While significant research has focused on e-mail, face-to-face (FTF), and other asynchronous mediated communication as the communication media of choice (e.g., Berry, 2006), it stands to reason that there are other electronic-mediated technologies that offer value. To date, research has primarily focused more on e-mail and other asynchronous communication media rather than VC due to their commonplace and less complex nature (Berry, 2006; Olaniran, 2009; Simon, 2006). Similarly, challenging economic times have lead organizations to focus on strategies to reduce costs while maintaining an equal or greater level of productivity (Olaniran, 2009; Orubeondo, 2001). However, the economy of scale has made VC an affordable medium because it precludes travel and is accessible on demand. Furthermore, as the globalization trend intensifies, there is an increased tendency to coordinate activities in multiple locations (Olaniran, 2007, 2009). Therefore, VC is one way in which those coordination activities can be accomplished while circumventing time and geographic distance.
Although not completely ubiquitous, VC is gaining ground in for-profit organizations. Videoconferencing is also penetrating, or gaining increased acceptance, in non-profit – albeit government and educational – settings as well. In regard to education, its use is growing in association with distance or online course delivery. It is important to note that the benefits and challenges with VC transcend any particular organization or industry, for they have yet to be fully explored (Olaniran, 2009). Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to explore benefits and limitations of VC technology in general and how they relate to learning in distance education. We will begin with an examination of key literature relating to VC.
The increased demand for efficient communication methods and speed in the global economy provides good incentive for VC. Demand for collaboration and the ability to communicate visually with people who are geographically dispersed represents a major reason for employing this technology (Bekkering & Shim, 2006; Olaniran, 2007, 2009; Wegge, 2006). Videoconferencing, therefore, serves as a tool to circumvent some of the distance challenges to communication, and it is considered a highly valuable tool when the communication requires increased cues such as audio and video. However, for VC to function in a meaningful way, it must address the issue of aligning both audio and video cues (Olaniran, 2009). Currently, VC must operate either over a network environment (i.e., Internet protocol or IP) or in an integrated services digital ne twork (ISDN) of telephone lines. Both of these environments help VC to operate at the industry standard rate of 30 frames per second; that is the rate at which both video and audio cues are transmitted smoothly without a lag in time. Such lag time makes interaction and communication as a whole a difficult experience. The technical aspects of VC also influence the nature of interaction such that it is difficult to separate the technical from interaction. At the same time, the presence of available technology and the decision to incorporate VC is complex and should be approached with care.
Benefits and Challenges
Videoconferencing benefits include the reduction or prevention of exorbitant travel costs. That is, communicators do not have to physically travel to a location in order to participate in meetings or interact with co-participants. However, potential benefits and implications of VC systems extend beyond mere cost cutting. Videoconferencing can also help reduce the duration of time required for a meeting (Agius & Angelides, 1997; Bekkering & Shim, 2006; Olaniran, 2009; Panteli & Dawson, 2001). Similarly, VC as a communication medium provides users an avenue for participating in key decision-making, especially by allowing participants to be brought up to speed on key daily activities including information gathering and dissemination, training, brainstorming, interviews, distance collaboration, and distance learning (Bekkering & Shim, 2006; Fetterman, 1996; Moridani, 2007; Olaniran, 2009; Raby, 2001; Wegge, 2006).
Videoconferencing also offers participants the ability to keep the record of a meeting. Thus, VC’s record-keeping feature offers the potential for individuals and users to document meeting sessions so that they can be reviewed at a later date. At the same time, the record-keeping function allows participants to review certain portions of the meeting or return to earlier statements in order to ask questions or offer informed opinions on certain issues. This record-keeping feature safeguards against memory loss or selective recollection of what was said, how it was said, or when it was said in a meeting process (Olaniran, 1994, 2009). In contrast, during a face-to-face (FTF) encounter or medium, participants must rely on memory or meeting minutes, if taken, to recollect key facts. However, VC recordings can provide exact information. While record-keeping is an important feature, it stands to reason that not all VC systems offer recording functionality. This feature is more readily available with desktop or computer VC systems than with fixed-room VC settings.
In the literature, it has been shown that users employing VC experience different results depending on existing relationships with participants (Stuart, 1998). Some studies found the VC system to be as effective as FTF interactions and more effective than audio only systems (e.g., Abel, 1990; Valacich, Mennecke, Watcher, & Wheeler, 1994). These findings appear to be in line with the contention of the media richness theory, which rates communication media on the basis of the amount of cues that a particular medium can support. Specifically, FTF interaction was rated as the richest medium while VC was rated next (Rice, 1993). Notwithstanding, other researchers have found no significance in the difference between the effects of VC and FTF (e.g., Dennis & Kinney, 1998; Yoo & Alavi, 2001; Wegge, 2006). A contention that seems to support the argument that communication media in and of themselves are neither rich nor deficient is that the media can be applied to convey social warmth regardless of the number and type of social cues supported (Lea & Spears, 1992; Walther, 1996).
A similar result was found for task participation. Compared to FTF interactions, for instance, Yoo and Alavi (2001) found desktop VC to lower task participation, while group cohesion based on prior history improved task participation. Conversely, Yoo and Alavi found that neither social cues nor task participation influenced the communication outcome of group consensus among members who had no prior relational history as a group. This finding implies that video cues have little effect on communication outcomes, and each of these findings are intriguing when compared to the results of traditional FTF interactions. This is especially true when immediacy, feedback, and interactivity have been discovered to be beneficial to communication (Ellis, 2004; Gorham, 1988).
With desktop VC, Alavi, Wheeler, and Valacich (1995) found an increased level of commitment by students to stay in groups among geographically remote participants rather than maintain locally-based VC groups. These researchers attribute increased commitment in geographically dispersed VC groups to the lack of immediate access to FTF communication. Thus, VC is considered an unsuitable surrogate when FTF interactions are feasible (Alavi et al., 1995; Olaniran, 2009). Videoconferencing, however, becomes an alternative medium for interactivity and connection among participants when FTF interaction is impossible. This point of view may be relegated to the fact that the video in VC helps give meetings and interactions a “human feeling” by allowing participants to see one another and develop personal relationships (Alav i et al., 1995; Olaniran, 2009; Wang, 2004). Increased connectedness and participation may be the case, especially among the students and peers; it is, however, difficult to argue that the same connectedness is generalizable across contexts. For instance, Nandhakumar and Baskerville (2006) found that some users reported unfair use of VC in ways that are self-grandising and are at the expense of others. That is, participation and interactions are inhibited because of how others use VC (Olaniran, 2009).
The literature appears to suggest that communication via VC might enhance or impede communication openness, depending on the setting. Therefore, communication experiences may differ significantly in VC and FTF interaction due to how the medium is used as well as the purpose for which it is used. For instance, some scholars (e.g., Alavi et al., 1995; Nandhakumar & Baskerville, 2006) argue that VC should be restricted to situations with simple visual cues and with little discussion (especially when dealing with quick meetings for non-collocated individuals) and for communicating updates about ongoing projects where there are existing relationships. At the same time, individuals are cautioned against the use of VC in those situations where creative interaction is of primary importance or where the consequence of miscommunication is high and interactions are unstructured (Panteli & Dawson, 2001). As a result, it has been suggested that communication media, specifically Groupware, fail due to poor understanding of group behavior, bad social and contextual structures, and inappropriate interface designs (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002).
In sum, the review of the literature suggests that the reasons for using VC include cost cutting and productivity issues such as travel and the idea that technology can enhance communication interactions. For instance, VC can allow communication to be personal (i.e., immediacy) and effective when participants are able to hear the nuances of tone and see nonverbal gestures, expressions, and cues normally found in FTF interactions. The possibility for distance collaboration – that is, the tendency to coordinate communication and collaborate on tasks without having all representatives physically present at a given location – is another factor. Interaction in VC is synchronous, and feedback is instantaneous. Therefore, it appears that users may have different reasons for using VC. As a result, it is beneficial to explore VC in terms of the task goals for deployment and whether those goals are accomplished.
Various factors affect VC performance. These factors depend on the nature of the VC, whether it is a fixed, portable, or desktop VC unit (Olaniran, 2009). For example, Kouadio and Pooch (2002) discuss how end-point computer performance, network link capacity and delay, network congestion status, and the inherent time complexity of the compression/decompression algorithms influence VC along with the fact that participants or communicators may use different systems (i.e., heterogeneous networks) that differ in capacities. Notwithstanding, one of the most common challenges to VC – regardless of VC types – is the technical (e.g., bandwidth) issue, which could affect the quality of communication. For example, bandwidth issue affects whether audio and visual cues are aligned to create smooth interaction. The importance of aligning audio and visual cues together is crucial because users are belie ved to be able to accurately negotiate meanings in communication episodes with the help of paralinguistic cues, hence improving the quality of interaction and the degree of interactivity (Wang, 2004). The degree and level to which this interactivity can be achieved through VC is often problematic because of limited bandwidth.
Furthermore, a good understanding of human factors, group interactions, social structures, and values is important in the implementation of VC technologies. Videoconferencing must offer a certain degree of versatility in usage that meeting planners and decision-makers may not be able to foresee. Nonetheless, all of these factors are not only essential but also necessary for successful communication.
Human factors, for instance, create added challenges that may hinder VC applications. For example, VC varies depending on the nature of tasks and, consequently, on the degree of interactivity that it can support. Some scholars discuss the issue of floor control, which identifies turn–taking (that is, who talks, when they talk, and how they initiate interaction) (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002; Olaniran, 2009). In a distance learning situation, students may want to question the professor, whereas in a collaborative design team, participants may want to follow an agenda (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002; Olaniran, 2009). Therefore, failure to provide an effective and efficient level of interactivity could result in an ineffective VC experience.
At the same time, as is necessary in a FTF interaction, floor control needs to adhere to social protocols. Thus, it is suggested that providing a technical equivalent of the protocols is essential to successful VC and participant satisfaction (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002). Furthermore, the absence of floor control mechanisms can result in conflicting access and disorganized meetings (Malpani & Rowe, 1997; Olaniran, 2009). Kouadio and Pooch (2002) noted that “in a small group of friends engaged in brainstorming, or during a relaxed casual conversation by remotely located family relatives, spontaneous social protocols may be highly involved, and dynamic mechanisms should automatically enable various policies to enhance the naturalness of the interaction” (p. 46). For larger groups, however, formal mechanisms are necessary. Similarly , the design must allow some way for participants to request the floor without disturbing a conference in progress and to transmit their information (by text or audio/video), which should reliably reach the selected target set of participants (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002). Therefore, it is recommended that floor control mechanisms in VC be flexible in order to accommodate informal interactions.
Informality is another area of challenge for VC. As alluded to earlier, the use of VC is geared towards well-planned meetings and formal sessions where participants tend to focus on the agenda and information dissemination. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons cited for non-popularity of VC is its perceived inability to support the degree of informal conversations that FTF and other media, such as e-mail, is noted for (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002; Kraut, Fish, Root, & Chalfonte, 1990). Similarly, it is argued that in most organizational interactions – where usually formality is the normal, everyday interaction – people are likely to use frequently informal communication more than formal ones; as people become familiar with each other, they engage more in informal communication. Furthermore, it has been argued that informal communication has a tendency to help breakdown social barriers. This helps increase an individual’s commitment to a group while enhancing their participation and overall productivity level. In this regard, there appears to be differences between fixed-room versus desktop VC systems. Fixed-room VC, for example, is considered cumbersome and requires too much protocol. This protocol includes room reservation, physical placement in the room, and appropriate conventions for floor control (Olaniran, 2009). Desktop VC avoids some of these complexities, as people can simply sit at their desks and participate in a VC session (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002). With desktop VC systems, participants can engage in other activities on their computers or in their offices while attending a conference. Additionally, this type of VC requires simple setup mechanisms and informal procedures (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002).
Informality also speaks to the VC support of body language and other non-verbal cues. For example, the camera position has been found to influence participants’ interaction, which often has negative impacts (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002; Olaniran, 2009). Others, however, argued the positive impacts of non-verbal cue awareness in VC. For instance, Gemmell, Toyama, Zitnick, Kang, and Seitz (2000) investigated the role of gaze awareness and posited that frequent eye contact in communication enhances human qualities such as friendliness, sincerity, and confidence. Informality thus may have a significant influence on the attractiveness of VC, but it will depend on the nature of the task and context for which it is being used.
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing VC is how users perceive the system in terms of its ability to support privacy. Privacy, or perceived privacy, in VC is of great concern to users. For instance, Olaniran (2009) contends that the lack of interaction in VC is directly contingent on how users perceive the technology. To the extent that individuals see VC as a way to monitor participants (i.e., spy on them), they are less likely to actively participate, or in some cases, offer a contradicting opinion when interacting with superiors. Thus, it is suggested that VC offers methods that allow private chat, or interaction, with users who need to consult with one another on some issue during an ongoing conference – without the interference of other participants (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002). Although not a complete solution, including alternative media in VC presents users with options that preserve privacy i n communicative exchanges. Furthermore, Kouadio and Pooch (2002) argue that for many people, the presence of cameras evoke uncomfortable feelings. Therefore, individuals often opt for a different communication medium perceived as less intrusive on their privacy, in spite of low support for non-verbal and social cues. While attempts to be sensitive to privacy issues have led to suggestions of using protocols such as shadowed views and altered speech (Hudson & Smith, 1996), these suggestions negate the advantages that VC technologies are reported to have over other media. Therefore, these approaches alone are not a full resolution to privacy concerns in VC, but they offer additional flexibility and control to participants in how they view privacy and participate in VC interactions
Another challenge facing VC is the technology itself. For instance, different VC units do not work with one another. A common example lies within Polycom versus Tandberg/Cisco units. A Polycom unit will not work, or support, another unit such as Tandberg/Cisco. These units reportedly conflict with one another. Consequently, when users are distributed across heterogeneous networks and computing platforms, it becomes difficult to use VC to communicate. This may also explain the reasons why selection and acceptance of VC is difficult and less ubiquitous than other forms of communication. Different VC systems, as developed by different manufacturers, have different set up protocols that are different from one another and consequently hinder interoperation. Thus, trying to configure different systems to work together remains critical and presents a difficult challenge, even for competent information technology (IT) people.
Portability or Mobility
Mobility creates another hurdle for VC. The early development in VC is confined to fixed-room units. In essence users must go to the VC rooms to participate. However, the increasing needs for greater access to communication technology and information as a whole is such that individuals are better served when offered increased flexibility to participate in VC regardless of location. Olaniran (2009) offers a detailed account as well as advantages of portable Polycom units in his assessment of VC at the Department of Commerce Census Bureau. Of course, the greatest challenge hindering portability and mobility with VC is bandwidth. The challenges of mobile VC are wireless communication channels that have less capacity and are more prone to loss of data (see Olaniran, 2009) as well as designing simple interfaces and applications for small portable devices (see Kouadio & Pooch, 2002). Due to low bandwidth, the ensuing latency creates significant challenges for the real-time requirement of VC. It is argued that compression algorithms for wired networks do not provide a ratio high enough for the low bit rates available in wireless channels (Kouadio & Pooch, 2002). Perhaps with the advent of 3G and 4G networks, along with developments in cloud computing, this constraint can be advertently reduced or removed altogether. For instance, new handsets and smart phones along with tablets and iPads tout the connection and capability of these devices in supporting 4G networks, which may facilitate VC.
The Case Study
In light of the above literature review regarding several issues affecting VC, this section offers a case study of the use of VC within an academic organization. The growing demand for institutions of learning to move from traditional classrooms to online and distance education environments is enhancing VC use and its demand as a unique delivery medium. In order to facilitate and coordinate learning from a distance, the case presented involves a course that used Internet protocol VC to support and coordinate students from different geographical or non-collocated environments. For the purpose of this case study, an intermediate junior level undergraduate course in communication using VC as the delivery mode was examined, and student feedback was used to assess its effectiveness.
The setting for the VC in this case study consists of a large university located in the southwestern part of the United States with over 30,000 students enrolled. From the university, a junior level course in communication using Internet VC (IVC) protocol was selected. Participants included undergraduate students whose age ranged from 19 to 25. Students were located in different geographic settings ranging from 200 to 400 miles from the main campus. Each location consisted of average enrollment ranging from 12 to 22 students for a total of 60 students across the four locations. Demographics included the general student population who usually take evening classes: An overwhelming majority worked in the daytime and attended class in the evening, while others were taking the course just to meet the last few course requirements for graduation.
It is important to note that the broadcasting VC site (i.e., point of origin) appeared like a regular classroom where students and instructors were able to interact FTF, although the setting was in a dedicated IVC room just like the other three remote VC locations. The class commenced with a multipoint VC connection. From the broadcasting site the instructor taught virtually in a FTF medium, but the VC unit videoed the lecture and relayed the video to other locations where students in those remote locations were able to watch the lecture via LCD display monitor or VC units. Students from remote locations were also able to interact or participate in the class discussion by virtue of their microphones, which allowed them to buzz in and to ask and answer questions. Unfortunately, the students from the broadcasting site did not have access to individual microphones; rather, they relied on the system’s camera, and the accompanying VC microphone picked up sounds and other communication activities.
The VC system required the expertise of IT personnel to start and end VC sessions. The class duration was approximately two and a half hours per session and occurred once per week (i.e., every Monday evening). The system operated over IP or Internet. Information technology individuals were strategically located in all the associated sites in order to provide assistance to each of the remote locations. The IT personnel were responsible for securing the connection and for turning off the VC system at the end of the class. This was done in part to allow IT personnel to communicate any technical problem to the broadcasting site. Their presence also acted as a safeguard against vandalism to expensive equipment occurring from students not taking proper care of the systems. Information technology’s job also included communicating with one another to troubleshoot technical issue such as inadvertent disconnections.
For the most part, the instructor used a lecture format, and her lecture used PowerPoint, which the VC document camera projected to remote locations. The VC system allowed the instructor to connect and project information directly from her laptop to remote sites whenever appropriate. However, when data was projected on the VC system, students from remote sites were only able to see the projected data (e.g., PowerPoint and/or laptop content) but not the instructor. Notwithstanding, students from the remote sites could still hear the audio of the instructor’s lecture; they just could not see the instructor on their respective VC monitor or screen. Otherwise, the VC system usually allowed students in remote sites to see the instructor in action along with an embedded video of their own site on the screen (i.e., picture-in-picture mode). One drawback, however, was that the VC system only displayed two locations on the screen at a time: that of the broadcasting site and one of the three remote locations.
The case study took a snap shot of students’ perception through a mid-term/semester evaluation of the course by the instructor. Student feedback revolved around several key questions measuring both student learning experience and the IVC medium in general. These questions included:
Other comments and feedback were provided. Of importance was the fact that this was the very first time the instructor had taught via VC medium.
The biggest concern for all locations appeared to be the technology issues as they related to cues supported. From the broadcasting site’s perspective, students had access to both the FTF medium with the instructor and IVC; the students reported that their biggest concern was the frustration with the VC technology. Specifically, they alluded to the fact that they did not like being interrupted during class. These interruptions mainly occurred when students from remote locations buzzed in to ask questions or sought clarifications. Students at the broadcasting site felt that it disrupted their train of thought and flow of instruction and interaction between the instructor and members of the class. They also mentioned that interruptions disrupted their concentration and understanding of important content. For instance, the consensus from the broadcasting site was that “waiting for the off-campus students to reply to discussion questions is distracting; class bec omes choppy because of delay in responses.” Furthermore, there appears to be a perception that the IVC also precluded opportunities for group activities. This feedback seems to be in line with the findings that VC at times may be best suited for information dissemination while lacking in interactivity (e.g., Wang, 2004).
However, when taking remote sites’ perspectives into consideration, one sees a different take on the issue of cues supported by VC. As far as remote locations are concerned, the consensus from the feedback also pertained to the challenge with the technology. It was unanimous that students from remote locations felt that the IVC got in the way of learning and interaction altogether – but in a different manner. Specifically, students at remote sites identified the fact that the VC microphone picked up all the side comments from students, which prevented them from hearing the instructor or focusing on what the instructor had to say. Some remote students suggested that students from the broadcasting campus turn off their microphones. Specifically, the following statement captured this sentiment of students from the remote location: “It is really hard sometimes to hear you [the instructor] because of the noise coming from the mics. We pick up on everyth ing they say, even when you are speaking.” Unfortunately, outside of the Polycom, or VC unit, students at the broadcasting site do not have access to individual microphones – only the microphone available through the VC system. Therefore, it will be difficult for this issue to be resolved.
There were, however other idiosyncratic differences among the remote locations regarding concerns with the course. For instance, Remote Location 1 stated, “There needs to be better communication between the instructor and the students.” They also felt like they were not fully part of the class and that the instructor tended to care more about the students in the broadcasting site. One student captured this sentiment, writing that “we are the evil stepchildren in this class, she [the instructor] doesn’t care about us.”
Notwithstanding, there was some positive feedback from students in this particular remote location, as they confirmed that they liked the class discussions and liked to hear what other students had to say. In essence, it appears that when interaction takes place in the class – even over the IVC medium – students enjoy the interactivity; for a remote location where access to FTF interaction is unavailable, VC appears to be a nice substitute and conveys the impression of immediacy, such that participants still feel like they belong to the class discussion.
As for Remote Location 2, the primary concern about the VC systems focused on the fact that the effective teaching style of the instructor was not conveyed through the technology. One of the reasons stressed was that the broadcasting site students tended to dominate discussions (whether this is by instructor design or hindsight is unclear). One thing that is clear, however, is the fact that students from remote locations felt a general sense of neglect and irrelevance during class. There is also a sense of less interaction with the students at the broadcasting site. Again, there is the perception that the instructor is closer to students at the broadcasting site and that students there also tended to overpower or overwhelm the instructor. At the same time, students from Remote Location 2 expressed that they did not want the instructor to ask so many questions requiring feedback and responses. This was because there were so many campuses involved in one class, and the stu dents felt like a lot of time was wasted in such engagement. However, students from this remote location had a positive response about the VC system. They liked the fact that the technology allowed for diverse opinions to be represented during discussions.
The third and final remote site (Remote Location 3) did not appreciate the fact that the VC system lost connection quite often. Students from this location appeared frustrated, even though they knew that the technical problem was beyond the immediate control of the instructor and that the instructor discussed that technician were continuing to troubleshoot the problem. The students, however, indicated that they enjoyed the class and thought the instructor’s availability and her willingness to allow students to contact her as much as possible was a big advantage.
In general, all remote locations suggested the need for students from the broadcasting site to be more considerate. In particular, broadcasting site students needed to talk less. Along the same line, remote site students offered a way to overcome the VC system’s disconnection problem by suggesting that the instructor have students e-mail their questions to her instead of addressing them during class discussion. The suggestion was primarily to save time in order to cover more class content, since the IVC disconnected right at the one-and-a-half-hour mark. Notwithstanding, students from remote locations also pointed to a major issue regarding interactions during class. They expressed that, in general, they were uncomfortable speaking in class. This is in line with the findings that, in comparison to FTF interaction, individuals tend to be unwilling to participate in project tasks during VC either by virtue of privacy (not knowing how their information will be used) or because they just become very conscientious of what other participants may think (see Olaniran, 2009; Yoo & Alavi, 2001).
Discussion and Implications
This results section presents findings from the case study. The findings are categorized as technical, along with participation and interaction, as alluded to earlier in the paper. More specifically, technical issues include video and audio quality, supported cues, portability, and system compatibility; interaction issues include students’ participation, task commitment, privacy, and human factors.
Video and Audio Quality
There are variations in audio and video quality in VC. Hence, ensuring that the standard transmission rate of 30 frames per seconds is critical in order to avoid delays in video and audio quality (Olaniran, 2009). Students had no complaints about the video quality of the Polycom IVC chosen, as the Internet protocol is at the industry standard. Meeting the industry standard appears to help students avoid frustration that results from audio-video lag. In other words, the audio and video quality in VC is at a level acceptable to learners and the instructor so as to facilitate interactive learning. This is true given that distortion and unstable video images are found to be disruptive to the flow of conversation and general interaction (Olaniran, 2009; Wang, 2004). Summerfield (as cited in Bruce, 1996) believes that, even with a delay of up to 80 msec., sound and image can still be perceived to be synchronous, given that sound travels slower than light. Slightly longer delays can be tolerated if the audio transmission lags behind the video transmission rather than vice versa. Therefore, a delay of a little more than 80 msec. in a language learning situation can be accepted only when it does not result in message miscomprehension. For the purpose of distance teaching, reasonable clarity and synchroneity of video image and sound go a long way in VC to assist learners.
The traditional consensus about communication technology media is that the more cues supported the better, which is the tenet of the media richness theory. The findings in the case study presented seem to suggest quite the contrary. The audio and video cues the VC system offers appear to be good in certain ways and counterproductive in others. For instance, the students were able to see the instructor and hear her lecture, but they still perceived that the instructor ignored them or that the medium interfered with their learning and overall participation in the course. The perception of neglect became more vivid when students in remote locations were noticed to be paying little attention in class, either by surfing the Internet on their laptops or reading other materials.
There is the question of which VC system to deploy. After all, there are differences between desktop and fixed-room VC systems. As can be seen from this case study, the course employed a fixed-room VC system, which did not offer the flexibility that a desktop system allows. For instance, in a fixed-room VC, participants are confined to a particular location in order to participate in meetings, whereas a desktop system allows participants the flexibility to decide where they want to participate, simply by sitting behind the computer and attending the VC while engaging in other activities like sending an e-mail to the instructor – something that seems to help overcome the challenge of students straying away from course content and materials as reported with the fixed-room VC system. In essence, the degree to which desktop VC will alleviate poor participation is unknown. However, it appears that a desktop VC system offers certain flexibility that the fixed-room s ystem does not (Olaniran, 2009).
Given the fact that the course utilized the same vendor VC system, incompatibility was not an issue in the case study. All VCs were based on the Polycom system, regardless of location. Also, the multipoint connection did not involve a different VC platform. This uniformity made connection a breeze. In essence, the university VC system standard is consistent and compatible across locations.
Aside from issues discussed above, there was also technical difficulty, which is usually the norm with any technology use. However, the difficulty experienced in the course examined is unexplained. For instance, right at the 90-minute mark, the VC system unexpectedly lost connection. The disconnection occurred most of the time with the exception of two occasions. When this happened, connectivity was never regained for the remainder of the class. This infuriated students in the remote locations and may also have contributed to poor attendance and participation reported by the students. Technicians were unable to determine why the VC system suddenly went offline at the 90-minute mark.
Participation & Interaction
This section addresses issues revolving around general interaction in the course. In particular, participation, task commitment, meeting structure, and human factors are explored.
Students’ lack of participation and interactivity reported in this case study deserves specific attention. While the lack of interactivity in VC in organizations leads one to speculate about users who are timid and perhaps view VC as a surveillance tool in which one’s contribution may have negative consequence at a later time, this does not appear to be the case in the learning environment presented in this paper. Therefore, it appears that VC may, by nature, inhibit participation (Boutte & Jones, 1996; Needleman, 2001). Boutte and Jones (1996) argue that individuals who are shy or have natural inhibitions in group interaction are further inhibited in VC situations. Although it has been found that incorporating new technology such as VC often alters organizational communication patterns, the general decision-making process is positively impacted (Olaniran, 1993, 2004). It appears that the change in communication patterns may take time to develop. In order words, the cultural environment created prior to the introduction of communication technology is directly related to how participants treat and react to a new technology, at least initially (Olaniran, 2009). It may be that students who do not like to participate in class discussions are further put off in a VC environment due to the fact that current culture regarding interactivity is limited. For instance, the lecture format identified instructors as teaching directly to the broadcasting students and not including remote students in discussions. There was a particular instance during VC when the instructor informed broadcasting site students of a physical location on campus about which to post feedback on class project. However, no attempt was made to let students in remote locations know that they could e-mail or submit the same information. It almost seems like the assumption was made but never verbalized. Furthermore, the lack of student participation may reinforce discomfort with the technology, which supports the preference for existing communication patterns that students are more familiar with (i.e., FTF encounters) as a better medium for interaction (see Canessa & Riolo, 2006; Olaniran, 2009). Therefore, while it has been argued that VC is a close substitute for FTF medium, it is not perceived as offering the same outcomes or effects (Abel, 1990; Alavi et al., 1995; Roch & Ayman, 2005; Wegge, 2006). Similarly, it is unfortunate that challenges with any communication technology such as VC always involve a comparison to FTF that is perceived as the most natural and u nderlying baseline for evaluation (Kock, 2001; Simon, 2006). This challenge speaks to the need to stress the significance of relative advantage in innovation adoption and, in particular, with VC. Individuals who perceive relative advantages in an innovation adoption are likely to adopt the innovation with ease (Olaniran, 1996; Rogers, 1995; Turner, Thomas, & Reinsch, 2004). In an attempt to overcome this problem, Olaniran (2008) suggests the need for a VC facilitator and discussion leader to actively solicit opinions from participants (i.e., participative leadership style) to minimize passive observations and lurking tendencies, such as the one reported in this study (see also Boutte & Jones, 1996).
Along with general student participation in VC is the issue of task commitment. The participants in the case study really did not show any task commitment beyond the fact that they needed the course to complete degree requirements. The effort to engage students from either the broadcasting site or other remote locations was not present. It is possible that students expected the instructor to put this process into action through the nature of assignments and term projects. However, given that most assignments were individually based, such group collaboration and commitment was absent, which may be the reason why some students engaged in other activities during class. Students acted like they were there to be seen, rather than contributing to the learning experience. At the same time, earlier studies reported that task commitment appeared higher in desktop VC among remote students (Alavi et al., 1995), which leads one to speculate about the role of task and VC types in the interaction process.
Lack of privacy during VC meetings has been addressed by fact that users see the VC camera as a monitoring tool by organizations (Hudson & Smith, 1996; Kouadio & Pooch, 2002), which ultimately influences willingness to participate. First, the idea of monitoring or surveillance is not an issue in a learning environment. Second, it is really hard to draw a clear conclusion given that the VC system used in the case study did not offer recording of the session or offer record-keeping; thus, it is difficult to determine how VC cameras influence students’ performance. If anything else, students appeared not to care whether the camera was focused on them or not as they engaged in other side activities that added nothing to the class. At the same time, lack of involvement can be attributed to the feeling of neglect reported by students.
One of the human factors influencing VC is the issue of floor control. Floor control attends to who talks and when they talk during VC; this is important, especially in facilitating communication interaction. As this case study reveals, there is a disconnect in floor control during class via VC. The case study confirms the need to put in place and adhere to social protocols in terms of floor control, as students from the broadcasting site view counterparts from remote locations as disrupting to communication flow, while those in the remote sites see their colleagues from broadcasting sites as unreceptive to their participation and inputs. Consequently, the result is the reported disorganized meeting attributed to the absence of a floor control mechanism (see Malpani & Rowe, 1997; Olaniran, 2009).
Similar to floor control, meeting structure design influences participants’ interaction in VC in a manner that does not obstruct others. Evidence in this study suggests that the instructor at least attempted to provide a mechanism for preventing disruptive participation by offering her cell phone number to students so that they were able to contact her to clarify certain information about the course and to have an additional avenue for getting their questions answered (see Kouadio & Pooch, 2002; Kraut et al., 1990). However, this may not be sufficient given that calling on the phone or e-mailing would delay or switch the meeting mode from a synchronous one to an asynchronous one (Olaniran, 2006). In general, the case study seems to align with previous studies pointing to the importance of greater structure that ties VC technology to course and communicati on goals (Olaniran, 2009; Pantelli & Dawson, 2001).
Certainly, VC has specific advantages that can be helpful in enhancing interactivity and the communication process as a whole. For instance, the ability to support non-verbal and social cues is noteworthy. However, this feature also creates some challenges, especially with user participation. Therefore, it remains that certain VC features considered advantages were also viewed as problematic with the medium (Olaniran, 2009).
One thing that is clear is that VC requires certain adjustments and adaptations on the part of meeting organizers and users. Unlike other traditional media where one can just use the media (e.g., FTF and phone) without much preparation and thought, VC requires the initiator or meeting facilitator to attend to the human factor and other participation ideas. For example, it forces users to contemplate and anticipate how participants or co-participants might perceive the technology. It also requires facilitators to develop ahead of time how problems might be resolved or overcome. In the case study presented in this paper, it is important that the instructor provides increased structure that can help students from remote locations feel included in the interaction and class discussion. Simply teaching in the same manner as one would in a FTF setting would not work with VC. For example, it might help for the instructor to establish the VC participation etiquette or to make sure she is teaching in a setting where all participants are being broadcasted to. Consequently, there is the need to focus on how VC can add value as a communication medium. This value can be examined through the selection criteria for communication technologies where potential advantages can be deduced. It is important to identify and develop criteria for selecting VC technologies.
Criteria for Selecting VC Tools
Because videoconferencing is still relatively a novelty, criteria needs to exist for selecting and appropriating VC and its tools. A primary focus needs to address situational constraints such as task-technology fit. Levy (1997) offered a general guidance for selecting VC criteria, which appears in Levy’s argument that there should be a fit between the demands of learning objectives and the capabilities of technology. Furthermore, it is critical to facilitate and develop effective task-technology fits by making sure that one adapts technology to the task rather than vice versa (see Hewer, Kötter, Rodine, & Shield, 1999; Olaniran, 2007, 2009). Utilizing this technique can be helpful for two reasons. First, the instructor should identify specific task goals and objectives to be met. Second, the instructor can determine whether VC could help accomplish identified goals. For instance, Wang (2004) indicated that videoconferencing may be valuable when a learning objective is to provide a synchronous interactive learning environment in which distant learners can improve their communicative speaking skills, or interactivity, through oral-visual interaction. Notwithstanding, however, Wang (2004) identified three major factors that must be considered: 1) the synchronous and interactive nature of the learning environment, 2) the distance among learners and providers, and 3) oral/aural-visual interaction.
As is true with any case study, the findings in this study need to be taken with care, as case studies are not generalizable across context. For example, how much influence the instructor’s role and students’ responses play in the findings is not known; from what is known, it is hard to draw a causal effect without another study that controls for these factors. Having said that, the case study still provided a general application and offered information that is useful as one continues to understand VC technologies and implications for meeting, learning, and other cues.
This paper explores VC’s benefits and challenges to implementation. It also provides a case study from an academic use of VC in a distance education environment. Similarly, the paper argues that though VC holds promises for communication interactions, it also has significant challenges that prevents its use and perhaps detracts from its being ubiquitous. Thus, there is more work to be done with the system’s designs and use before VC can truly reach its potential in communication and educational environments.
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