The equipment and communications standards have certainly matured since I was first exposed to videoconferencing systems fifteen years ago. Particularly in the communications standards used and the resulting band-width requirements. You basically needed a T-1 line to the system itself in the olden days. (A T1 line can carry about 192,000 bytes per second — roughly 60 times more data than a normal residential modem. And they are quite expensive costing $1500 to $2000 a month). In addition, these old systems were point to point only. If you wanted to communicate with more than one site at a time you had to have an additional piece of equipment called a Multipoint Control Unit (MCU) in order to bridge multiple videoconferencing connections.
In contrast, todays systems are much more efficient and provide the capability of hosting multiple sites without the need for an MCU. What does this mean in respect to normal operation and support? A lot depends upon the complexity of your videoconferencing system, the stability of your network and the technical training of support staff. (If you do not have trained personnel in house then a good maintenance agreement through your vendor is essential). Regardless, of what you bought or how you are staffed and trained, this is what I consider the minimum support requirements to have a successful videoconferencing distance learning program:
1. The videoconferencing system and network infrastructure must be maintained in a state that it will function when required for the conduct of a class.
2. Technical support needs to be immediately available to resolve issues when they occur. This support can be either in the room (more on that later) or nearby.
3. There needs to be a, “Plan B” if problems arise that cannot be readily corrected. This can be something as simple as having a conference phone in the room so that you can call the remote students and then at least continue with an audio presentation of the class.
4. Faculty and students participating in a videoconferencing class must have a good understanding of how the systems functions and what it can and cannot do.
We provide an in room assistant when Schreiner faculty hosts a class . We have trained a cadre of very talented student employees to serve as, “Videoconferencing Room Facilitators.” These students have all demonstrated above average technology skills, maturity, professionalism, and good old fashion common sense. The presence of these students has been greatly appreciated by the faculty. It relieves them of the burden of operating the system during the course of the class and it provides an immediate assistance if a problem does arise. Often, issues are relatively simple to correct and the students have everything operational again by the time I arrive.
A perk to this arrangement is students are provided real life problem solving opportunities; which they have handled quite readily. Demonstrating skills in an operational environment is a plus for their future job searching endeavors.
We have found that students participating in a remote host class are quite adept at learning the basic operation of the system; moreover, they can be pretty much left on their own after a couple of classes . They are all given the Instructional Technology phone contact information; and, there is assistance available to them not far from the classroom.
In summary, distance learning via video conferencing is an interesting ride for all involved. It may not be perfect but, it is the next best thing to being in a classroom with the instructor. And most importantly, it provides students the opportunity to take courses they never would be able to at our institution.
Instructional Technology Support Specialist