Thursday, 22 March 2012

Video Conferencing for Learning & Teaching

After what was our busiest week for video conferencing at the University, (at least in the time that I’ve worked here), it seems quite timely to write a little but more about the technology and how it's used. The overwhelming usage of the equipment is for meetings and administration purposes. However, there are some pockets of teaching being carried out via video.

Last week, Professor Mike Cork from the Medical School gave a lecture using our IP video conferencing system in Firth Court to students at Cardiff University. This is a lecture that Mike delivers annually, and I imagine benefits both parties. For Mike there is obvious time and travel saving; whereas the students get the benefit of a lecture from an eminent professor in their subject. The lecture subject was around dermatology, so showing clinical images is clearly very important to help explain the subject, so a PowerPoint presentation was also delivered via the video link. Mike has also given similar lectures via video to institutions in the US, Canada and Sweden.
Students from Sheffield join a lecture with UCL & Nottingham 

I think one massive barrier around using video conferencing equipment is a fear of the technology, and the worry that the link will not work. And whilst this is certainly a very real problem, we are fortunate enough to be able to use the JANET JVCS Booking Service to set up and monitor conferences. The JVCS service allows us to easily link up with over 700 registered UK institutions, which includes the vast majority of FEI and HEI’s.

From a user’s point of view, all they need to do is get into the video conferencing suite and turn the lights on; when connecting with a venue registered with JVCS, the video conferencing units, or ‘codecs’ as they are known, will automatically dial each other and connect. The booking service can’t do anything about hair or makeup unfortunately!

From an administrator’s point of view, conferences can be booked online in about 5 minutes. Telephone support is available for administrators (and users) during the conference. Paul Bonnet, the Videoconferencing Technical Manager at JANET recently gave a presentation about the JVCS booking service at a JISC Green ICT event. The presentation has been made available on Slideshare.  Some key points from his presentation was that use of the JVCS Booking service was steadily rising 20% per annum, and there were 2780 separate sessions in February, so it’s clearly gaining traction in other institutions, as well as ours.

Desktop Videoconferencing 

Desktop videoconferencing is how many people think of ‘video conferencing’, especially with software like Skype. Skype is a fantastic tool, which is perfect for point-to-point, person-to-person communication. Skype can also do group calling when a premium membership is purchased. However, Skype, and all other desktop video conferencing systems are limited when there are multiple participants in the same physical location, such as with a teaching environment. This is because it is very hard to pick up the audio of multiple participants without multiple microphones, cables and a mixer feeding back the signal into computer. All of this requires a certain amount of technical knowledge, equipment and time. Of course, there are elegant plug and play solutions available, such as this all in one space age solution from Polycom. As you may expect, these are in a different price league to a USB webcam and headset. Having to have this sort of equipment for a videoconference involving a group of participants in one location is a clear barrier.

The JVCS booking service allows us to join a PC user to a ‘traditional’ room based video conferencing system. For example, the University’s Learning & Teaching Committee links with our City College in Thessaloniki using this technology. It is very difficult to connect proprietary systems, such as Skype and Google Talk to a traditional video conferencing system. It is something JVCS are looking into; at the recent JISC Green IT conference at the University of Warwick on 6th March, Paul Bonnet (Videoconferencing Technical Manager at JANET) said "it’s a question I'm asked every day". There are providers out there who ‘bridge’ conferences in the cloud, such as BlueJeansNet, and Paul said a cloud based solution is something JANET is looking at, but it comes at a significant cost. These cloud based providers have no commercial relationship with Skype, so if Skype (owned by Microsoft) was to change it’s business model then these cloud providers, and their customers could be left with a useless service.

One final thought on video conferencing via JVCS. They offer a recording service, which is something I am looking into, but we haven't signed up for it yet. Would anyone be interested in using this facility? JVCS provides a link to download the conference as a movie files when it is finished. This could be uploaded to uPlayer, watched back in class or simply stored as an archive.

Where Next? 

I think this is an exciting time for video conferencing. With the explosion of different devices capable of video conferencing, and mobile working being more widely adopted, I think it’s something we will all have to embrace sooner or later. I still feel there is a need for room based video conferencing systems, due to the problems with desktop problems I have outlined above. CiCS are running a pilot of Blackboard Collaborate over the next few months, so it will be interesting to see how that is received in a learning and teaching environment. In addition, the University Executive Board (UEB) have been trialing Cisco WebEx for their meetings. In fact, we may have an announcement very soon about a wider trial of WebEx………


  1. It is very informative which you have written in your blog. Now a days so many peoples are looking for digital education with the help of video conferencing. Video Conferencing Software help those students who are not able to get the best education due to such environment. A student from the interior can learn the best lessons from the experts by using Video Conference.

  2. Video Conferencing is the best solution for enabling the virtual training sessions for any educational levels of students. Most particularly, the interactive features enabled in the video conferencing software application are attracting both the tutors and the students to have virtual class room training. E-learning is the most common term that is being in run from some years, but the advent of video conferencing in this field have highly renovated the way students interact with the tutor.

  3. Guest lectures are a valuable resource in higher education. However, shrinking budgets make it difficult to bring in experts from remote areas of the globe.Video conferencing is the best way to bring the experts to the class room...



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