If online learning is ever going to supplant live teacher-student conversation, its best implementation is likely to build on video conferencing technology. In my last post, I reported on one video conferencing case study, an entrepreneur’s experience (I called him ‘K’) in using video conferencing as part of the integration of his start-up into a much larger company. It was a mixed story. Video could effectively support communication in between periodic face-to-face interactions, saving travel time and money, but video could not replace those in-person visits altogether. Thus, by extension into an educational setting, a remote instructor, lacking the ability to meet his or her students in person, has a significant handicap compared to live in-class contact.
I report today on another video conferencing case study, this one from one of my former students (whom I will call ‘Mike’), now a product manager at a huge Silicon Valley company and a great fan of video conferencing.
We arranged a video call using his company’s system. The picture quality was fantastic but we were unable to get the voice link going between my microphone (which does work on Skype) and his company’s system, so we used land-line speaker phones for the audio. We laughed over the technical snarl. Mike reported that 99% of the company-internal contacts work perfectly, but that problems similar to ours do show up on something like 25% of the calls involving external participants, especially, like me, using the system for the first time.
There is an important qualitative difference between business use of video and educational use. Unlike my previous example, where inter-site education about new product technology was a critical part of K’s need, within Mike’s company, most communication is operational, project focused. When I pressed Mike about those situations in which there is an educational component, he reported that video cannot replace the flexibility of a live face-to-face group, in the same room, working around a white board. Technology for a shared white board is, to paraphrase his language, not good.
Just as K did, Mike views face-to-face meetings as an essential component of making video communication effective. When a remote team is assembled, seeing faces on video is much better than voice-only conference telephone, but there is a social component of the team dynamic that cannot, in Mike’s experience, get established without face-to-face meetings. As he put it, on a video conference, you have scheduled time slot of twenty or thirty minutes. When meeting in person, there is also the down time, the coffee break, the informal opportunities to establish connection, real eye contact, a better sense of personality.
I asked Mike specifically about issues of trust, something that was important in K’s experience. He said that video contact doesn’t resolve issues of trust. If people are in the same location, establishing trust is vastly easier.
Mike added that having a ‘chat’ technology in parallel with a video conference can be very useful. Participants on a team can share ideas, even coordinate privately before responding to a remote site. Chat is used roughly half of his video conferences. (Beth Datskovsky Ben-Abraham, in her posted comment on The Weakness of the Online Lecture, reported a positive experience with chat when taking a class by remote video.)
I asked Mike about K’s experience with participants blocking their video. Mike says it depends on company culture, and also that the leader of the session has a big impact on video blocking by setting an example. He reports that video blocking is most often done when participants are at home or in an awkward setting of some kind.
Mike mentioned that especially in large video conferences, network latency (delays over the internet) can interfere with the smooth flow of the meeting, in which case one needs the equivalent of a hand-raising gesture so that participants don’t speak over one another. This sounded like the virtual high school classroom I visited with my grandson two years ago – it was audio only, and used a hand-raising gesture to keep order among a group of a dozen students and a teacher.
Finally, Mike stressed that the technology needs to be easy to use in order for it to succeed. One click to join a meeting, good screen-sharing technology, a not-yet-available excellent white-board sharing technology, clear audio (more important than clear video of faces).
My major takeaway from the comparison of K’s experience with Mike’s is that face-to-face meetings are still essential to both. This, for me, casts a long shadow over the achievable quality of internet-only education.
There will now be a hiatus of several weeks, as I’m off to experience a Stratford and London immersion in Shakespeare followed by a week with old friends in the London area.