Video/Audio Conferencing

What is video/audio conferencing?

This is a very broad category of online tools, incorporating a range of options from free one-to-one audio conferencing all the way to more sophisticated and expensive tools such as Polycom which allow multiple sites with entire classes participating using video and audio.

  1. Video and audio, or just audio connection between two computers communicating via the Internet.
    • Examples of free audio conferencing software: Gizmo, Skype (both cross platform) both enable users to speak to other Gizmo/Skype users free of charge (although users can also pay a fee and make calls to landlines using the computer). For further examples view Wikipedia list.
    • Examples of free video conferencing software: iVisit (cross platform), iChat (Mac only), NetMeeting (Windows only).
    • Breeze can also be used for video conferencing (but Breeze is more than just a video/audio conferencing tool. See Breeze overview)
  2. Transmitted to & received from any computer in any location that has Internet connection (broadband desirable for effective use). Teacher must have microphone, can have camera. Ideally end users have microphone (camera not essential) for synchronous communication.
  3. Technology requirements for video/audio conferencing:
    • Computer with access (ideally broadband) to the Internet.
    • Browser.
    • Speakers to hear audio.
    • Microphone (to contribute audio).
    • Web camera to contribute video.

screen shot of iChat window
Above: Video conferencing in iChat.
Below: Skype audio conferencing.

screen shot of Skype connection

Why use video/audio conferencing?
  1. Enables teacher or limited number of learners need to connect from different locations at the same time when only video and/or audio connection is needed. Examples: guest speaker at remote location can talk to local class; students in one class can engage in discussion with students at another location (such as a class in another country); when a student is unable to attend face-to-face class, s/he can connect to class via VOIP; students can take virtual field trips to remote locations.
Advantages video/audio conferencing

Note: Within the broad category of video/audio conferencing there are different types, each with their own advantages, so not all within the following list applies to each specific tool.

  1. Free download of easy to use software that can be used via Internet to connect student, instructor, or guest speaker to class and enable both sides to see & hear.
  2. Enables individual (usually limited to one connection) to participate in synchronous learning experiences from any location worldwide. Users can connect from home, work or other location easily accessible to them.
  3. Specifically useful for guest speaker who is far away from face-to-face class location, or student who cannot be in face-to-face class.
  4. Enables students to take virtual field trips to remote locations (either just by viewing the video (e.g. African Voices) or engaging in an interactive lesson (see African Masks field trip). This is especially an advantage to students who attend schools in isolated communities, but is an advantage to all students regardless of location or socio-economic factors. See extensive list of examples at SBC Videoconference Adventures; also Ball State University Electronic Field Trips.
  5. Can be used to record vodcast or podcast and uploaded to course website (for web-enhanced, hybrid, or fully online classes).
  6. As video conferencing technology improves, this can become a far cheaper alternative to ITV or systems like PolyCom in enabling school districts to offer specialized subjects by having one teacher teach a class to students at a number of schools (e.g. in foreign language -- see Spanish lesson).
Disadvantages of video/audio conferencing

Note: Within the broad category of video/audio conferencing there are different types, each with their own disadvantages, so not all within the following list applies to each specific tool.

  1. Typically on free systems only one or a very limited number of users can connect to the host (instructor) computers at a time, so video/audio conferencing can be used only for individual access rather than as a larger scale tool and learning environment. However, newer systems such as Camfrog enable multi-user video conferencing.
  2. Depending on the stability of the connection, users may be disconnected during the class and have to reconnect.
  3. Difficult to see and hear people who are not close to the microphone/camera, especially when using one of the low-cost systems (such as iSight camera). Thus difficult to have multiple people at one site, sharing a computer to communicate with users at other sites.
Issues & problems related to video/audio conferencing
  1. Works best with broad band connection, especially for video conferencing. Users report that after the initial fascination with the video component has worn off, they realize that they really only need to use the audio as this uses less bandwidth and results in higher quality audio than the video option. Because of the small video window and low quality, the video image is of limited use (as compared with ITV where image is high quality and can be used to share a variety of still and video images).
  2. If used for users connecting to face-to-face class, it is important to have good quality speakers so that classroom-based students can hear the person who is calling in.
  3. Students speaking from classroom must identify who they are before speaking.
  4. Requires students connecting to class from remote site to be able to follow discussion relying just on audio or audio with low quality video (students report this being challenging, especially for long lectures). This is also an accessibility issue.
Emerging issues and tips
  1. More often than not, once users at each site know what other users look like, more often than not it is not necessary to use video -- the audio connection is sufficient (since the video quality isn't high and you can usually only see the person's face). The video is really only necessary when users want to demonstrate something or show something to remote users.
  2. If a student is connecting to a class via audio connection, handouts and visual aids can be sent to him/her via email or made available on course website ahead of time. If the instructor writes on the board or there is some other visual or interaction that happens in class, the instructor can take a digital photo or digital video and upload this to the course website. This is a benefit not only to the distant student, but also to other students who may find this useful for review.

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