The Viability of Videoconferencing Based Distance Education
Throughout the Information Age, people have come to expect instant and reliable communication with anyone in the world by using any number of technologies, such as the cellular phone, beeper, email, voice mail, texting, fax machine, etc. Unfortunately, all of these technologies have inherent limitations. As a result, this has produced a strong demand for a better and more robust method of telecommunication, and the next most likely technological leap in telecommunication will probably be videoconferencing. Videoconferencing is a technology still in its infancy that incorporates several different types of multimedia (video, audio, and data) to help people collaborate with each other in real-time across a network, even if they are in different parts of the world. Thus, videoconferencing has the potential of integrating all of the capabilities in the current telecommunication technologies together while adding the additional enhancement of real-time video. Unfortunately, today’s networks were not designed for the purpose of videoconferencing. So, this paper will attempt to determine the viability of videoconferencing, specifically for distance education, with respect to the current network technology. The advantages and disadvantages of videoconferencing will be analyzed in relation to how current networks attempt to address them.
The first advantage of videoconferencing is the increase in productivity that a real-time, multimedia integrated communication system provides. The professors and students of videoconferencing-based distance classrooms have a significant reduction in their travel expenses and travel time; hence they are able to use their surplus time and money to be more productive. As a result of videoconferencing, professionals now have the ability to attend distance-based classrooms from almost anywhere (e.g. from their home, office, or even around the world) and at any time . The second advantage is that the cost of equipment has considerably gone down in recent years. This has made videoconferencing much more affordable for schools and universities to use for distance-based classrooms. The equipment necessary for videoconferencing primarily consists of computers, software, video cameras, microphones, and at least one network. Fortunately, computer and software performance is also no longer an issue, along with the quality of video cameras and other television production equipment. However, universities and schools do not have enough funds to purchase or build a network; so luckily, network connections, such as to the Internet, are relatively affordable.
On the other hand, there are many disadvantages to videoconferencing for distance-based education. First, videoconferencing requires a high bandwidth for transmissions, because each site in a videoconference will probably need to continuously transmit a lot of data. There are several types of videoconferencing that can be categorized accordingly:
- One-to-One: Connects only two remote people.
- One-to-Many: Connects one person with multiple people, such as a classroom setting with a professor teaching students.
- Many-to-Many: Connects more than two remote people.
In a typical virtual classroom, schools use the one-to-many configuration where only a single video feed from a professor is transmitted to several students, thus decreasing the necessary bandwidth than in a typical videoconference with the same number of people. However, to ensure a reasonable quality in audio and video, there needs to be continuous transmission of data in a high bandwidth. Yet the loss of some data packets is acceptable, because it might only result with choppy video and/or audio that could still be understandable. Contrarily, data transmissions must be maintained perfectly intact, because data (such as text documents) can not be corrupted without loss of content . Another issue with videoconferencing is synchronization problems. For example, a synchronization problem can be when someone’s voice can still be heard after that someone’s mouth stops moving. This is a symptom of a network with insufficient bandwidth causing delays in transmissions. Thus the need for a high bandwidth network is necessary for videoconferencing-based distance education.
Another issue with videoconferencing is the social impact it inherently produces. Distance-based videoconferencing causes people to interact less often; and when they do, the quality of those interactions is reduced. This causes people to share less of their knowledge when interacting, thus reducing the effectiveness of videoconferencing . As videoconferencing becomes more common, the subject matter or content of the meetings has a tendency of becoming more lengthy, methodical, and seemingly more productive. However, the context of these meetings decreases; meaning that they become less relaxed, more formal, and too focused. This limits the scope of the usefulness of videoconferencing by narrowing the boundaries of these meetings and virtual classrooms . And finally, people fear or are less willing to learn new technology, such as videoconferencing, that does not seem intuitive to use. It has been observed that videoconferencing has been more easily accepted when there is a pusher or a person praising and teaching its usage. This person helps change the potential users’ attitudes, especially when they see the technology in use; hence making videoconferencing more acceptable . As a result of all the disadvantages of videoconferencing, networks need to improve with sufficiently high enough bandwidth, and people need to adjust appropriately.
Some videoconferencing systems are limited to a closed network (such as a Local Area Network or LAN) or use public networks (such as the regular phone lines). While other videoconferencing systems are connected through ISDN (Integrated Services Digital Network) lines, because it is a more economical than traditional network connections for high quality. ISDN transmits over regular telephone lines that can transfer data at 128 kilobytes per second, so that it can provide a dedicated bandwidth for high quality audio and video (approximately 15 to 30 frames per second). Alternatively, an Internet-based connection must share its bandwidth with other Internet data that often cause delays, loss of some data packets, and overall poor quality. This is because the Internet was not designed for real-time video and audio transmissions. Yet, the Internet can still be used for videoconferencing with the recent enhancements to TCP/IP, even though it is inconsistent, unreliable, and limiting. Fortunately, the Internet 2 (that is still under development) is being designed to overcome the fundamental problems that the Internet has, to alleviate some of the throughput issues. This only illustrates the strong need for a national or international broadband or high bandwidth network.
Even though videoconferencing has many advantages, there are several disadvantages that need to be addressed. For people to use the videoconferencing technology, it must be simple to use, reliable, relatively low cost, and consistently maintain high quality. Thus, networks need to improve with sufficiently high enough bandwidth. And users should appropriately adjust to this new technology and learn when it is best to use it on an individual basis such as distance-based education. In conclusion, the viability of videoconferencing for distance-based education is possible and currently usable, yet it still has plenty of room for improvement.
by Phil for Humanity
NOTE: This paper was first published in the Fall of 1999.
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