This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 3 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

Lessons from a Videoconferenced Course
by Ira Nayman

Time was that if you wanted to teach a course, you had few options. The primary one was to get up in front of a class and talk. This was augmented by text courses through the mail and, more recently, video courses through the mail although in-person classes were, and are still, the main forum for teaching.

Digital technology has given teachers many new tools. Class materials can now be delivered on CD-ROM. They can be given through text-based asynchronous conferencing. They can be put on a Web page. Recently I participated in a synchronous videoconferenced course called the Nationally Networked Course, which was delivered through CA*Net2 (Canada�s equivalent to Internet2). Students and professors at five campuses across Canada (McGill University, York/Ryerson Universities, the University of Calgary, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Alberta) met weekly online for a 90-minute lecture and discussion. This was augmented by a Web site where papers and other relevant material were posted and where synchronous chat and asynchronous mail were available for participants.

The primary purpose of the course was to assess the technology. However, at McGill, we focused on how the technology could be employed most effectively as a teaching tool. This article shares some of the lessons we learned from this experience.

Involve teachers at the stage of technical testing

Three weeks before the class was supposed to begin, I attended a test of the videoconferencing software at York University. The technician seemed surprised at my presence; for the most part, educators had not attended any of the tests. There are a lot of reasons why this absence is not good.

The most obvious is that, without some knowledge of the equipment, teachers won�t be able to use it most effectively. As it happened, most of the speakers in the course gave an hour-long lecture, which did not make use of the graphic, video, and other capabilities of the medium.

In fact, straight lectures are probably the worst use of videoconferencing technology. We are used to high visual stimulation from watching television; �talking head� lectures quickly become visually dull. On the other hand, what makes in-person lectures so exciting--contact with a real, live human being--is missing because of the mediated nature of videoconferences. It�s not necessary that teachers become entertainers (something that can seriously undermine their pedagogical effectiveness); however, institutions involved in videoconferenced teaching should insist that their professors understand the basic principles of the technology since such knowledge will help them use it more effectively.

Another problem that can be alleviated by getting teachers involved in the testing stage is that of technological disaffection. One professor, who found his lecture halted for 20 minutes while the MBone connection to other campuses was broken, lost interest in the technology and attended the rest of the course lectures only intermittently. It is unlikely that he will become involved in such a test again. If teachers attend the tests, they are more likely to have a realistic attitude towards the technology and be less likely to become frustrated if it doesn�t work perfectly.

Involve teachers at the stage of developing the curriculum

Since more than one professor will be involved in a course taught at more than one campus, some negotiation about the curriculum is inevitable. This can develop in more than one way.

Where one institution is the primary developer of the course, for instance, it can set the parameters of what will be taught, allowing the distant sites to apply their local expertise to subjects within the broader aims of the course. This is what happened with the course I experienced: the University of Calgary, the primary campus, set out the general theme of �the social impacts of communications and information technologies,� and the different campuses offered lectures on computers and crisis management, computers and publishing, computers and communities, and so on.

This worked in our case because the subject was so broad that each campus could find a way to plug into it. However, there is the danger that a course developed in this way will be disjointed, with individual classes which do not have a meaningful connection and do not come together in a coherent way. There is also the possibility that resources at each institution will not be used to their fullest or that a professor will give a lecture on a subject that fits into the predetermined scheme of the course rather than a subject that is her or his particular area of expertise.

Instead of this top-down form of developing a curriculum for an online, multicampus course, institutions should consider employing a bottom-up approach, in which each campus is consulted about the curriculum before anything has been set. This would help ensure that teaching expertise is used to its fullest and that each lecture fits well with the overall teaching objectives of the course.

Work out the intellectual value issues before the class begins

Who owns the content of a videoconferenced class? This is a vexing problem with many complexities.

Common sense might suggest that the lecturer should own the copyright on his or her work, given that he or she created the intellectual value being used. A second argument is that the university, owning the equipment used to send the information, has some claim on its copyright. A third argument is that anything a professor creates is a work for hire owned by the university that pays his or her salary.

What happens when these asserted rights conflict? One McGill professor, travelling on the west coast of Canada, gave a lecture from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. Does he, McGill, or Simon Fraser own the copyright on the material? This was an unusual case, but the usual case is complicated enough. In the normal working of a videoconference, students and professors from each site can be expected to participate. Who owns the copyright on the class? Each individual who contributes? The originating site? Each individual institution? Participating students, who, as nonemployees of the institution, are not subject to the �work for hire� rule?

Any educational institution considering engaging in a videoconferenced course with other institutions should explore who will own the material produced for the course; it is much better to work out the intellectual value issues prior to the course commencing than to have to hammer them out later in court.

Always have a backup for the primary technology

For the foreseeable future, videoconferencing technology will be at the test stage, and, it should go without saying, tests sometimes fail. This was apparent throughout the course: Campuses would disappear as their systems crashed, occasionally a campus could not connect because there was too much traffic on its part of the MBone, and so on.

In our case, the backup consisted of maintaining a phone bridge to the various campuses (which, on more than one occasion, was employed). Thus, when a campus could not connect to the videoconference, it could at least hear the lecture and subsequent discussion.

At McGill, we ran tests of the whiteboard function of the videoconferencing technology in order to incorporate graphics into our online presentations. It took our technician weeks to get the whiteboard working; in the interim, we used a second camera at our site to transmit graphics which had been printed on paper, and we put them on a Web site which people at the distant site could access while our presentation occurred.

Developing backups to the technology requires some extra work, but educational institutions considering involvement in videoconferenced delivery of course materials should put some resources into such development to ensure that the materials are transmitted in an intelligible form at the right time.

Ensure time for interaction

A typical class for the course would run like this: A reading would be put on a Web site a few days before the lecture. The lecturer would then recapitulate the main points that were in the reading. What�s wrong with this picture? Setting up videoconferences between a number of different sites across a large geographic area is a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. If the information students would get out of the lectures was more or less the same as what they could get from a paper posted to a Web site, the videoconferences would be unnecessary (and, in fact, wasteful of scarce university resources).

One of the advantages of videoconferencing is to give students access to subject experts at distant sites, people they would not have contact with in the normal course of their studies. To be meaningful, such access should be interactive. That is, a lot of time should be allotted for students to ask questions of the experts as well as to discuss the subject matter with the experts (and with each other).

Videoconferences should be run as seminars rather than lectures.

Since using digital technology to deliver academic courses is still quite experimental, it should be assumed that students will not have had prior experience of it and, therefore, will not be immediately aware of all the possibilities the technology offers for interaction. Thus it is important for institutions creating online courses to build opportunities for interaction directly into the curriculum, to structure the course in a way that motivates students to use the technology to its fullest. This may mean asking students at each site to prepare questions for the subject expert before the class or even to prepare short reports on the subject (bringing new information to the lecture). Requiring students to work on collaborative assignments with those from other sites would increase intercampus student interaction.

Have a protocol for turn-taking

Millennia of face-to-face communication have given us ample time to learn how to speak with one another. In an in-person classroom it is common, for instance, for students to raise their hand when they wish to ask a question or make a point. We have not, however, had enough experience with videoconferencing technology to have developed a natural means for knowing whose turn it is to speak.

With our videoconferenced class, a number of different approaches were tried on an ad hoc basis. At first, the moderator of discussions after each lecture asked each campus in turn if it had questions for the lecturer or comments on the subject. The problem with this approach was the awkward silence that would greet us when a campus did not have anything to say when its turn came up. (This was also a problem for a campus with a lot to say, which had to wait for its next turn.)

A better approach would be for students to be able to signal when they have something to say. With some videoconferencing technologies, students can send a signal to the moderator through the computer system itself. Since we did not have this, at times our moderator asked anybody with anything to say to wave their hands so that he could see them.

Rules for turn-taking may seem relatively unimportant. However, as we have seen, one of the most important advantages of videoconferencing is that it gives students an opportunity to interact with their peers and subject experts at distant locations. Without effective means of determining who will speak, interaction can be greatly stunted. Institutions should experiment with the technology to see what methods of turn-taking are the most effective.


There is a tendency for educators to attempt to use new technologies to replicate the traditional classroom experience--to pour old wine into new bottles. However, new technologies offer new learning experiences for students and require different skills of the teachers.

Universities and colleges can learn from each others experience. Experiments such as the Nationally Networked Course are important in helping us to understand how best to employ new technologies to expand the possibilities for teaching.

Ira Nayman ([email protected]) is a doctoral student at McGill Universitys graduate program in communications. His masters degree was done entirely online through Paul Levinsons Connected Education. the table of contents