FAQ: Video Conferencing

What Is Compressed Interactive Video?

A compressed interactive video system uses a CODEC device or card to digitally compress a standard video and audio signal so that it takes less bandwidth to transmit it. CODEC stands for Compression/Decompression. While this process has improved over the years, it still produces some noticeable effects upon the finished signal:
 
  • Delay – A compressed video conference will have a delay of up to two seconds. This is caused by the compression and the transmission. Most instructors notice the delay when they tell a joke. The laughter of participants at the instructor’s site will be immediate, but laughter from the other sites will be delayed. Participants must keep the delay in mind, so that everyone can interact equally.
  • Reduced video and audio quality – While the compressed video signal is a good one, there are still small differences in quality between compressed and standard video. For this reason, any video or audio presentations in the class should be easy to see and hear.
For additional information about Compressed Interactive Video, including differences from standard video, see: http://www.kn.pacbell.com/wired/vidconf/compressedVid.html

How do multipoint conferences work?

There are often only two monitors in a videoconference: one for the local site and one for the other “remote” sites. When connecting in a multipoint conference (between more than two sites), participants need to know how the remote sites change. In a multipoint conference there is always at least one remote site that is not on-camera. The network uses audio to determine which of the remote sites is visible. When participants at a site talk, the network switches to that site. The last site to speak is the one that remains visible on the remote monitor.
 
This process works relative to each site in the conference. For example, if an instructor is lecturing to two remote sites (sites 1 and 2), the students at those sites see the instructor’s site on the remote monitor. If site 1 asks a question, the instructor’s site and site 2 will see site 1. However, site 1 will still see the instructor’s site until someone at site 2 speaks. Instructors can manage which sites are visible by calling on students by name or site and requiring them to participate in the conference. When students at a remote site are not speaking, that site should go on mute, so the instructor’s visual presentation will not be interrupted.

Why does the view of the other sites in a multipoint conference sometimes change?

If someone is speaking from one site in a multipoint conference and the camera view changes to another site, it is because there was enough audio generated at the second site to cause the network to change the view. During a presentation or discussion, sites that are not presenting at that moment should be on mute. This will allow the video to stay on the site that is talking. Sites can come off mute when they have a question or are responding to the instructor.
 
If sites are not muted, any audio at the site may cause other sites to see that site, instead of the instructor (or whoever is speaking).

Why do I hear myself echo during a videoconference?

Sometimes you may hear your voice echoing during a videoconference. This is caused by the feedback when a site’s audio is loud enough to be picked up by their microphones. Muting each site one at a time until the echo disappears will tell which site is producing the feedback. Once that site is identified, ask them to reduce the volume of their speakers. The technical personnel for that site may need to adjust their speaker volume or microphone sensitivity to correct the problem

In what ways is presenting on CIV (and video in general) different from presenting in the traditional classroom?

CIV presentation requires awareness of the strengths and limits of the technology. Best practices are derived from the ways in which compressed interactive video affects the video signal. Inappropriate dress, such as bold patterns, can slow the system. Speaking best practices can prevent confusion during conversations with other locations.
 
Instructors also need to remind themselves that CIV is television. Good television presentation, such as maintaining eye contact with the camera, will help to engage the students. However, interactivity is vital. Normally, people are passive in front of a television. Interactive video allows participation from all members of the class. Instructors need to plan and work towards making these interactions regularly happen.

What do students need to know about the CIV classroom?

Students need to know from the start of the semester what will be expected of them in the videoconference classroom:
  • Everyone will use strong speaking voices – Be sure that all participants are speaking with strong enough voices to be heard at other sites (via the microphones). When participants cannot be heard, comments have to be repeated, slowing the class.
  • Everyone will be courteous to their fellow participants – Because of audio delay, participants at the instructor’s site have an advantage responding to questions. Instructors should solicit interaction directly from the other sites (by calling on students by name or site). Students should never interrupt their classmates, especially those at other sites.
  • Everyone will inform the instructor of technical problems – Technical problems aren’t always apparent to all the sites in a conference. The instructor should be notified immediately when there is any technical problem at a site, especially one that prevents students from participating. All sites should have contact information for the instructor’s site.
  • Everyone will interact – Interaction is fundamental to making a videoconferencing class effective and engaging. Instructors should plan for interaction, but students must be prepared to interact when they are in class.

How can I avoid getting hung up on the technology?

  • Focus on the lesson and not the technology – Once students are acquainted with the technology, instructors shouldn’t dwell upon it. The goal is to make the use of the cameras, microphones, and other CIV technology as natural as that of a whiteboard and dry erase markers.
  • Have a back-up plan – Every instructor in a classroom that depends on technology should have a back-up plan for what to do if the technology fails. Part of this plan should include communicating with the other sites. For example, if a conference failed, a good back-up plan might call for student group work at each site. The instructor would call each site and let the facilitators know what students should be working on until the conference can be restored. A good back-up plan anticipates the absence of technology and provides a meaningful substitute that doesn’t depend on the technology.
  • Don’t spend a lot of time apologizing for technical glitches; technical glitches do happen. When problems occur, let students know what is going on, but then focus on the activities they can be doing while the problem is being resolved. Don’t spend any more time apologizing over a technical glitch than you would when having a bad dry-erase marker.

Is there anything I need to know about using audio-visual elements in CIV?

  • Preview audio and visuals in advance on the CIV system, when possible, to make sure they work and are easy to hear, see, and read.
  • Use visuals appropriate for the medium. Landscape alignment works better on video than portrait. Always use generous margins in computer presentations, as the video screen will sometimes cut off edges of the computer screen.
  • Maintain high contrast between text and background.
  • Titles can use serif or sans-serif fonts and should be at least 24 pt. type. Bullet points should use serif fonts with approximately six words per bullet and no more than six bullets per screen.
  • When using printed pictures make sure the lighting is sufficient for the pictures to show up properly on the document camera. If you are using slides, back illumination may be needed.
  • Video and audio - Video segments should be short, where possible. Video transmitted via CIV is not as sharp as standard video, making viewer concentration harder over time. If you are playing video or audio on a PC and there is no audio connection to the CIV system, you will have to play the audio in some other way, such as through the computer speakers.
  • Avoid using portrait-printed documents with lots of text. It’s difficult to zoom in on these documents.
  • If available, you may need an auxiliary camera to capture certain types of demonstrations.
  • Internet and computer – When viewing Web pages and other computer images, make sure the content is clear and easy to see. Most Web browsers have a zoom feature that will help provide clarity for small text and graphics.
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Can I use other systems with my CIV class?

Many instructors use learning management systems like Blackboard Learning System to provide their students with additional ways to communicate, access documents, and submit work.

How can I make students more comfortable in the CIV classroom?

  • Give students experience with the equipment – Provide opportunities for students to use the equipment, such as student presentations on camera or “board work.”
  • Use warm-up activities – Try warm-up activities that not only acquaint the students with their classmates but that also familiarize them with the technology and the environment. Warm-up activities should promote interaction.
  • Informal roll-call – At the beginning of each class, start with a roll call that requires each student to speak and identify themselves. This gives every student a pressure-free experience of speaking on CIV.
  • Avoid isolating students on camera – Try not to have a student alone on camera, as this experience is often uncomfortable to students. Use “Two-shots” with two individuals in the frame, and encourage facilitators at the other sites to do the same.
  • Visit remote sites as often as possible – Personally visiting each site can break down the psychological distance that occurs in a CIV classroom. Some students are more reluctant to interact on-camera with someone they’ve never met in-person. Initial visits should occur early in the semester and should be followed up with one or two additional visits (depending on the number of sites in the class).

Are there any ways I should adjust my lesson to meet the needs of the CIV classroom?

Most instructors will bring their best teaching practices to the CIV classroom, including clearly stating objectives before each class, and in varying the activities. Instructors should also “chunk” content, keeping instructional segments to about 15 minutes when possible. As always with videoconferencing, plan your lessons so that the maximum interactivity among students will occur.

Is there anything additional I should consider in my normal evaluation and revision process?

When possible, solicit feedback from students and facilitators about the CIV elements of the classroom. For example, was there anything going on off-camera at other sites during the class? Were there any distractions related to the audio or video that you were unaware of?

What kind of scheduling conflicts occur with CIV classes?

Most scheduling conflicts are caused by different holiday and break schedules. For example, there may be different weeks for Spring Break. Some conflicts relate to ad-hoc events, such as a school-wide meeting or activity at one site. When these differences cannot be mediated, the school and the instructor providing the class are responsible for setting policies for attendance.
 
On dates where there is a conflict, the instructor should request that the room be available, if possible, for students to attend class. For conflicts caused by optional activities (such as extracurricular events) the instructor should determine whether to excuse student absences. Avoid situations where students at one site miss a lesson due to factors beyond their control.

How should I handle weather cancellations?

Instructors should set a class policy as to whether the class will meet when one or more sites in a conference are closed due to weather (or during other circumstances, such as power outages). It is usually understood that if the site where the instructor is teaching has to close, then the class will not meet. Some instructors cancel class if any of the participating schools are closed. This is the optimal policy for making sure students at one site do not fall behind their classmates at the other sites.

What administrative support issues do I need to know?

  • Site facilitators – The facilitators at each CIV site are some of your best allies. They handle physical materials in the classroom, proctor tests, identify on-site problems, communicate with on-site staff, run cameras, and perform other duties to support the class. Get to know the facilitators at each site and get their contact information. Try to include them in discussions about scheduling and other general class issues.
In addition, it should be noted that facilitators should never interfere in the instructor-student relationship. Students should direct all questions about the class content and work directly to their instructor.
 
  • Transfer of physical materials – Often, physical class materials must be transferred between sites. Standard mail, fax, and scanning are options for documents. For electronic documents, e-mail and an online learning management system, such as Blackboard, are effective ways to send and retrieve student work.
  • Keep contact information for any individuals involved in the class. This includes the room facilitators and technical personnel at each site, the technical support contact at the instructor’s site, other support personnel (tutors, counselors, etc) and, of course, the students themselves.
  • Be aware of available support technologies, including fax, e-mail, Internet, and learning management systems (Blackboard).

What instructional support issues do I need to know?

  • Be available to students - Once a class session ends, students at off-campus sites still need to communicate with you. Provide clear avenues of communication (phone, e-mail) and clearly defined times when you are available.
  • Provide office hours to all students (online, phone, and in-person) – Make sure your office hours are available to off-campus students. It’s not a bad idea to have some time set aside specifically for the off-campus students.
  • Provide students with a list of support resources, such as tutoring, examples, multimedia, and other materials – Make students aware of the resources available to them. Try to make any resources that are available to local students available to students at the other sites. If there is a local resource that is unavailable to students at those sites, try to find a suitable equivalent.
  • Utilize support technologies – Be aware of all the instructional technologies available. Also, be aware that when you visit other sites the equipment there may be different, and some technology may not be available. Contact the facilitator at that site in advance of the visit to confirm what is available. The site personnel may be able to obtain the technology for your visit.

What technical support issues do I need to know?

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  • Understand troubleshooting procedures (who to call on- and off-campus for common problems) – Always be aware of whom to call for technical support, both at your site and the other sites. Never hesitate to contact technical support staff if there is a problem. Phone numbers are vital because some problems may not allow communication via the CIV system. When possible, instructors should try to learn what common problems occur and how to identify them. This knowledge can assist the technical support personnel.
  • Have a backup plan for when the technology fails – Always have a backup plan, in case the technology fails. The backup plan should take into account the unavailability of the conferencing system or other technology. The plan should provide for student activities in those circumstances and offer information on how to contact other sites.
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    Important: Under no circumstances should you attempt to modify the videoconference system or settings. Any changes to the system should be performed by the technical support personnel for that site.

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