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Guidelines for Running Videoconferencing Sessions

 Preparing for the videoconference

Time
The need to establish a time is obvious, however, if you are working across time zones this can be difficult, particularly since time differences are constantly changing due to daylight saving. Some service departments require all booking information in GMT, not local time (which can be confusing during the summer). Time zone information is available on http://www.timeanddate.com/worldclock/

Contact numbers
If you are using ISDN you will need the telephone number for the lead ISDN line. If you are using IP based systems you will need your contact's IP address. If you are using iVisit you will need to have clarified which room you will be in, and have distributed the password for the room. It is always useful to have your contact's/contacts' telephone number(s) in case the connection fails to work.

Who's calling whom?
This needs to be established when arranging the videoconference

Check software
If you are using NetMeeting or MSN make sure that you and the students both have the same version.

Monitor settings  
If you are planning to link desktops, make sure that both monitors are set to the same desktop area (e.g. 800 x 600 pixels).

Check firewalls
If you are using IP, check that you can access each other end through your and their firewalls. If you can't, identify whose firewall is creating the problem by both calling a third party. Your (and/or their) IT department can create a "hole" in the firewall between your IP address and their IP address. For this both ends will need a static or fixed IP address. Even if access is possible, a wrongly configured firewall or router can reduce the bandwidth for the videoconference. The router can be configured to open the appropriate ports. This website explains this in more depth.

Check permissions 
Sometimes firewalls are set up to allow high data transfer from staff machines only. If you are using a laptop it is likely that its IP address is not registered as a staff machine. If you have problems delivering a videostream to a web-mediated videoconference (such as Marratech or iVisit) this may be the reason. This will be resolved by requesting IT services to change the permissions of your laptop’s IP address.

Distribute documents
If you are using a room-based videoconferencing system rather than a desktop-based one you may not have access to a method to show PowerPoint presentations or other applications across the link. Even if documents can be shared during the videoconference, you may find that it is useful for the students to have a handout to refer to, or a video to view, during the session. Large media files are better distributed before the session than attempting to run them by sharing applications. Unzipping them during the session can also waste time. If the students are to be involved in discussions, enabling them to prepare beforehand can add a lot of value to the session. If possible a website with all of the resources is the best way to support the session.

  Running a videoconference: The basics

Introduction
These aren't specific to videoconferencing but are good pedagogical practice in any situation. However, because communicating via videoconferencing is more problematic than face-to-face, good pedagogical practice becomes even more important. Video and television are usually passive media, and the resemblance of videoconferencing to these tends to encourage passivity. Engaging students with purely didactic sessions is far more difficult with videoconferencing; the lack of physical presence of the lecturer, and their reduction to an image on a screen is even more demanding on students' degree and duration of attention than a face-to-face session. For this reason tutorials and supervisions tend to work better via videoconferencing than lectures and software demonstrations, since they are customarily more interactive and student-centred. Students' involvement in the sessions can be encouraged through the following considerations:

Learning outcomes
What will the students have to do? What are the intended learning outcomes for the session?

  • be clear about the purpose of the session

Delivery mode
Break up the sessions with different media, with opportunities for feedback or with work the students can carry out within the classroom.

  • Vary activities and vary modes of presentation

Delivery style
An interesting and enthusiastic presentation will be make the work more engaging for the students.

  • modulate tone and pace

  Desktop-to-desktop

Introduction
Situations in which videoconferencing is only carried out with one or two students are much less problematic than videoconferencing to a class. The difficulty of obtaining feedback from many students does not occur, and desktop-to-desktop videoconferencing is mainly used for supervisions and tutorials. However, the following points still need to be considered:

Audio echo
If the person at the other end uses speakers and a microphone then you will hear your own voice relayed back to you a short time later. This echo makes it very difficult to continue talking. Solutions are:

  • Ask the person at the other end to wear headsets OR Disable the duplex option. This will switch off your speakers when you are talking.

Voice-activation
Some software uses voice-activation to select who can be heard at any one time (sometimes called hands-free). It’s important that the person who isn’t talking deactivates the hands-free, otherwise any slight sound will cut-off the speaker. When you hand over to the other person to speak, you will need to click off the hands free to ensure they can be heard without interruption.

  • Ensure you have deactivated hand-free when you are not talking
  • Try not to limit non-essential sounds

Time delay and disabled duplex

A very short delay between one person talking and the person at the other end being able to hear what has been said can be experienced with some videoconferencing technologies. If you have disabled the duplex, there may also be a short delay as the system switches between a person stopping talking and being able to hear the other person. In face-to-face communication we leave small gaps for the other person to take up the conversation if they want to, if they don't we tend to carry on. In a videoconference the delay interrupts this subconscious exchange. The videoconferenced conversation can therefore often lapse into hesitations and interruptions. Although it creates a more stilted conversation, slow down the pace of the exchange and clarify handovers. This is particularly important if you have the duplex disabled, since it’s possible for the other person to entirely miss the first second or so of what you are saying.

You may also find that your speakers may cut out if you say anything. If the time delay due to the duplex being disabled is particularly long, then you might find that even a simple “yes” will halt the flow of the speaker at the other end for a second or more. You may consider a non-verbal gesture instead, however, nodding and shaking of heads will not be picked up unless the frame rate is very high. Use thumbs up or down instead, since a single frame can convey this.

If you find you have created confusion by talking over each other, it is worth spending some time clarifying what has been said before moving on.

  • Explicitly hand over to the other person when you have finished talking
  • Leave longer pauses when handing over to the other person than you would in face-to-face conversations,
  • Wait until the other person has responded and clearly finished before continuing
  • Make static non-verbal gestures, not moving ones.
  • Leave the verbal response until the person has finished talking, otherwise it will cut out the other person
  • If you have been talking over each other, reiterate the key points to ensure clarity.

Camera position
One of the constraints to effective communication across videoconferencing is the inability to make eye contact, since the camera will always be in a different position to the screen. However, reducing the difference as much as possible will increase students' feeling of contact with the person at the other end.

  • improve sightlines as much as possible

Presentation
All the technologies offer the opportunity to view your own image, either as picture-in-picture or as a separate image. Some equipment is also not too adaptive to variations in volume.

  • Keep an eye on the image you are sending and ensure that you're always in shot.
  • Speak clearly.

Use the technology
Videoconferencing isn't just a substitute for face-to-face tutorials, it can also provide features that aren't available in face-to-face to enrich the sessions. Example are: sharing applications, such as jointly completing a spreadsheet or word file or viewing the same images or websites; providing exercises that exploit interactive programs; or using chat, the whiteboard or screen recording software to record particularly important parts of the session. It is particularly useful to type proper names and references into the chat window. Your students may find it difficult to record these if they are on a shared PC, so it saves time to cut and paste the chat window into a word file and email it to them after the session. If you are planning on both looking at a video file, use the file transfer function to ftp the file to your students, rather than try and open it on your desktop and try and share the application. Better yet, send it before the videoconference so that they can pre-install it on their PC.

  • Share applications and documents
  • Use additional software for student exercises
  • Use the chat window for proper names, references, or tasks - cut and paste the chat window to a word file and email it to the students later

  • Don't try and share video applications, use file transfer to send the video file so that the students can run it from their PC

Interruptions
An inevitable part of working from home or the office is interruptions from other people, the phone etc.. Feedback from sessions we have run indicate that these are not a problem, a short interruption and a bit of light relief usually have a beneficial effect, as long as the interruption is dealt with quickly. Breakdowns in the link are more problematic. Once the link is restored, reiterate what was being said before the break, to ensure that nothing has been missed, or check at what point the break occurred.

  • Don't worry about interruptions, but deal with them quickly.
  • Make sure you re-cap after a break, so that nothing is missed.

Practise videoconferencing
If any of the participants are new to videoconferencing their first engagement will probably require their focus to be on the technology, not on the content. A preliminary session, or if this isn't possible, ten to twenty minutes at the start of your first session, will enable the students to familiarise themselves with the features of the software, and what videoconferencing "feels" like.

  • Allow your students (and yourself) some time to experiment with videoconferencing.

 Room-to-room

Introduction
Room-to-room videoconferencing is much more difficult to carry out effectively than desktop-to-desktop. There are the problems with obtaining feedback from large groups at a distance, and also because room-based videoconferencing is mainly used for lectures and software demonstrations which are often passive. Guidelines for room-to-room videoconferencing include those for desktop-to-desktop, plus the following:

Delivery styles
Keeping a lecture interesting is more of a challenge via videoconference than face-to-face. Presentation skills such as modulating tone of voice, developing good questioning skills and building in activities to the session are even more important in order to compensate for the lack of physical presence.

  • keep it lively
  • encourage participation
  • break often

Structuring communication
Feedback must be more highly structured than a face-to-face situation. This is for two main reasons. Firstly, students cannot interrupt if the microphones have been switched off to avoid the echo problem described above. Secondly, the lecturer cannot adequately observe the students to detect any visual cues that they want to ask a question or are not following the lecture. The lecture therefore needs to be broken into very short sections with feedback specifically elicited from the students after, for example, each slide. Formalising the question asking, such as having a rota, can enable the less assertive students to have an input, but can be time-consuming. If students feel self-conscious, asking questions via camera or if the equipment constrains student questioning. A facilitator at the far end is always useful, since they can elicit questions, and clarify problems. Questions can also be submitted via a chat session running in parallel to the videoconference, or by mobile phone text messaging.

  • check frequently for understanding
  • wait for responses (even if it is just to confirm that there are no questions)
  • if time allows, ask for responses in canon, i.e. go round each student in turn inviting a comment
  • consider running other technologies in parallel to assist feedback, such as a chat session or CMS messaging
  • if possible, have a facilitator at the far end

Structuring the session
If you are presenting a lecture or software demonstration break it down into short sections (a maximum of 10 to 15 minutes) and have other activities between the sections, such as viewing a video, or working on exercises within the classroom, or simply a question and answer session. If students have prepared work (see Preparing for the videoconference above) then their presentation of their work can also be one of these alternative activities. Listing the sequence of events during the session enables the students to see where they are, adds coherence to the sessions and acts as a shared prop for you and the students in addition to the videoconference link. Having a handout also gives the students a break from concentrating on the screen. If your session requires a large didactic element consider videoing it beforehand and making the video available to the students before the session. This then leaves the videoconference session free for the students to interact with you, which is the purpose of the technology.

  • incorporate breaks away from the videoconferencing for different activities
  • provide a handout with the structure of the session and/or notes
  • give the students something to do (cf. preparing for the videoconference)
  • planning a purely didactic presentation? then send a video instead

 Multi-way videoconferencing

It is possible to link up to more than one other site at once. To do this will require a Multipoint Control Unit or MCU, often called a bridge. If all of the participants are connected via SuperJANET then UKERNA offer a service. They can support multi-point ISDN, IP and mixed videoconferences. If one or more of the participants are not on SuperJANET, then BT can provide an MCU.

The MCU provider will also need to know if you require permanent presence or voice-activated. Permanent presence displays all of the participants at the same time, but in a fraction of the screen. This has the disadvantage of not being able to see any of the participants particularly clearly, but they can all be seen at the same time. Voice-activated means that only the site that has someone speaking can be seen at any one time, this has the advantage that they can then be seen clearly, but the reactions of the listeners cannot be seen.

Multi-way conferences need to be managed more strictly than one-to-ones. Interrupting another speaker is quite disruptive, because not only does this break into the flow of the person speaking, it also (if voice-activated has been selected) means that the image is also appropriated by the interrupter. For this reason, the lecturer needs to create spaces in the meeting for the students to raise questions, and also formally delegate who is next to speak if more than one person wishes to.

The instruction to switch of voice-activation when you are not talking is even more crucial in a multi-way videoconference. If it cannot be switched off then anyone not speaking must be very careful not to make extraneous sounds. Seminars can be delayed through students forgetting to turn off their hands-free, which means that all anyone can hear is that student breathing, rather than the lecturer presenting.

Also with voice activation selected it’s not always possible to see if one of the participants has become disconnected. It is worth distributing the phone number of the technical co-ordinator (i.e. the person responsible for ringing up everyone) so that they can inform him/her of the disconnection.

  • Contact UKERNA on https://www.ja.net/products-services/janet-collaborate/janet-videoconferencing-service/ to arrange the bridge
  • Select permanent presence or voice-activated depending on your own preference
  • Be very structured about who is to speak, but ensure that everyone has a turn.
  • Make sure everyone turns off their microphones when they are not speaking, if this is possible, or does not make any extraneous sound if this is not.
  • Ensure that participants all have the number of the person making the link, to inform him/her if they become disconnected

 Follow-up to the videoconference

In face-to-face situations students can obtain additional learning support on an ad hoc basis (usually by dropping in to the tutor's office). After a videoconference this is not so easily achieved. Opportunities need to be made available for the students to follow up with further work. If a website has been set up, additional resources can be placed there, such as FAQs or a discussion board. Chat sessions have also proved to be very popular.

  • Provide additional learning support using chat or discussion boards