Videoconferencing has been around for years. Web conferencing has been around for years. The question is, which is more viable and sustainable as a method of distance learning?
It has always seemed strange that tens of thousands, or perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars are spend on iTV or Tangburg videoconferencing systems, that still require the presence of the students in a physical classroom. The main thing that videoconferencing does is link classrooms, and secondary to that, it links learners.
Don’t get me wrong, I think videoconferencing technology is extremely powerful when you want to have students interacting in groups with each other at each site, but when the videoconferencing activitiy consists of a lecture, where students aren’t interacting with each other, only with the instructor, then the viability as a distance learning platform is decreased. How many videoconferences have you seen involving learning that used group work, or promoted interaction between students, not just with the instructor. I haven’t seen many.
Now with web conferences, or webinars, take that same idea, that goal of linking learners and remove the classroom. You now have students interacting with content and the instructor without having to go to a physical location. They could do it at home in their pajamas, at the coffee shop or anywhere they have internet access. Of course, just as above, webinars could be used in the same non learner-centred fashion with no learner-learner interaction, and I’ve seen this in many cases.
The power of webconferencing software though is its increased capability for student interaction. Just as we do in face to face classes, we can section people off into groups, have them work on a task, then come back to the group as a whole and present their ideas. We have areas for presentation, screen sharing, hand raising, expressions of emotion, questions, and group work, which matches, if not exceeds what the traditional videoconference can do.
From an environmental and time standpoint, web conferences win. there’s no need to commute to school, just to sit in a classroom, there’s no gas used to get each learner there.
But what about cost? Yes, Videoconferencing hardware costs a metric tonne of cash, and yes, licenses for web conference software costs an imperial ton of cash. So how does this decision get made? Which technology is more reliable? Which technology is more accessible? More sustainable? More customizable and controllable? These are the questions that inform e-learning committees everywhere.
Personally, I think if you’re going to commit to distance, it might as well be distance and not just a shared classroom experience where not many instructors know how to teach effectively. It might be better to just throw these instructors to the wolves and have them go 100% online and this way their strategies can be evaluated by students easier, instead of clinging to the standard lecture slash sage on the stage model by adding a camera and calling it innovative. Just because you have fancy TVs that show other students looking at you, doesn’t mean you as an instructor are doing anything innovative.
The cases of both of these technologies, it really has nothing to do with the technology, but with how it is used. If you’re an instructor that still subscribes to lectures as the basis for transfer of knowledge, then sorry, you’re not using it to its full potential. Now, if you use methods based on constructivism and set up and environment where learners can teach each other while you just sit back and occasionally steer them, then you’re on the right track.