Video conferencing: a solution to the

multi-campus large classes problem?

Mark Freeman

School of Finance & Economics

University of Technology Sydney

Sydney, NSW 2070



Whether due to amalgamation, funding cuts or export education strategies, many universities now face a problem of delivering subjects, programs and courses across more than one campus. There are significant costs to students, staff and faculty of this teaching and administrative duplication. Information and communication technologies offer potential to achieve economies of scale but the effects on other things like student learning are not so clear. The objective of this paper is to report the outcomes of a video conferencing trial in a mass lecture undergraduate context. The effects on staff, students and support issues highlighted through a formative and summative evaluation are reported. Surveys, focus groups, interviews and analysis of video record and reflective diaries were the data for the evaluations. These results will be useful for both decision makers considering a video conferencing solution to duplication as well as staff potentially involved in using the technology in a mass lecture context.


Information technology, Communication technology, Business education, Video conferencing, Teleconferencing, Evaluation

1. Introduction

The modern university faces many of the same pressures as a business - namely, it must do more and better with less. Video conferencing is one potential solution academic managers are considering for reducing duplication. Laurillard's [5] observation that research on the effectiveness of information technology generally is severely lacking, applies particularly to video conferencing (Mitchell et al [8; p.73]). Frand and Ng [3; p.20] survey of learning technologies in US business education report a fair degree of users consider the technology ineffective. However, they conclude that it is too early to tell its real effectiveness. While research on video conferenced meetings, training (eg. Lundin and Donker [6]) and small group teaching (eg. Martin and Jamieson [7], Goddard [4], Treagust et al [11]) exist, research relating to large groups in a tertiary context in particular is extremely sparse if not negative (eg. Goddard [4; p. 211]).

The objective of this paper is to report the outcomes of a video conferencing trial involving mass lectures across a multi-campus university. Reporting these outcomes should aid decision makers considering a video conferencing solution to duplication. Potential users in a large group context can optimise student learning by considering the costs and benefits on staff and students highlighted in this paper.

The structure of this paper is as follows. Section 2 briefly elaborates the context leading up to the trial. The following section describes the mass lecture video conferencing trial. Section 4 discusses the results of the formative and summative evaluations. Effects on students, staff and academic managers are considered. Section 5 contains concluding remarks and suggests future directions.

2. Context

Problems of duplication in the tertiary teaching context arose in the late 1980's in Australia from government amalgamation policies. For others, duplication has become evident as universities seek to establish new campuses. In response to government funding cuts, universities have sought to expand into export education, increasing their revenue base with off-shore campuses. This scenario applies to the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), a university supporting in excess of 23,000 students. The trial itself took place in a business faculty struggling under considerable financial constraints. Reasons for the latter include the relatively lower funding per business student (as compared to a science or medical student) and the relatively higher cost of teaching part time students (as compared to full time students).

A further complication was the faculty requirement that subjects taught and assessed on both campuses were meant to be identical in all respects. Given the well-documented power of assessment to motivate student learning (eg. Ramsden [9]), it is no surprise that this requirement caused student disquiet. Students had previously expressed concerns about the equity of delivery between campuses.

Other problems included the need for staff to travel the 18 kilometres to deliver subjects offered at the other campus. Apart from the explicit travel cost, staff incurred lost time in travel plus the inconvenience of being without their resources. Students also travel to the other campus when there is insufficient interest to justify duplicate subject offering. The final trigger for the video conferencing trial came in 1993. An external faculty review recommended video conferencing to resolve duplication and other pressures arising from the two-campus situation.

A video conference trial between the two Sydney metropolitan campuses was initiated in the second half of 1995. The object of the trial was mass lectures in a compulsory subject of the undergraduate business degree. No attempts were made to video conference tutorials or student consultations. The purpose of the trial was to evaluate the extent to which video conferencing mass lectures would

3. Video conference trial

To achieve these objectives, a project team was established in July 1995. The team comprised computing, instructional technology, external consultants and academic staff. There was a five week lead time before the first lecture for the semester was scheduled. During that time specifications were established, equipment purchased and installed, lecture theatres modified appropriately and cables installed. Staff also had a one day training session where a typical, small-group video conferencing session. Strategies for using the equipment in a mass lecture situation were brainstormed. Following the training session, efforts were made to discover previous research in the mass lecture context. While a literature search proved unsuccessful, phone discussions with several inter-state academics involved with small lecture situations provided valuable hints for adapting appropriate teaching strategies.

There were 250 students were enrolled at one campus and 80 students at the other. The video conferenced mass lecture took place on a Thursday night between 5.30 pm and 7 pm for 13 weeks. The preceding lecture hour was booked for equipment setup and testing. To circumvent concerns about potential inequities highlighted in the literature (eg. Treagust et al [11]), the 'live' or local campus each week was alternated between the two campuses. The remote campus received the video image of the lecturer and/or teaching materials.

Video conferencing is typically used for small group meetings (with two to six people at either end as shown in figure 1). As such, the standard equipment entails one image from the remote view and the other screen showing the live image being sent. A coder-decoder system, or 'codec', enables images and audio to be sent between conferencing parties. Generally speaking, the broader the bandwidth of the link, the more natural the conference session. Utilising a leased VTel 227M Quick Frame System and transmitting via a microwave link between the campuses, a very satisfactory image and audio reception was expected. While the link could transmit up to the maximum bandwidth of two megabytes per second, close to television quality (at 30 frames per second) was achieved with 1534 kilobytes per second. This overcame the standard problem of non-synchronisation of image and audio experienced with 128 kbps (or even 384 kbps).

Figure 1. Typical video conference session for meetings

A mass lecture context however, is quite different to a meeting. Even without video conferencing equipment, motivations for attending are different and interaction is more difficult. Preconceived perceptions are that lectures are more a one-way interaction of presenter enlightening or entertaining the audience. The content is typically much more structured than in a meeting of peers with a common goal to achieve. Video conferencing complicates the whole situation. Not only is it extremely difficult for remote students in a mass lecture theatre to be seen, without a portable microphone it is almost impossible to hear a student's question. A number of pre-emptive strategies were therefore undertaken to improve the learning context.

Figure 2. Teaching environment when live at Campus 1

To improve student concentration in the mass lecture context, it was felt that there should be more opportunities to see the lecturer. To enable a larger audience to see, the image was also projected onto a wide screen using a data projector. Because of the large lecture theatre context, neither the standard camera position (on top of the video conferencing system) nor one at the rear of the theatre could be used. A camera operator was therefore employed to provide a range of shots for the remote end. Most were close-up images of the lecturer. During student-student interactions, the camera operator would focus on some students near him who were embroiled in the learning task.

Another problem to be overcome was that the codec could only allow one image to be sent at a time. The image of the lecturer could be sent or the image of the content points of the lecture. The solution was to use a laptop at the live end to link lecture slides through the University network to a second data projector at the remote end. This brought the number of devices under lecturer control to three, namely the lectern panel, laptop and video conferencing tablet. In case of breakdown, a backup lecturer was always available at the remote campus. This person also acted as facilitator by transporting a portable microphone during staff-student interactions. Guest lecturers also made presentations over the link. The specific teaching context of the mass lecture trial is depicted in Figure 2.

4. Effectiveness of video conferenced mass lectures

Given that mass lectures themselves are not in themselves conducive to student learning (Ramsden [1993]), the evaluation set out to gauge effectiveness of the whole teaching and learning environment rather than focus on the video conferencing equipment per se. A variety of qualitative and quantitative techniques were used in the formative and summative evaluations.

4.1 Formative evaluation

Formative feedback was solicited through a staff interview (in week 2), a student survey (n=239 in week 4), and three student focus groups (n=25 in week 7 and 8). Unsolicited feedback from peers and students during the semester was also used for feedback and corrective action. Technical and academic staff regularly reviewed the video record, session reports and reflective journals.

In line with a desire to focus on the big learning picture rather than just video conferencing per se, students were asked to rate various learning resources. Students rated nine resources on a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (= Quite useless) to 5 (= Really useful).

Few students (ie. 14%) perceived the video link as affecting their ability to learn in a negative way. Comparison with other resources indicates that the video link was neither their highest or lowest learning resource. Overall subject satisfaction rating of 7.2 (out of 10) compares well to 7.5 from previous years where no video link had been used and far higher than the co-requisite subject undertaken by the same students. Analysis of the free-hand responses to the best thing about the subject indicated some, though not surprising, effects of video conferencing. About 16% of respondents expressed a sense of excitement from being involved in an innovative technology. Less than a handful felt that the equipment was getting in their way of learning such that it became the aspect in most need of improving. Both results suggest a low profile for video conferencing. Since learning is the prime objective of the subject, this outcome was welcomed by academic staff.

Of the 25 students that participated in the three focus groups, students made far more positive comments (ie. 76 in total) than negative ones (ie. 59). These are summarised in Figure 3.

Students perceived various benefits including:

Table 1. Student ratings of resources helping them learn

Quite useless








Really useful


Lecture notes0%2% 8%28%62% 4.5
Annotated solutions to homework0% 2%9%31% 58%4.5
Practice questions in lectures1% 0%8%48% 43%4.4
Text2%6% 29%38%25% 3.8
Practice questions in tutorials5% 12%30%35% 19%3.5
Video link6%8% 32%33%20% 3.5
Computer based learning software6% 6%31%33% 24%3.5
Tutorial homework discussion6% 14%30%32% 17%3.4
Lecture guests from industry6% 15%41%28% 10%3.2

Figure 3. Student focus group responses as a percentage

being exposed to an emerging business technology. Students saw this as beneficial for their future employment prospects much as PC skills were once a competitive advantage because they were not so commonly held.

Students also expressed various problems with the video conferencing. These included:

Table 2. Extracts from student feedback survey

Survey (n=246)

Av (SD)

  1. The video link means students on both campuses get equal treatment 4.0 (1.0)

  1. The video images were clear and comprehensible when lecturer is remote 3.8 (0.9)
  2. The audio was clear and comprehensible when the lecturer was 'remote' 3.8 (0.9)
  3. I felt more self conscious in lectures because of the video link 2.8 (1.3)
  4. I felt I couldn't interrupt the lecturer to ask questions when he's remote 3.2 (1.1)
  5. I feel the students on the 'live' campus have an advantage 3.2 (1.2)

NB: Scale is 1=Disagree strongly 2=Disagree 3=Neutral 4=Agree 5=Agree strongly

Several strategies to minimise the effect of these unfavourable aspects of video conferencing were implemented. For example, students volunteering answers were not projected in tight focus. Because of reduced interruptability, more opportunities for asking questions were structured into the lecture action plan, including a conscious attempt to alternate them between campuses. The final evaluation below records the effectiveness of these strategies.

4.2 Summative evaluation

Summative feedback at the conclusion of the video conference trial included a student survey (n=246), three interviews with selected students and formal peer review by two colleagues. In addition, transcripts of focus groups and interviews were analysed, as were the reflective journals kept by academic and technical staff. The effects on students, staff and support issues are each discussed in turn below.

4.2.1 Student perceptions

The feedback from students attending the video conferenced mass lectures indicates a number of perceived costs and benefits.

Table 2 confirms the focus group finding that shows that equity in assessment and learning is critical. Only 9% of students disagreed with statement 1.1. The equity aspect was aided by the quality of audio and images (in statements 1.2 and 1.3). In each case only 10% of respondents disagreed or strongly disagreed. Statements 1.4 and 1.5 indicate that substantial progress had been made on several fronts by the end of semester. Only 28% of students surveyed still felt too self-conscious because of the video link. 39% still felt it was more difficult to interrupt when the lecturer was live at the other campus. However despite preventative efforts, nearly half (ie. 48%) felt that remote students were still disadvantaged (in statement 1.6). This confirms previous research by Treagust [11]. The only consolation to this fact is that the disadvantage was equitably shared since the remote end was alternated each week.

Free hand responses yielded similar results to the previous survey. Some 9% (or 10 from 115 responses) attributed the video link as the best thing about the subject and not one student indicated that the video link was the aspect needing most improvement. Some 44% (or 39 out of 88 responses) attributed the equity of access to expert and material as the best thing about the video link. Ranking on other positive aspects mirrored the focus group responses in Figure 3. The aspect of the video link most needing improvement was better remote images (24%) followed by better remote audio (20%). While some 17% indicated that it could not be improved, the remaining reasons included disruptive remote students, intrusiveness of camera and lost learning time.

4.2.2 Staff perceptions

There are a number of benefits to staff involved in video conferenced teaching. These include:

The disadvantages to staff of video conferencing mass lectures included:

4.2.3 Support issues

There is a range of effects academic support managers need to consider in regard to video conferenced mass lectures. There are potential gains in:

The costs of video conferencing mass lectures for academic support managers include:

The extra costs of video conferencing these mass lectures amounted conservatively to $53 per minute! With overseas transmission currently several multiples of that figure, exporting video conferenced mass lectures also appears not cost-effective.

5. Concluding remarks

This paper reports the outcomes of a video conferencing trial involving mass lectures across a multi-campus university. Prior expectations were that mass lecture video conferencing would more cost-effective and improve equity in access concerns expressed by students previously. It was also expected that the quality of learning for students would improve because staff would have incentives to be better prepared and the technology would enable better presentations and interactions.

Only one of these expectations was realised to any extent. The primary benefit students perceived was the equal treatment and access to experts and information they could receive because the mass lecture was video conferenced. While the document camera in particular was a valuable teaching aid, it can be used independently of the video conferencing equipment. Student satisfaction with lectures and the subject were unchanged on previous years.

Echoing Goddard [4; p. 209], students and staff felt the lecturing, learning activities and interactions were not improved but went more slowly. Other disadvantages were the time lost through technical difficulties and the greater likelihood for distractions at the remote campus. Students at the remote campus felt disadvantaged despite preventative strategies implemented.

The equipment could become more cost-effective than experienced in this trial if it were integrated into the network system so video conferencing could be transmitted to many rooms adequately fitted. However, its usage in a mass lecture context is less attractive given the additional pressures and stresses on academic staff in delivering material, and given what we know about how students learn. A cheaper option, given the constraints on interaction in a mass lecture context anyway, may be to simply video-tape the lecture. The tape could then be replayed at multiple times and other locations and the video conferencing equipment could be used effectively then for questions at the end. The tasks for which the medium was really first designed, namely administrative meetings, small group teaching and research seminars, appear to offer greater and significant productivity improvements. Hence a permanent video conferencing system appears inevitable when these uses can be included in the cost-benefit equation.

In terms of future directions for video conferenced mass lectures, further research is needed to clarify when and how it can work better. The messages from this experiment relate to technical, staff and organisational factors. They comprise:

1. Ensuring any system is simplistic to use and comes with upgrade and maintenance guarantees.

2. Using video conferencing in a mass lecture context only if lecturers have some motive for participating, are confident with their content, competent in crowd control, are adequately trained and are supported by reliable and efficient technical services.

3. Resolving any organisational encumbrances to its success (eg. timetabling, equipment booking) and initiating an awareness and incentives program to maximise the chances of success.

4. Implementing an ongoing process of evaluation.


The author gratefully acknowledges the contribution of Reg Collins, Jo McKenzie and Graham Partington. All errors remain the responsibility of the author.


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