UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999


The Role of Videoconferencing in Enhancing Teaching/Learning Via a "Virtual Faculty"

Trish Andrews
Educational Services and Learning Support, Central Queensland University
Greg Klease
School of Chemical and Biomedical Sciences, Central Queensland University


This project investigated the feasibility of developing a "virtual faculty" for the teaching of upper undergraduate, honours and postgraduate chemistry specialisations at regional and remote universities. The project was a collaborative, inter-university one and involved staff at Central Queensland University, Deakin University, the Northern Territory University, and the University of Tasmania. The project came about as a result of the recognition that such endeavours provide opportunities for students in regional universities to participate in a wider range of specialisations while remaining within their home institutions. This could have a direct impact on retaining honours and postgraduate students within these institutions. Additionally, it was seen that the future of many small university departments are under threat as a result of the current trends in education, that is globalisation and economic rationalism, and ways need to be found both to maintain existing facilities and to increase the viability of course offerings.

Description of the project

Using Chemistry as a test vehicle, the CUTSD project aimed to examine the role of inter-university collaborative teaching via videoconferencing. Students undertaking final year, honours or postgraduate courses in small universities may be considered to be disadvantaged because of the limited specialist expertise that is within the institution. Because Chemistry is a discipline that is characterised by a remarkable diversity, only very large departments can afford the staff to cover all the areas outside the core offerings. Thus, chemistry departments tread a thin financial line between capital investment in equipment and additional teaching staff, both of which are essential for a well-rounded chemical education. This is a particular concern to regional universities who need to have both the equipment required and highly qualified staff in order to be able to offer viable courses. Most regional institutions have foci of expertise, albeit though small, which, if combined together, would represent a formidable range of teaching talents. Collaboration between universities could also be considered as the only means of maintaining some courses in specialised areas where numbers are too small in one university to make the offer of such a course viable. The wide scale adoption of telecommunications technologies across Australian universities offers a viable avenue for linking together clusters of expertise to form a "virtual faculty". By means of a "virtual faculty" senior Chemistry students in small science departments at regional universities were able to access classes offered by experts at distant centres. This exposure to a range of experts encouraged not only cross fertilisation of ideas between lecturers and students but also broadened isolated students exposure to a range of expert knowledge. The use of videoconferencing in this context promoted opportunities for peer and collaborative learning and thus provided richer learning environments for small groups of geographically dispersed students (Bourdeau, Ouellet and Gouthier, 1998).

This project was seen as a crucial test of inter-university cooperation and a key option in enabling smaller universities to maintain vigorous, high quality degree programs in the face of competing demands on finances in a climate of increasing budgetary constraints.

Outcomes of the project

There were several significant outcomes of the project that had positive benefits for students, staff and institutions. These included:

  • the involvement of students and staff from participating universities in chemistry studies that were not necessarily available from their own universities;
  • enhancement of students learning experiences by providing both a broader educational base and the opportunity to participate in very specialised units of study through exposure to a wider range of specialist expertise;
  • the opportunity for small group tutoring and interaction with the remote lecturer which provided for in depth exploration of topics in a supported environment;
  • the opportunity for participating students to interact with peers from other locations and different learning backgrounds;
  • a unique opportunity for staff development through learning from the specialist expertise of colleagues at universities remote from their own; and
  • student willingness to accept inconvenient class times and timetable clashes in order to be able to participate in what they consider a unique and valuable opportunity to broaden their educational understanding of their discipline.

  • Considerations for Teaching and Learning

    The introduction of technology into the teaching and learning context can encourage the redesign of teaching and learning activities which focus more on the learning benefits that can be provided for students using these environments. This means that more student-centred approaches to teaching and learning can be integrated into courses and units of study. In this project both staff and students could see the opportunities for interaction and students in particular were keen to take advantage of these opportunities (Burke, Lundin and Daunt, 1997). However, in the early stages of using technologies such as videoconferencing interaction is unlikely to occur in a spontaneous fashion (Klease, Andrews and Druskovich, 1996). In order to cater to this, interaction was planned as part of the teaching and learning process with activities built in that provided opportunities for interaction. This process of changing from a didactic model to a more interactive one requires both considerable staff development and instructional design input, highlighting the team nature of effective technologically mediated teaching and learning environments (Knox, 1997). Students as well require assistance to develop the skills and abilities to operate effectively in more student centred teaching and learning environments. Most students find such approaches beneficial and comment that they have a positive effect on learning, but there is a period of adjustment which needs to be actively supported.

    Considerations for effective implementation of "virtual faculties"

    There are several important considerations in developing "virtual faculties" including institutional compliance, staff development and student preparation. The existence of institutional compliance is a critical success factor in establishing "virtual faculties". Projects such as this require considerable cooperation and collaboration between participating universities, lecturers, administrators and technical support staff (Barajas et al, 1998). Consideration needs to be given to the following issues:

  • clear understanding of roles and responsibilities of all participants and participating institutions;
  • adequate forward planning and lead time;
  • timetabling;
  • sharing of resources - facilities, staff, units of study;
  • appropriate technical support;
  • administrative support;
  • unit and course accreditation;
  • assessment;
  • embedding into university structures - prioritisation and strategic planning;
  • intensive, comprehensive, ongoing staff development is required to assist staff to successfully adapt their teaching and learning practices to a videoconference environment - this adaptation includes the planning, design and delivery of teaching and learning activities best suited to this environment and the ability to operate effectively in what can be a "fragile" environment; and
  • student preparation for learning in technologically mediated learning environments is an important factor in encouraging participation and interaction in videoconferenced teaching and learning activities.

  • Both staff and students from participating institutions acknowledge the enhancement of teaching and learning opportunities provided by such "virtual faculties", particularly where effort is made to directly involve the students in the teaching and learning process (Schiller and Mitchell, 1993). Students felt that in spite of inconveniences such as early start time and the occasional technological glitches, the opportunity to participate in additional or different areas of chemistry specialisation greatly enhanced their overall knowledge and understanding of their discipline as well as further developing their problem solving skills. This opportunity also provided them with an understanding of their level of knowledge and skills in relation to students at other universities, an experience which served to increase their confidence regarding the quality of their previous learning experiences.

    (Trish Andrews is now working in the Learning Resources Development Unit at The University of Queensland. Her new email is t.andrews@mailbox.uq.edu.au)


    Barajas, M., Chryos, A., Bosco A., Fonollosa, M., Alvarez, I. and Sancho, J. (1998) "Virtual Classrooms in Traditional Universities: Changing Teaching Cultures Through Telematics" in Proceedings of ED-Media/ED-TELECOM 98 World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia and World Conference on Educational Telecommunications, Freiberg, Germany.

    Bourdeau, J., Ouellet, M. and Goutheir, R. (1998) "Interactivity in Videoconference based Telepresentations" in Proceedings of ED-Media/ED-TELECOM 98 World Conference on Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia and World Conference on Educational Telecommunications, Freiberg, Germany.

    Burke, C., Lundin, R. and Daunt, C. (1997) "Pushing the boundaries of interaction in videoconferencing: A diological approach", Distance Education, 18 (2) 350-361.

    Klease, G., Andrews, T. and Druskovich, D. (1996) "Blurring the Boundaries - Developing Effective Teaching and Learning Models for Multi-site Videoconferencing" in Proceedings, Open Learning Conference Windows to the Future, Brisbane, December.

    Knox, D. N. (1997) "A review of the use of video-conferencing for actuarial education - a three-year case study" Distance Education, 18 (2) 225-235.

    Schiller, J. and Mitchell, J. (1993) "Interacting at a distance: staff and students perceptions of teaching and learning via videoconferencing" The Australian Journal of Educational Technology 9 (1).

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    UniServe Science News Volume 12 March 1999

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