Benefits, challenges of video conferencing

The University College of the Cayman Islands in its continued effort be responsive to the needs of the local community has, since 2008, used interactive video conferencing technology as a teaching learning tool. The specific interactive video technology in use is the Polycom video conferencing.
Since its installation there has been no formal written evaluation of this technology and there is no known literature on its use locally. Based on these facts, research was launched to fill the literary gap and to provide a formal evaluation.

The research findings, which were also presented at the recently held professional development conference of the Joint Board of Teacher Education and Faculty of Humanities & Education University of the West Indies, Kingston Jamaica, under the theme “Towards First World Status: Imperatives for Teacher Education”,  reveal both benefits and challenges to the use of this innovative technological tool. 
The most obvious benefit was that students at the remote site could access a variety of courses without leaving home, family and jobs.  It was assumed that the institution saved on cost, which would have been associated with hiring additional staff and frequent travel between sites. The use of Polycom also forced staff ‘afraid’ of technology to engage with technology.
The challenges identified from the research findings were similar to those identified in the literature on the use of this technology in “first world countries”. These include technical challenges such as power outages, periodic disruption in Internet connection and distorted sound and video. Suggested solutions include greater vigilance and availability of technical staff and the provision of specific training to faculty and staff in “troubleshooting”.
Social challenges were identified by students, which include their inability to physically interact and to build one-on-one relationship with each other. Suggested solutions involve the periodic alternation of live lectures between main and remote site and arranging visits to the main site for students at the remote site. Students also felt that the technology was intimidating and restraining.
This is so because some felt self-conscious being on camera and those at the remote site sometimes felt that they were interrupting the class if they indicate that they needed to ask a question. As a solution, lecturers were encouraged to be deliberate in providing opportunities for students to ask questions during teaching sessions. 
Staff challenges include the need to maintain students’ interest at the sites and that the technology limited their spontaneity. Additionally, the use of various virtual communication instruments, e.g., email, fax, blogs, chat-rooms, required a change in their thinking and behaviour. Recommended solutions include the need for training and continued engagement with the Polycom, thus improving the ability of staff to cope with these challenges.
Other challenges include the fact that some students seemed to lack the maturity to engage with interactive video conferencing as a teaching/learning tool and others needed one-on-one assistance in selected subject areas. In such cases, there was the need to have a chairman or coordinator physically present at the remote site during those classes and to arrange individual virtual face-to-face time for students needing special assistance.
While these research findings are not surprising, they support the established literature on the use of interactive video conferencing from a country not yet explored by other researchers, namely, the Cayman Islands. According to Phillips and Pugh (1994), this is an original contribution to knowledge.