August 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB1
Plausible Uses and Limitations of Videoconferencing as a Tool for Achieving Technology Transfer
An investigation into the utilization of videoconferencing at a Texas Agricultural Research and Experiment Station (Center) was conducted. End users of videoconferencing were identified and how well their interests were being served was ascertained. The purpose of this case study was to present the successes and limitations of videoconferencing as experienced during a three-and-a-half year period. Recommendations for improving the use of videoconferencing technology in the attainment of the Center's mission include support services and on-line scheduling.
If there was a way to describe the impact of an emerging tech-nology on society, it would have to be that today's novelty becomes tomorrow's convention (Keyes, 1995). Today videoconferencing technology is being introduced to a hopeful but wary public that is as fascinated by the novelty of videoconferencing technology as it is perplexed by its complexity. The way in which new technologies are developed and demonstrated can determine whether or not that technology is successfully adopted.
The demand for information from the Extension staff is tremendous and it is becoming more evident that they are not capable of providing all of the information requested by their clients using traditional contact methods such as farm visits, group meetings, and newsletters. In such situations, mass media methods are used to reach large numbers of people(Swanson, 1984). According to Wilson and Gallup (1955) mass media teaching loses some intensity when compared with personal contact, but the sheer numbers of people reached and the cost efficiency of mass media methods more than offsets the loss of intensity.
Videoconferencing and other distance learning technologies can facilitate and enhance the work carried out by scientists, professors, and other Extension personnel. For the most part, these professionals are in the business of technology transfer to address human needs in rural areas and, increasingly, in urban settings as well. Accordingly, the tools of distance education can allow a broader audience to be reached with a more direct flow of information.
The Trans Texas Videoconferencing Network (TTVN), is a system of two-way interactive compressed video that utilizes digital, high-speed telecommunications circuits. TTVN serves the Texas A&M University System, including universities, agricultural research and experiment stations, and the Texas Agricultural Extension Service (TAEX), connecting over 40 sites throughout Texas and a site in Mexico City.
This case study was conducted at a Texas Agricultural Research and Experiment Station, the Center, in South Texas. Major areas of research at the Center are citrus, vegetables, field crops, ornamental plants, irrigation and pest control.
The purpose of the current study was to ascertain the plausible uses and limitations of videoconferencing technology in furthering the mission of the Center and conducting Extension work.
The methodology employed in this case study was exploratory and will serve as a first step in developing a formative evaluation. Investigators spent two days visiting the Center, interviewing administrators, researchers, support staff and Extension agents. A semi-structured interview guide allowed the interviewers to pursue lines of inquiry that explored areas of recurring themes and also unanticipated issues that might emerge.
Interviews were arranged with the director of the Research Center and directors of the Extension Service's Agriculture and Family Consumer Science programs. Information obtained from them included examples of various uses of video-conferencing and names of individuals whose experiences could contribute to the study.
Questions about experiences with TTVN sessions for the purpose of collaborating on grant writing and conducting scientific exchanges were distributed to members of a Melon Research Group listserv via electronic mail. County Extension agents served by the Center were contacted by phone to obtain their perceptions on the uses of videoconferencing to accomplish their goals.
Additionally, the Center's videoconference schedule was obtained for the years since the Center began using TTVN (May, 1993 through the end of 1996). The information was analyzed by type of application.
According to the Center director, "the evolution of distance learning has been an experience in flying by the seat of our pants. When it started we really didn't know what to expect or what to anticipate. But we are learning." Three-and-a-half years after the initial transmission, patterns of use have begun to develop at the Center.
Analysis of the Center's Videoconference Schedule revealed the following uses of videoconferences: (a) university courses, (b) continuing education and staff development,(c) administrative activities,(d) TAEX outreach, (e) scientific collaboration, and (f) public special interest groups.
University courses included business, mathematics, agri- culture, and engineering. After the first year, university courses dominated the usage of TTVN at the Center, consistently accounting for over 60% of scheduled videoconference events.
Continuing education classes include professional develop- ment in business and health related fields. Staff development activities are offered in-house to Center staff and to Extension personnel. Continuing education opportunities actually dropped in the utilization of TTVN, falling from 68% during 1993, before college courses were offered, to 12% during the fourth year.
The use of TTVN to handle administrative duties remained fairly stable. Between 8% and 14% of scheduled videoconferencing sessions were administrative.
The fourth category represents outreach efforts of the Extension Service including 4-H, Master Gardener, and the Una Vida Mejor programs. These programs have accounted for a very small portion of the total TTVN use ranging from less than 1% in 1994 to 8% in 1995.
Scientific collaboration involved some joint grant writing efforts and the formation of a "brown bag" lunch meeting of melon researchers who used videoconferences as a way to exchange current research information. During 1993 scientific collaboration activities accounted for 3% of the scheduled use and fell to 0% when college courses began to be offered through TTVN. During the last two years research use has been just over 2% of total use.
Finally, a variety of public forum and special interest group activities that involved some individual initiative by community end users accounted for 5% of the use in 1993 and stayed at 4% through 1996.
|Number of Scheduled Videoconferences by Year and Application|
|Categories of TTVN Use||1993A||1994||1995||1996|
|University Credit Courses||0||250||227||235|
|Continuing Education/Staff Development||141||90||24||45|
|TAEX Exension Activities||5||2||27||27|
|TAES Scientific Collaboration||6||0||9||8|
|Public Special Interest||11||17||13||15|
|A 1993 began in May and therefore does not represent a complete year.|
Perhaps the area that generated the greatest concern at the Center was scheduling. Scheduling is a problem, especially with multi-site transmissions. An administrator told of some of her scheduling dilemmas: "When I chaired the committee, I coordinated and considered all schedules. I had to decide between having six individuals participate versus eight...and then to decide which individuals would be excluded, whose participation was critical. I had to find what sites were available and that also determined who would participate. It is a bubble that could burst at any time...and then I have to rebuild it again."
She also reflected on using the same system as the university and the tenuous feeling of never really knowing whether one's plans are secure or whether she could be bumped at a very late moment. "We have a partnership and we are a second class audience; priority is [university] classroom scheduling and sometimes that has to do with the room only, not the equipment."
It is this reported unreliability and the conflicts which have arisen that has resulted in the decline in usage of the TTVN for continuing education and staff development purposes. Meanwhile, university course delivery has proliferated.
TTVN facilities are located at universities and research centers of the Texas A&M University System throughout the state. However, for many of the Extension agents and the rural clientele of many Extension programs, the closest facility is inconveniently located. Many agents mentioned the fact that they were fifty miles or more away from a TTVN site as a factor limiting their use of the system. Remarks such as "getting people to come to local programs is hard enough, but asking people to drive an hour in order to watch a presentation on TV is too much", suggest a need to improve the system's accessability. One of the researchers in the Melon Research Group responded "I would like to be able to use it [TTVN] for agent training and Master Gardener training, but there are just not enough sites located conveniently for all those who would want to attend."
The knowledge required to effectively use the TTVN equipment is not very great but it does require an introduction and some practice. In most cases, those who are using the system to accomplish programmatic goals, who are not teaching a regularly scheduled class, are not confident of their mastery of the technology. Some expressed their feeling as awkward. "Each time I use it I have to relearn the process for working the different cameras". Also, there is difficulty in troubleshooting, not knowing where the problem lies when a failure occurs.
Distance education efforts should be learner focused, with teachers providing an environment for interactive learning. Our informants recognized the need to enhance their presentations, to become more polished, more animated, and to maintain a smooth camera image. This was seen as a chore and some noted, "Perhaps we should look to video production specialists for tips and training."
Several individuals expressed concern about the loss of personal contact with their clients and peers while conducting activities over TTVN. One Extension staff member lamented: " As an educator I feel that in isolating the teacher from the learners, the passion is lost, it's not the same." Extension agents stressed the importance of face-to-face contact and were in agreement that "... it is through working individually with the clientele that the Extension worker learns about the people of the area, how they think, what their needs are, and how they carry on their work ." (Swanson, 1984, p. 130)
Plan of Action
The lack of a mission statement calling for greater use of TTVN technology in Extension and research is evident. Current usage is by individual choice. While use of this technology is embraced by a few individuals who are willing to take risks, many others continue to work with traditional methods.
Extension personnel should be encouraged to assess each duty that they perform to determine whether it could be more economic- ally and efficiently accomplished when conducted through TTVN.
Regularly scheduled blocks of time for university courses severely limited the scheduling options available for other uses. It is foreseeable that in order to ensure an increase in Extension use of the TTVN system, including Extension outreach and scientific collaboration, another connection to support an additional ELMO document camera and monitor located in a second classroom must be provided.
The current scheduling system is unsatisfactory and does not allow for the needs of Extension or research priorities. A user friendly, on-line scheduling system that provides immediate feedback and confirmation should be designed and implemented to overcome system-wide scheduling headaches.
Short of establishing a second TTVN site, reservation of time slots should be made for non-university, Center activities to ensure that predictable blocks of time are available for scientific collaboration and Extension work. Reserved time slots should be based upon end user patterns and the systematic input of all potential end users.
The technical demands of TTVN technology and the amount of preparation and enhanced presentation skills required have an intimidating effect on potential end users. Adequate training must be provided for end users. Videoconference specialists need to be employed in order to assure on-hand technical support. Also, all sites on the TTVN system should be upgraded so that peripheral devices can be successfully used in presentations of detailed scientific slides.
A training program that will provide presenters with needed skills and confidence will enable them to make interesting presentations and conduct skillful interactions with other end users. Peer review could also provide suggestions to improve the learning environment on TTVN. Ideally the Center would model effective videoconference instructional design and methods within an interactive environment.
This study reveals that Extension and research work at this Texas Agricultural Experiment Station has only begun the first mile of the journey toward efficient use of videoconferencing technology. Nonetheless, the advantages of time and expense savings were noted without exception among informants. It was also clear to the informants that increased frequency of contact and opportunities for broader interaction outweighed the disadvantages of teaching with TTVN as encountered at the Center. The one exception was in the area of outreach where personal contact is predominantly preferred.
The Texas Agricultural Research and Experiment Station has changed due to the introduction of videoconferencing in 1993. Framing the context of the center's role Center Director Dr. Jose Amador stated "What you have to understand is that the Center is in the business of demonstrating technology and what it can do. And our role here at the Center is to provide the setting, the equipment, and the link, as well as handle some administrative and logistical tasks. Once people have seen the technology in action, it is up to them to develop the applications."
As a working model, the experience of the Melon Research Group and their "brown bag" lunch meetings have proven to be a very good use of TTVN. "The TTVN sessions have proven to be an excellent tool for exchange of current work in Texas, particularly for off-campus centers". Several researchers stressed the timeliness of the information exchange as in "knowing what melon diseases are threatening". Similar applications can be found wherever Extension professionals from different locations are engaged in common or like projects.
A Tropical Fruits class that was team taught by a faculty member at College Station and a scientist at the Center is a promising example of how complementary professionals can be brought together. This type of team work can be further developed with supportive administrative policies and planning.
In a broader application of TTVN, ways to integrate communications among all of the agricultural components of the Texas A&M University System can be achieved. Particular emphasis should be placed on facilitating the critical links between research and Extension activities.
Videoconferencing technology at the Center holds much promise for furthering the mission and goals of the Texas Agricultural Research and Experiment Station and the Texas Agricultural Extension Service. With timely adjustments and improved planning, the Center can move from promise to fulfill- ment, ensuring more efficient and effective service to the public.
Amador, Jose (1996, December 12). Personal interview.
Garza, Bertha (1996, December 12). Personal interview.
Jacques, Ubaldo (December 11,1996). Personal Interview.
Keyes, J. (1995). Technology trendlines. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.
Miller, Marvin (1996, December 11). Personal interview.
Swanson, B. E. (1984) Agricultural Extension: A resource manual. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois.
Swietlik, Dariusz (1996, December 11). Personal interview.
Texas Agricultural Research and Experiment Station (1996). Videoconference schedule (1993-1996). Weslaco, Texas.
Warren, Doyle (1996, December 12). Personal interview.
Willie, Celina (1996, December 12). Personal interview.
Wilson, M.C. & Gallup, G.(1955). Extension teaching methods. Washington, DC; Extension Service, U.S. Government Printing Office.