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(Up to my links on video conferencing)

Tips on running a video conference

Written by Margaret Brown and Steve Draper.
Comments welcome (email Steve and Margaret).

Contents (click to jump to a section)

Here are some "tips" for people running video conferences in MANTCHI. (This applies to using the ATM link i.e. high performance link between special video suites.) These tips originally came from the tutorial run on 4 Feb 1998, as part of the MANTCHI project, which was evaluated at both ends; but also from subsequent experiences.

Is it worth having a video conference?

If you want to try out this new technology for the experience, then of course it is worth it; and probably worth travelling to do it.

If you believe the point of video conferencing is to save travelling, then it is fundamentally silly to travel to use another video suite. After all, video conferencing is inferior in many ways to face to face meetings (e.g. no social or private business with others "on the side"), and must have a strong saving in time to be worthwhile. But difficulties in booking can easily lead to only some sites being available at the time picked. If someone asks you to travel to a video conference, consider refusing: perhaps they would like to travel to your office instead?

Telephone conference calls are even more convenient (in your own office), and may do just as well.


Before the conference:
  1. Booking the conference call.
    It is advisable to check and re-check the booking at both ends.

    Considerable difficulties have been encountered booking the Scottish MAN video conferencing network. The first time we tried, even though a blank slot was shown on the booking system so we arranged this time with each other, we weren't allowed to book it (apparently a secret booking by the technologists had been made). On another occasion, a planned conference between two classes was cancelled at the last moment when it turned out the booking people had just not got back to the organisers, and had in fact reserved the network for their own use. It is therefore advisable to keep on phoning, and to contact people at all sites to see whether it is really going to happen. (In fact, even with a valid booking, on one occasion we only got connected by phoning up the centre to remind them 10 minutes after it was supposed to have begun.)

    Thus problems with the booking system from a user's viewpoint include:

    (Even though for this facility to be used in teaching means it must be available at class times that were often fixed many months ago, the impression is that the system is controlled by technologists who put their own activities ahead of any real applications. Furthermore it is an inherently difficult issue, since to set up a conference requires exclusive use of dedicated rooms at both end-sites, plus exclusive use of the wires ("network") between those sites and Edinburgh, plus use of the switches there. It is going to be like flying by charter airplane rather than the shuttle to London: cheap, but very unreliable even after forcing you to arrange everything around the time dictated by the "service" providers. At best, it will be like using videotape in a lecture theatre in the days before there were facilities in every room: inflexible and unreliable. In these days of teaching quality assessment, it could be regarded as irresponsible to depend on this in real teaching. It is therefore unwise to rely on using the MANS video network except as an optional amusement.)

  2. Organise a parallel computer link (as an equivalent to an OHP) if talks rather than discussion are to be presented. The video link will only transmit one video channel: typically a picture of the present speaker. To give a talk, the equivalent of an OHP is needed to transmit "slides" to another monitor in each video suite. Audiences say they quickly get tired of hearing without seeing the speaker (this was the comment by students on a 10 minute monologue with slides I gave in one of our sessions), so the main video channel cannot be used for "slides" successfully. This extra link is not (yet) provided as standard, but can be done by having a computer with an internet connection provided in every suite, linked perhaps by Netmeeting. You are likely to have to organise this equipment yourself: certainly independently of booking the video conference. You need to:
  3. Agree and publish an agenda (see below)
  4. Consider introducing yourselves in advance by another medium e.g. email, web pages.
  5. Use email to prepare everyone for the meeting. An example is here
  6. Other preparations for one occasion are listed here. These might include:

The controls: setting up

The controls are not effortlessly usable. Therefore:

Arranging for a practiced user

The controls are not effortlessly usable. Therefore at each site you Groups get restless very quickly when someone is practicing or fumbling while they wait (another student criticism of one of our cases): after all, they can't learn anything because it is not their hands on the controls. So having someone turn up and do it for the first time with a group causes dissatisfaction and the perception of a bad meeting.

A new user can practice a lot of it without a connection (operating the cameras and looking at the result on a monitor), but the best thing is to book the conference 30 mins earlier and have one person at each site turn up then to practice and to check the arrangments. During such a setup, you could:


The position of the microphones should be taken into account when positioning the participants. You cannot judge what sound you are transmitting (unless you have a sound meter). You must ask the other end and believe what they say. The fact that you can hear OK is, unlike in face to face, no clue at all about what they can hear.

QA should test the sound coming from speakers in different parts of the room.

The Heriot Watt site seems to have persisting sound problems, with the sound they transmit being too quiet for others to hear comfortably: at least there have been problems in 3 out of 3 video conferences I have been involved in involving that site. This may well be a trivial issue technically, but it substantially reduces the quality of a conference and exposes the fact that we don't have the organisational, social, and perhaps technical mechanisms in place to fix it during a conference.

Room layout (preparation)

Having all the chairs facing one way, towards the cameras and monitors seems to work well.

One issue is giving everyone a good view of the screens (and being in view of the cameras). Another is that if a group are in a circle, it is easy for them to feel a group and the person at the far end to feel not part of it.

Visual resolution

Effective resolution is bad.
What matters is the size of objects at the user's eye (in, say, centimetres per radian, or inches per degree). Thus it doesn't directly matter how big text is at the far end: a lot depends on the display at the receiving end. To get the most out of a video channel, every user needs to be near enough to the screen that they can just or almost see the individual pixels or scan lines. However in many video suites, although the monitors look big, in fact users are much further away. For instance, sitting at my office computer, the monitor fills 20-30 degrees of my field of vision, but in the video suite at Glasgow, it fills perhaps 5 degrees.

Just as in giving a talk at a new place, you cannot be sure how big you need to make the text on your OHPs, so in video conferencing you cannot be sure what the display conditions will be at the far end (and you cannot see them yourself either); but our experience is that this is a concern.

This means, as a rule of thumb:

  1. Only one face can be recognised at a time. Wider shots show bodies, but not who they are. The camera should mainly focus on one or two people at a time and not just a distant view of all the participants. This allows the remote person or audience to gauge reaction etc. and feel "part" of the whole activity.
  2. If you have name plates or hold up printed material, the letters need to be over 2 inches high (255 point print) in a shot framed to show a person.
  3. It is useful to have a visualiser available. (You can then, but only then, use smaller print. Smaller means say 24 point, NOT 12 point.) I.e. Bring printed "slides": with font as big as OHPs require. (A "visualiser" is a "rostrum camera" i.e. lights and downward pointing camera set up to do closeups of bits of paper. Probably looks like an OHP with a video camera where the projector lens should be.)

Social actions

All the explicit techniques that help make any meeting and/or tutorial work well apply, but can turn out to be more important (as some habits don't work).

We can talk about 3 scales of social action in connection with video conferences:

Organising the meeting: large scale social actions

All the preparation that can help any meeting and/or tutorial apply. Basically, having a clear idea about the main purpose of the meeting, and having all participants prepared for it. Thus if it is to be a tutorial, the students need to have done the work and be prepared to present in some definite way.

  1. Agenda. A definite agenda for the conference is useful and should be agreed and circulated beforehand particularly insofar as it informs participants about what each needs to prepare, unless it is so simple that no separate document is needed.
  2. Participants should have access to all the material for the conference and time to read it before the conference takes place. Materials which are on the Web can be accessed easily by both sites and shared, discussed etc. -- that is one method, but faxing paper can equally work for small numbers.
  3. One recipe that works (has worked) is for the student to have written an essay, the tutor to have read and commented on it, and preferably to have sent the written comments in advance. Then the discussion can consist of going through the comments.
  4. Another is for students doing group work to prepare a short presentation of their results or what they have done, including electing which student will represent the group. The tutor can then discuss these presentations.
  5. But just as in face to face seminars, a general discussion may flop unless all participants know they will be speaking (and what about) and prepare some ideas to offer.

Running the meeting: medium scale social actions

All the things that help run any meeting and/or tutorial apply, but are more important.
  1. Agenda. A definite agenda for the conference is useful and should ideally be visible to all participants during the meeting.
    If small/short, visibility may not be necessary.
    If fixed in advance, then it can be separately pre-printed at each end and brought on paper.
    If agreed interactively at the start of the meeting, then one possibility would be to put it up on a web page which is separately displayed at either end (rather than transmitted by the video link) if there is a spare screen (and computer and browser) at each end.
  2. Chairing. If a group of participants are present a "chairperson" is useful.
  3. When using a long powerpoint presentation, many overheads etc. it would help if the audience at the other site could occasionally see the lecturer/tutor instead of just hearing him/her. Either organise a second channel (e.g. Netmeeting over the internet, to give 2 screens of communication), or have the person in charge of the equipment at the speaker's end switch regularly between the visualiser (shot of a slide) and a shot of the speaker.
  4. Unless the group has already met before, it should begin by going round in turn with each person introducing themself, including a statement of what they hope to gain from this meeting.
  5. Each person should construct a nameplate in front of themselves. Few people can remember more than 2 names from introductions. However the lettering must be very large e.g. 144 point (1.5 inches high).
  6. A good way to promote discussion, particularly if it is the first discussion the group has, is to ask each person to say how the topic relates to a personal experience. This is not only effective in getting discussion going, it is also in accordance with the best educational theory (relating the two main levels in Laurillard's model).

Running the equipment: small scale social actions

You have to control the camera shots. And because (see below) this doesn't do everything you want, you have to do small scale social actions to compensate e.g. ask the other end to change the camera shot, nod in an exaggerated way to compensate for low resolution, etc.

How-to facts for University of Glasgow

To find the video suite at University of Glasgow: