Blended Seminars – Theology

This case study describes a project looking at ways to run a live seminar held in Durham, where some participants are in the room, others join remotely. The aim was to match the experience of a traditional face to face seminar, but removing the requirement that everyone has to be in the same location.

Introduction

Professor Pete Ward

We were contacted by Prof Pete Ward in the Department of Theology & Religion to see if we could help. Pete runs a Masters level course in Ecclesiology and Ethnography that attracts participants from across the UK, many of whom work whilst they study. It uses a mix of weekly lectures and seminars and he wanted to explore ways of delivering it in a technology supported fashion, so that students in Durham could interact in real-time with others joining the sessions from home/work.

Pete was already planning to take a flipped approach to his teaching, recording short video-lectures in advance for students to watch in their own time before the seminar session. These recordings were uploaded into duo via Kaltura, making it easy for people to watch them on a range of devices and quality of connections.

The challenge for us was could we provide a video-conferencing solution for the seminars? Pete would be supported by his colleague John during these live sessions.

Requirements

Pete wanted a simple, reliable method for allowing people in the room to chat with people joining from outside. The sessions were discussion-based so there was no need to share images from a projector, or notes on a whiteboard (though we have solutions for this too). The discussion had to flow freely with both sets of students able to participate.

Possible Solutions

We considered the following products:
Blackboard Collaborate – secure, but currently only available in selected departments at Durham. Designed around a browser based session, it would need some tailoring each time to use for a simple discussion.
Skype/Skype for Business – also secure and available to staff at Durham (who could then send students an invitation). Works well with mobile devices. Connects to a standard webcam. Audio and video quality good for distance participants but may struggle to adequately pick up people in the seminar room.
Google Hangouts – a more public solution, which raises some privacy issues. Like Skype, it connects to a standard webcam, so we had similar concerns about the ability to capture and share the experience in the seminar room and the potential for delay.
JISC Vscene – this is a dedicated web conferencing solution able to interface with professional grade video conferencing kit. It offers a free desktop client allow people to join remotely. Securely managed by JISC in the UK. There is however, no support for mobile devices at present.

Final Solution

After some initial testing with Pete and John, there was a clear winner – the Vscene service. It was free, had a simple clutter-free interface and gave the best quality result.

VScene client
The client view – what you saw if you were joining the session remotely.

In the seminar room, we used the built in video-conferencing kit to stream the audio and video to others. Staff were free to orientate the camera to catch as much or as little of the room as they wanted. At one end of the room was a large plasma TV that shows what the camera is picking up and also the feeds from people joining at distance. Staff created a Virtual Room in Vscene. This has a static URL so it is easy to bookmark. In this example we added it as a link from the course menu in duo, so you didn’t even need to remember it.

People joining remotely via this link do so using their web browser. In both cases participants see a large image of the person currently speaking, plus smaller images of the other participants. They also see a copy of the feed from the camera that is recording them so they know what is in shot (handy if you are joining from home and want to keep your choice of curtain fabric a secret). When someone talks, their image takes the primary spot in the seminar room and voice comes through the speakers, making it clear to all concerned who is speaking. There was no appreciable delay meaning that people joining remotely could contribute to the session and interrupt speakers in the room, just as if they were there.

Staff running the session (in Vscene-speak, the people who own the Virtual Room) have the ability to mute or even block callers if the audio feed from their system is causing problems to others. This feature was not needed during the nine weeks of the trial.

Cost

Close up view of the screen in use
Close up view of the screen in use, with the camera above and loudspeakers either side. The large image is of the person speaking, to the right are feeds from other remote learners. Below is the feed from the room that the others will see.

The room booked for the tutorials has been fitted out with dedicated (expensive) video-conferencing hardware (high quality camera, microphone, speakers and a dedicated Polycom unit) and a large plasma display. This ensures a good quality of experience for people in the room and minimises any lag between the seminar room and the other participants.

The Vscene software is free for use in HEIs (and some other locations – see ). People joining at a distance simply had to install a browser plugin.

For the best experience, distance participants should have headphones and a microphone. These don’t need to be expensive – we have had great results using a combined unit bought for under £5 in a supermarket!

Verdict

It took us a little while to get to the correct solution, but after that it worked well. The key is to know the steps to join the video-conferencing kit in the seminar room to the Vscene session. This is not difficult but just requires things to be carried out in the correct order. People quickly got used to the format and reported feeling at ease after the first session.

It worked well with a relatively small seminar group – nine participants plus the staff. There were typically two to four people joining at a distance, meaning the balance of students online and in the room was pretty even. You would want to trial it further before using it with a much larger group.

This is a recommended solution for video conferencing at Durham University.

Things to Watch

Running a webinar requires focus and can be distracting should someone experience technical difficulties. We strongly recommend as in this case study, that where possible you team teach these sessions – have a colleague/postgrad in with you who ensures the technology part goes well, leaving you to concentrate on the debate. Note that remote support is possible in any of the bookable classrooms, where CIS can help sort out any glitches.

Something else to watch is the allure of the moving image. Some students admitted that occasionally they’d caught themselves staring at the screen “watching” the session at times, rather than actively participating in it. There is also a tension for participants in the seminar room between looking at the screen and looking at people talking if they are in the room – do you look at them face to face or on the screen? There are some etiquette issues to work out here.

The camera position in this seminar room is not ideal – it is located above the screen to stop it being accidentally damaged. Particularly when used for wide-angle shots, it tends to give an image shot looking down on the participants, and they appear much smaller than those joining remotely with their own camera (typically positioned at eye level). That said, we could moderate many of these issues by rearranging the furniture to ensure everyone was in-shot.

Some people joined exclusively remotely, some always went to the seminar room, whilst a few alternated. Students definitely felt there was a value in attending at least one of the sessions in person.

Contact

  • A quick overview of Vscene.
  • Lots more information about the JISC VScene service is available at: https://vscene.jisc.ac.uk (follow the links at the bottom of the page)
  • To find out more about the experience from a staff perspective, please contact Prof Pete Ward.

REVIEW DATE: March 2016 – based on discussions with staff and students at the end of the 9 week course.
PRODUCT: JISC VScene – no version available