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Use of videoconferencing in distance learning

I have successfully used videoconferencing while delivering a distance learning course in Finland. The University of Portsmouth is participating in the consortium of six European universities founded to enhance the adoption of distance learning. In particular Portsmouth and the University of Joensuu in Finland, offered a distance learning course in Industrial Economics for second year undergraduates.

I initially delivered three lectures and one problem class to Finnish students in person. The remaining lectures were available in video format. They were also given the handouts with diagrams and formulae displayed on the screen in the video and problems that were later discussed in the tutorials. The tutorials were offered in the form of videoconferencing sessions each of around fifty minutes via an ISDN link. Students were encouraged to do the recommended reading and to try to answer the problems before coming to class. Some students were a little shy at the beginning, as they were not familiar with participating in videoconferencing sessions or having courses delivered in English, but they soon adjusted. We found that with a little encouragement they quickly relaxed and began to participate with enthusiasm.

Assessment of their performance was by coursework and examination. Students sent their coursework for marking to Portsmouth and received feedback by post within a week. They were able to raise questions to me via e-mail or during videoconferencing. The exam marking could also be easily done via post. But since this was the first year of new teaching initiative, I decided to make a return visit in order to discuss face to face with the students their impressions of the course and to use a feedback questionnaire. I marked the exam scripts in Joensuu.

As for the response, in general it was very positive. Though some features of the responses are worth mentioning here. Students regarded the live delivery of the first lectures as very important in their being comfortable with the course. That strengthens the view that distance learning requires some prior student/lecturer relationship to maximise success. They also highly appreciated the handouts they were given. On a five-point scale all students gave a score of five in response to the following statement: 'I was stimulated to think and study further by this unit'. Students benefited from the course in a variety of ways - they gained by an exposure to a different approach in teaching; they increased their confidence in English; they gained experience in the use of videoconferencing. There were no problematic sessions, except once when the video link didn't work. The cost wasn't a big problem, as the University negotiated special rates with the telephone company and I went there for a weekend, so the travel expenses were modest.

Given the positive response in Finland, further developments are already under way. My colleague in accounting is using a similar format for delivering a short course to a group of students in Caen, France. Another Business/Economics course is planned for a group of students in Caen during next academic year and there are also plans for co-operation with the University of Krakow, Poland.

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