Have you ever taken a different route than planned, only to discover the drive was far more rewarding? On a trip halfway across America, we took one route to reach the West Coast and found it boring and tedious. On the way back, we took a different route that surprisingly offered spectacular scenery, making the trip home much more enjoyable.
When I first entered the world of distance learning, I took a detour from the originally selected delivery method and discovered the visually stimulating world of videoconferencing.
Though videoconferencing has been around for several decades, it has greatly improved through the years. No longer is it cumbersome or lacking in quality, with connectivity limitations. The technology has substantially improved, and connecting over the Internet makes it much more affordable.
Videoconferencing is very user-friendly, and the introduction of high-definition (HD) technology has dramatically improved the quality of the experience. From desktop solutions to the latest immersive telepresence environment, videoconferencing is not what it used to be.
Today's global economy has introduced pressure to keep training costs low while increasing performance outcomes. A steady push on training organizations to meet regulatory and compliance requirements and deal with human capital management challenges forces training organizations to carefully deploy distance learning as a matter of strategic imperative.
Furthermore, many organizations have geographically diverse workforces located in offices, branches, or subsidiaries in far-reaching locations, making training more difficult. This is particularly true in an economic climate where travel restrictions are commonplace. Fortunately, social and technological trends provide a welcomed detour from a traditional learning approach.
People prefer to learn where and when they want, but they also need to feel engaged and enjoy their learning experience. A blended learning approach using a variety of tools including videoconferencing, streaming, web conferencing, and Web 2.0 creates both synchronous and asynchronous learning environments. Training organizations must match the technology to the learning objectives, while balancing financial and geographic constraints.
Though trainees love the convenience of online learning, videoconferencing eliminates the isolation factor and provides an engaging environment that allows users to remain at their offices or at home. Videoconferencing tools are driving more real-time, life-like training experiences, while offering the ability to easily connect at any time. Using the highest quality video, voice, and content-sharing capabilities of videoconferencing enables virtual training without the expense of travel.
Owens-Illinois, a manufacturer of glass products with 140 locations worldwide and 34,000 employees, saves $500,000 per year on travel costs alone by delivering annual government-mandated awareness training, among other courses, via videoconferencing. They found that the new training methods caused maximum reach with minimal disruption to manufacturing operations.
"The solution contributed well beyond regulatory compliance," states Owens-Illinois's Multimedia Specialist Dianne Stroshine. "The solution enabled relationship building and common understanding."
Understanding the technology
Videoconferencing encompasses much more than video chat environments with small webcams. Technologies like Skype or Microsoft Instant Messenger are great tools, but they cannot begin to offer the capabilities of true standard-based videoconferencing, which enables two-way or multi-way delivery of video and audio communications with television-like quality.
Videoconferencing can be integrated within an organization from the desktop, a small conference room, or large training rooms, to a completely immersive telepresence environment. Sharing subject matter from a PC, the web, a DVD, or a spreadsheet enables content to be seen by everyone in the virtual training room. Additionally, streaming and archiving capabilities provide the ability to reuse and repurpose content to make it accessible to large numbers in a live or on-demand fashion.
When purchasing videoconferencing equipment, consider standards-based equipment that will enable you to connect with any other standards-based tools regardless of manufacturer or environment. The International Telecommunications Union set standards to enable all of the different manufacturers' equipment to interoperate.
Having an open standards solution allows connectivity to the huge base of videoconferencing equipment in enterprises and universities across the globe. Pay particular attention when looking at immersive telepresence because the industry is fairly new and not all manufacturers have built their rooms on standards-based architecture.
HD provides 20 percent more visual information than any standard-definition format. With an increased pixel count inherent in HD, viewing images on larger screens is clearer and easier to watch - colors are more vibrant and realistic, objects are sharper, and motion is more fluid.
According to the Wainhouse Research report "HD in Distance Learning," HD technology offers an image resolution three times better than standard television and more than nine times better than traditional videoconferencing. Motion handling is better with crisp images and movement transitions such as hand motions. Displaying content (for example, 3D objects, blueprints, X-rays, graphs, even surgical procedures) also becomes richer.
Telepresence, the latest in videoconferencing, is based on an HD cinematic environment in which participants are true to lifelike size. Telepresence rooms are designed to create a totally immersive environment in which each room looks identical, thus creating a feeling of being in one room. And HD integration and stereo surround sound eliminate eye and ear fatigue.
While most telepresence rooms are geared toward a board room, seated type of environment, one manufacturer's room enables the instructor to freely walk about the room without being tethered to a seat, which helps to create a more realistic and natural training environment.
Nevin Fouts, dean of information technology at Duke University states, "Immersive telepresence participants definitely forget about the distance that separates them; they feel like they're in the same room."
Duke University Fuqua School of Business deployed telepresence to create an immersive collaboration experience that enables cross-continent MBA classes, employment interviews, admissions screening, and effective distance learning.
Building a business plan
Like mapping out a trip before departing, there are things to consider in mapping out a business plan. It is critical to understand the context of training needs that can be met by integrating videoconferencing.
Identify the stakeholders, and determine the best solution: How will videoconferencing benefit the training organization as well as others? What other applications, such as team meetings, apply? Explore the following areas:
People: How many will be involved?
- desktop for single person
- small group system for fewer than six people
- medium to large group system for seven or more people.
Place: Where will videoconferencing be used?
- remote offices or for on-the-go employees - desktop, personal workspace, or mobile solution
- training rooms - size will determine monitor size, number of microphones, number and placement of displays, and number of cameras
- immersive telepresence may be most appropriate for high-end training rooms for the ultimate experience.
Purpose: How will videoconferencing be used?
- "talking heads" lecture style only
- interactive training including content sharing and collaborative activities
- level of security needed - AES encryption ensures that the video, audio, and content streams are all encrypted and secure.
Determine return-on-investment by calculating travel savings, time lost during travel, effect on turnover rate, frequency of training, performance impact, and faster time in training development and delivery. Some videoconferencing manufacturers have ROI and carbon calculators available.
Keep in mind how videoconferencing addresses the green movement because companies are expected to minimize their carbon footprint, thereby demonstrating good corporate and global citizenship:
- Determine existing training and travel patterns.
- Establish a network plan and bandwidth requirements to support communications.
- Identify needs to record and stream trainings for mass distribution of content or to archive for review at a later date.
- Find support services to manage the network, oversee scheduling, and maintain equipment.
- Determine method for measuring CO2 reduction.
Ask a lot of questions, and know your stakeholders, then tailor the message based on the audience. Find a champion to help sell the vision.
Maximizing and owning it within your organization
To maximize videoconferencing, considering a few key factors will ensure success. Make sure the instructors and instructional designers receive training themselves on how to train at a distance. While videoconferencing is intuitive, knowing best practices will provide the ultimate experience for trainees.
Increase ROI by taking ownership within the organization. Build a relationship with IT and other departments by examining the mutual benefits videoconferencing offers the entire organization. Make videoconferencing rooms available for other departments to use when not delivering training. Set your own metrics for measuring success and report back during implementation and launch. Check and recheck to make sure all needs are being met, and adjust the roadmap accordingly.
Training organizations face challenges that can be overcome through distance learning. Implementing a videoconferencing solution will achieve global workforce readiness and provide a maximum ROI when properly executed. Choose the road that leads to a learner-centered, collaborative training environment that engages and holds the learner's attention.
The destination is to provide an effective and efficient way to manage your workforce and talent, maximize performance, and ultimately, achieve a competitive advantage. Sometimes, the best way to go is by a different route. When looking at implementing distance learning, don't miss the true beauty and benefits of videoconferencing.