A Model for the Virtual Occupational Health and Safety Classroom: Videoconferencing using the Internet. Megan Tranter

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1 A Model for the Virtual Occupational Health and Safety Classroom: Videoconferencing using the Internet Megan Tranter University of Western Sydney Hawkesbury Australia 1.0 ABSTRACT Studying by distance or externally is fraught with difficulties due to restrictions in intercommunication and contact; accessing resources; obtaining prompt feedback; and the need for practical experience to facilitate the development of skills. Within the Faculty of Environmental Management and Agriculture, the majority of occupational health and safety subjects are taught by distance (with workshops) in both Australia and internationally. A project which identified the advantages and disadvantages to students' learning by using Internet technology (videoconferencing via the Internet) to communicate with distance students synchronously and at minimal cost was conducted. A model for planning, conducting and evaluating this virtual classroom is presented in this paper. 2.0 INTRODUCTION For the distance learner, the attempts made by many educational institutions to adopt a supportive and flexible environment, must surely be refreshing. With the acceptability of flexible learning as a conventional mode of learning, many educators have embraced a myriad of approaches to enhance their students learning experiences, including the use of educational technology. Indeed, where would occupational health and safety (OHS) educators be, without the use of technology such as , the Internet and specialised CD-ROM resources? The incorporation of educational technology has caused a paradigm shift for the profession of OHS education. However, as technology continues to progress rapidly, a new stage of educational technology resource is emerging: using the Internet as a real-time, personto-person communication tool through audio and videoconferencing. The use of audio and videoconferencing through the Internet has the potential to break down many barriers that have faced distance students such as communication difficulties, obtaining prompt feedback and networking. Nevertheless, serious questions about its practicability and ability to improve educational outcomes should not be forgotten. 393

2 This paper presents progress results from an on-going feasibility study that is being undertaken by the Occupational Safety and Health Academic Group at the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury. The aim of the project is to investigate the possibility and practicability of designing and operating a virtual classroom using Internet-transmitted audio and videoconferencing. Due to the incomplete status of the project, this paper will also contemplate the issues and consequences of such an approach, for the OHS educator. 3.0 THE CONCEPT OF THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM As a concept, the virtual classroom can be simply viewed as a forum or meeting area for students and the lecturer. Just as the lecture theatre, tutorial room or laboratory provide a physical place for students to meet and learn, it also provides a congregation point through which knowledge and experiences are shared, debated and compared. The virtual classroom presents an opportunity for those students who are unable to physically meet at a campus to gather using an alternative environment. In reality, many OHS educators have built their own virtual classroom through the use of threaded groups, chat rooms, and subject or course-based Internet sites (Diprose & Chu 2000; Campbell & Tranter 1999). However these areas are chiefly asynchronous (with the exception of chat rooms) and use a written mode of communication. This should not detract however, from their benefits in improving student interaction and in particular, the application in role simulation (Freeman & Capper 1999) and problem-based learning. The virtual classroom that lies at the centre of the feasibility study is different from much of current practice in two ways. Predominantly, the proposed virtual classroom will involve the use of Internet-based audio and videoconferencing as the mode of communication. Such an approach offers: Synchronous communication Verbal and visual communication. Aside from telephone communication and chat rooms, most forms of educational feedback and information provision for the distance learner occurs asynchronously. In other words, the sending and receipt of information occurs at separate points in time. This leads the recipient to interpret the meaning of the communication without the ability to obtain immediate clarification. Further, the use of written media is both time-consuming and contributes to a sense of remoteness of the student and lecturer. While the concept of using videoconferencing as a communication tool is not new for occupational health and safety education (Tranter 1998), issues of access and cost has limited its application to specific sites, typically education institution campuses. The feasibility study seeks to determine whether an electronic learning environment such as Internet-based videoconferencing, that is accessible to a large number of learners, can be used to achieve educational outcomes. 394

3 While the prospect of synchronous verbal communication using the Internet is exciting, it is important to recognise that the concept of the virtual classroom will ultimately be limited by technology. This limitation is especially highlighted by Foley and Schuck (1998) who identify ongoing technical support and information about the limitations of the Internet-mediated conference tools as imperative. 4.0 THE NEED FOR THE VIRTUAL CLASSROOM Traditionally, teaching by distance or externally has involved the provision of written notes, which were sometimes supplemented by audio-visual materials such as video and audiocassette. At the University of Western Sydney, Hawkesbury and many other universities, this approach has been surpassed with the integration of written notes, interactive multimedia and the World Wide Web. Interactive multimedia may have been presented on CD-ROMs or servers. These interactive programs have included items such as digitised textbooks, video, animation, photos and figures, as well as self-test facilities (MIT 1999). In 1999, the release of a CD-ROM and textbook by the author of this paper (Tranter 1999) also provided students with further resources to assist their learning in the field of occupational hygiene. Members of the Occupational Safety and Health Academic Group have begun to use the Internet for students to exchange with the lecturer and other students. In 1999, WebCT was also provided by the University as a platform for the development of Internet-based resources and has been used for students to access course materials, present case studies for problem-based learning and communicate using threaded discussion lists (Campbell & Tranter 1999). Some lecturers also up-load lecture notes and video-record lectures for students to access via the Internet, although the latter may present students with problems in download times. While these more recent types of learning environments and communication are certainly an improvement on their predecessors, the use of synchronous methods undeniably offers students answers to their problems with distance study. That is, restrictions in intercommunication and contact, accessing resources and obtaining prompt feedback (Gardner & Hall, 1998). Obviously, the cost associated with obtaining such communication (whether through the telephone, traditional videoconferencing using ISDN lines or travelling to the learning institution) can be prohibitive. It has already been acknowledged that the Internet and its resources serve as an invaluable tool for those studying occupational health and safety. Agius and Bagnall (1998) report on the possibility of using the Internet for resourcing of students, but also that case studies can provide a virtual experience. While the resource capability of the Internet is without question, the use of the Internet as a medium for communication between students and the lecturer can now be contemplated. As the pace of technology continues to increase rapidly, it appears to be only a matter of time before OHS educators can use this tool to assist students who may not be able to attend the campus in methods beyond those used currently. 395

4 While this paper explores the feasibility of Internet-based audio and videoconferencing teaching methods for Australian OHS educators, some U.S. educational institutions have already begun to utilise the technology. Although there are differences in the capability of Internet data transmission between Australia and the United States, it is nevertheless interesting to observe these experiences. San Diego State University used the Internet to provide two-way audio and video conferencing, shared white board, shared applications, and chat window, which supported real-time Web-based instruction in 1997 using Microsoft NetMeeting (Microsoft 1999a). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also provides synchronous delivery modes through real-time Internet-based videoconferencing, real-time chats and discussion, and concurrent access to servers showing streaming video (live or pre-recorded). The Tulane University School of Public Health (U.S.A.) was the first institution to offer a truly synchronous Masters of Public Health program in occupational health and safety management in Classes were Internet-based, conducted bi-weekly in real-time in the evening. The course uses two-way audio between the instructor and the students (or between a student and the class) using an instructor-led software program called 'LearnLinc I-Net with Audio'. The program allows two-way audio, synchronised web browsing, electronic white board, text chat, on-line student evaluations, instructor question and answer sessions (Tulane University 2000). 4.1 Occupational Health and Safety Educators Role in the Virtual Classroom While technological change may be upon OHS educators, many may ask whether there is a place for the virtual classroom in occupational health and safety education. In particular, those institutions that teach predominantly in a face-to-face mode may question the cost-benefit of designing, implementing and evaluating such an approach. Indeed, it appears that the benefit of synchronous delivery of OHS curricula using the Internet will appeal most to distance learners. In a time of increased pressure within Australia s educational sector to provide more with less resources owing to depleting government funding, the use of synchronous communication using the Internet will also impose certain constraints on those OHS educators who may be interested in this approach. It will most certainly require redesigning of curricula to include more synchronous interaction and may impact on the portability and freedom of both the lecturer and student. Above all, the role of the OHS educator in the virtual classroom can be seen from two perspectives - educator centred or technologist centred. The virtual classroom opens a possible Pandora's box in relation to the technical skill requirements of the educator. Indeed, while the OHS educator may see a need for the asynchronous virtual classroom, the level of technical skill may prohibit its successful implementation. 396

5 5.0 THE FEASIBILITY STUDY At the time of writing, the feasibility study should be essentially regarded in its infancy. The study emanated from an idea in mid-1999 that both distance students and educators of these students should have easier and more affordable access to resources during their studies. With the expanded explosion of the use of the Internet (in February 1998 nearly households in Australia had access to the Internet (13% of all households); and of the 2 million households with a computer and no Internet access from home, or a quarter reported intending to obtain home Internet access by February (ABS, 1998)) it seemed a pertinent time to explore the idea. In recent times, the use of Internet-based videoconferencing and telephone communication has become more widely used and affordable. A recent article by McConnell (1999) explains how an ordinary desktop computer can be turned into a multimedia communications platform to communicate via the Internet for less than $US300. Even in 1997, Giles & Avram from Monash University explored practical implementation of the virtual university, including video-on-demand trials to allow students to access video materials at the PC desktop. 5.1 Aims of the Study As alluded to above, the study aimed to investigate the feasibility of the Internet as a medium for synchronous delivery of OHS subjects. The main areas of interest were audio-only (similar to a telephone call), as well as video and audio transmission. In summary, the specific objectives of the project were to: Conduct a feasibility analysis into the development of a virtual classroom using Internet based telephone and video conferencing for Australian and International occupational health and safety students Develop a virtual classroom for occupational health and safety teaching through the purchase of suitable PC video cameras and software for the project Pilot the project through a trial of the virtual classroom with lecturers and students in Australia and Internationally Evaluate the effectiveness and practicability of the virtual classroom using Internet based telephone and video conferencing. The overall intent of the project was to provide students with real-time communication that would assist their learning through discussion and interaction. Discussion is an important component of synchronous education, as conceptual development often occurs in real-time education. The use of video cameras by the lecturer to video-conference will also allow students to see and hear the lecturer, although it was identified that students would not need to purchase a camera in order to participate. 397

6 5.2 Progress of the Feasibility Study At this early stage of the feasibility study, the main issues that are being investigated relate to hardware requirements, software requirements, university I.T. infrastructure and the learning outcomes to students (including perceptions of use). The study has also involved the conduct of several Internet videoconferences to other members within the university, people located interstate and internationally Hardware Requirements Consideration of both student and educator hardware requirements were made. In order for students to hear and see the interactions of the virtual classroom, it has been identified they will require: A computer that can access the Internet and has appropriate sound and video capabilities, Reliable Access to the Internet at the designated times, Adequate memory in their computer to download software for the interaction, and A microphone. The educator will also require the same hardware, although if hosting a videoconference, will also require a video camera Software Requirements At present, commercial videoconferencing programs are being sourced. However free downloads of programs such as Microsoft Netmeeting are available. NetMeeting offers multi-point data conferencing, text chat, whiteboard, file transfer and point-topoint audio and video Integration of Current Curricula with the Feasibility Study In order that the feasibility study would be relevant to teaching philosophy of the Occupational Safety and Health Academic Group, it was proposed that many issues related to the practicability of the virtual classroom could be linked with students' learning experiences at the University. The project team ensured that the concept of the virtual classroom laid well within the educational framework of an undergraduate subject in Ergonomics. This subject focuses on workers' interaction and relationship between themselves and the work environment. Since the rapid growth in technology usage and its implications to health and safety is an area that is covered in the subject, students participating in the virtual classroom would be able to use experiential learning to identify the ergonomic issues (physical and cognitive) that are required to be considered in the subject, including workstation design, work efficiency, the human-machine system and vision. 398

7 6.0 A MODEL FOR THE VIRTUAL OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY CLASSROOM As the feasibility study begins to take shape, it is envisaged that an innovative approach will be taken to develop and pilot the virtual classroom. It will also seek to identify the costs to students, the educator and university of this style of teaching, as well as the time and level of computer literacy required for the project to be successful. In order to validate the practicability, possibility and educational outcomes of this communication technique, the following process has been mooted: 6.1 Determine Hardware and Software Requirements The importance of reliable hardware and software cannot be underestimated. Unreliable or inadequate technology is likely to quickly lead to frustration by students and result in their withdrawal from the experience. It is of note that Tulane University (2000), in its provision of a Masters degree on-line in a similar fashion, require the commitment of students to access appropriate hardware and attend on-line sessions at the designated times. The hardware should include a PC video camera that is designed for videoconferencing, microphone and adequate memory in the computer to ensure sufficient speed for acceptable quality of transmission of data. 6.2 Training Ongoing training should be provided to allow for the integration of an interactive learning environment for both students and educators (Tennant 1999). In the context of the virtual classroom such training may be required to incorporate both technical and educational instruction for the educator and at least an orientation of the technology for students. Prior to attending the virtual classroom, students should be provided with information to explain how they connect to the virtual classroom, what they should expect and how it will aid their learning. Real-time tutorials may also be offered. 6.3 Survey of Perceptions A survey of the distance education students' perceptions of Internet-based telephone and videoconferencing, including their willingness to be involved in this form of communication, should be conducted. The survey would aim to identify the students learning needs, their perceived strengths and weaknesses of their current learning environment (including attendance at workshops and Web-based support), their knowledge of Internet-based telephone and videoconferencing technology, and their own use of computers and the Internet. 399

8 6.4 Conduct Trials without Students While the use of new technology may be a valuable learning experience, it can lead to frustration if the educator does not have adequate skills to facilitate the session and to problem solve small technical issues. The aim of an initial trial would allow the development of the educators knowledge and skills in the virtual classroom. This would aid in identifying problems related to the set up of the virtual classroom, as well as deficiencies or limitations in the concept. 6.5 Pilot the Virtual Classroom A pilot of the virtual classroom could be conducted to offer a real-time orientation to the subject and tutorial support. Before this time, students should be informed of the existence of the virtual classroom and invited to prepare themselves for the orientation through downloading of software and testing of their connections, prior to the orientation. 6.6 Evaluation Since the virtual classroom feasibility study aims to be a practical project that investigates the feasibility and access for students and educators to the concept, as well as an assessment of its acceptance and useability, it should be evaluated. Some measures of its effectiveness may include: Perceptions from students and educators, and the costs to involved parties, Involvement of academic group members in an initial trial and pilot, Involvement of a reference group to review the process, Surveying potential participants before, during and after the project has been piloted, and Identification of technical issues that may affect the success of the project. 7.0 ISSUES FOR THE SUCCESS OF VIDEOCONFERENCING USING THE INTERNET Ultimately, one of the indicators of the success of videoconferencing using the Internet will be the cognitive and learning outcomes. Some authors (see Windschitl 1998; Mergendoller 1996) both recognise that the relationship between Internet technology and pedagogy has further advances to make. It is therefore vital that the process is fully evaluated. Some other issues that will require further examination include: Equity - including access to the technology and implications for students who are unable to utilise the virtual classroom Computer and ISP requirements - this is particularly pertinent in many country areas of Australia, where telephone lines are still inadequate for acceptable levels of reliable data transmission Quality of transmission - as with conventional videoconferencing, the quality of picture will depend on the speed of data transmission. Video transmission may 400

9 appear 'jerky' and feedback of audio may also occur, dependent upon traffic on the Internet Security of site and calls - free download software such as Microsoft Netmeeting do claim security of calls, although 'unexpected visitors' may disrupt discussion Protocols for admission, exiting and participating in the virtual classroom - there is a risk of students speaking over one another, especially if transmission lag occurs using this technology. Ultimately, there are many hurdles to be bound in the quest for the utilisation of the Internet to communicate synchronously through audio and videoconferencing. 8.0 CONCLUSION For every problem, there must surely be a solution. For distance students, the prospect of communicating synchronously using audio and videoconferencing over the Internet provides one of the most exciting aspects of learning in the third millennium. The feasibility to project discussed in this paper has identified the rationale and need for the virtual classroom of tomorrow - that is, one which offers real-time verbal communication, as well as asynchronous written interaction. However, with such a concept in its infancy in Australia, issues of quality and student learning outcomes will need to be considered in addition to the excitement of technological advances. 9.0 REFERENCES Australian Bureau of Statistics 1998, ABS Catalogue No Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, AGPS, Canberra. Agius, R. M. & Bagnall, G. 1998, 'Development and evaluation of the Internet as an educational tool in occupational and environmental health and medicine', Occupational Medicine, vol. 48, no. 5, pp Campbell, M. & Tranter, M. 1999, 'Is Anyone Out There? Facilitation of Problem- Based Occupational Hygiene Education Using the Internet', in Proceedings of the 18 th Annual Conference of the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists, 28 November - 1 December 1999, Noosa. Diprose, B. & Chu, C. 2000, 'Technological Means to Support Safety Education & Legislative Changes', in Proceedings of the 6 th Annual Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Occupational Health and Safety Educators, January 2000, Hong Kong, (in press). Foley, G. & Schuck 1998, 'Web-based conferencing: Pedagogical asset or constraint?', Australian Journal of Educational Technology, vol.14, no.2, pp Freeman, M. A. & Capper, J. M. 1999, 'Exploiting the web for education: An anonymous asynchronous role simulation', Australian Journal of Educational Technology, vol.15, no.1, pp

10 Gardner, D. & Hall, R.R. 1998, 'Issues in Distance Education', Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Occupational Health and Safety Educators, Brisbane, February 1998, pp Giles, S. & Avram, C. 1997, 'The Virtual University a Cable Perspective', Australian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education (ASCILITE) Annual Conference, Perth, 7-10 December 1997, accessed 22 April McConnell, B. 1999, 'Building the Ultimate, Low-Cost Internet Telephone/Video Conferencing Workstation', Hello Direct Inc., January 1999, accessed 22 April Mergendoller, J. 1996, 'Moving from technological possibility to richer student learning: revitalized infrastructure and reconstructed pedagogy', Educational Researcher, vol.25, no.8, pp Microsoft 1999a, Case Study Library San Diego University, accessed 26 April Microsoft 1999b, NetMeeting 3, accessed 26 April MIT 1999, Distance Learning Delivery Modes, accessed 26 April Tennant, J. 1999, 'Teleteaching with Large Groups - A case study from the Monash experience', Australian Journal of Educational Technology, vol.15, no.1, pp Tranter, M. 1999, Occupational Hygiene and Risk Management: A Multimedia Package, OH&S Press, Alstonville, Australia. Tranter, M 1998, 'Five Minutes of Fame An Experience of Teaching Occupational Health and Safety Through Videoconferencing', Proceedings of the Fourth Annual Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Occupational Health and Safety Educators, Brisbane, February, 1998, pp Tulane University 2000, Accessed 9 February 2000 Windschitl, M. 1998, 'The WWW and classroom research: What path should we take?', Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.1, pp

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