XI. PRESENCE AND REMOTE PRESENCE
Classrooms open to the world
Videoconferencing offers us the possibility of talking to one or more people at remote locations with sound and movement. This new instrument in education will have a vast impact once it is available globally. Videoconferencing will try to make virtual presence real, if this does not seem to much of a paradox. Two groups of persons can see each other, speak and hold a dialog even when oceans apart. At present there are two distinct categories of system. One involves group systems for videoconferencing using digital projectors on large screens (or big TV screens). Group videoconferencing is fashionable in corporations and will also be important to education, as long as images of people are held to natural size (it is difficult to enter into a dialog with giants projected on a screen). Personal videoconferencing has already been incorporated to PCs, enabling two or more persons to converse via a small window in the monitor.
In addition there are new integrated collaborative systems that enable the exchange of any digital information during videoconferencing. White boards are generally used for this, with each site manipulating what it needs (text, images, graphics, videos), while both are able to work jointly on the same document during the videoconference. In the educational process this is significant, as while people talk and can be seen they exchange "digital objects" or generate a new one between them.
Videoconferencing is perhaps a misnomer, the word "video-dialog" giving a truer idea of the two-way nature of the encounter. Likewise the word "computer" refers to only one of the functions of the digital machine, although we all know that it has many other equally important functions to perform in addition to mere numerical calculation, such as word, voice and image processing, the control of remote objects, etc. However, it is too late to try to change a word that has become accepted by all.
In spite of its obvious advantages videoconferencing is still a debatable matter. Physical and remote presence are seen as opposing positions, which is not true. Many fear that videoconferencing will lead to a loss of direct contact between teacher and student, but such fears are groundless. Contact is essential, in particular when it is in the nature of a tutorial, although such teaching takes place in very few privileged institutions. Most of us suffer from obsolete technology in packed classrooms where such contact does not exist. Remote presence however is a solution at hand, although few have dared to implement it. In addition there is an ingredient of economic uncertainty. Won't distance education eliminate classroom students? Certainly not. Education that is limited to the classroom will have no future, it will have to offer both teaching modalities, classroom and remote. The way of complementing these two modalities will become the core theme of digital education.
It is hard to imagine what education will be like when videoconferencing (in the genuine sense of audio-visual education at a distance) becomes as common as telephones. However, to discuss this new technological contribution to education in the home more experience within the digital school itself will be necessary. At present we are in a situation similar to that twenty years ago when the world of information technology was restricted to experts, when computers were not easily available to ordinary users and even less so for children of school age or for university students.
The hope we have placed in videoconferencing for education is based on the incredible acceleration of new technology. There are now small video cameras adapted to computers that can be used to transmit images and sound from one part of the school network to another, so that two connected computers can establish a dialog across distance, through a window on the screen, face to face within the same establishment at zero cost. We have begun this experiment between two buildings of the San Martín de Tours school. During the first few days students took photographs of themselves with these cameras. Now they use them for more interesting purposes. This experience is valuable and in future such communications will be possible from any home.
Digital schools should undoubtedly offer these new and extraordinary educational resources to the entire community. This is where new remote interactive audio-visual programs with real educational value will be generated. The possibility of interactivity at great speeds will enable multiple multimedia connections. This new space will be used to share an infinite number of bits in real time. But it will be of no use installing these resources because of external market pressures if teachers and students themselves have not been able to experiment freely with videoconferencing within their own educational establishment. We must pay attention to the subject of videoconferencing so as not to repeat the irregular (and often unsatisfactory) process of introducing information technology in schools or "educational" television in classrooms and homes. This is not a technology for the distant future, it is today's technology, and we must be responsible for using it well.
This prodigious system of communication requires a suitable space. As ordinary classrooms are dismantled in favor of a better distributed form of teaching, perhaps this teaching niche will then be filled by a videoconferencing room. No doubt such a room will have "virtual walls" on which images from other similar rooms around the world will be projected. In any event, it will be very different to the closed-in space we know today. Reality will exceed fiction.