Videoconferencing and its impact

Janice Stearns

Just read in Business Week that a recent study indicates that people tend to pay more attention to the personality than the content when viewing someone on a videoconferencing screen.

I have noticed this myself when I was on MCC’s Technology and Pedagogy committee. If I really wanted to get something accomplished, a particular agenda item or task, I became aware that I had to go up to Oceanside and attend in person. If I just wanted to participate, videoconferencing was fine. In fact, people would pay more attention to me. But they seemed not to pay as much attention to what I said.

The study abstract explains that this is because their brains were dealing with the mediation environment. Ben Levisohn of BW says:

The video attendees were twice as likely to base their evaluation of the meetings on the speaker rather than the content. They were also more likely to say the speaker was hard to follow. . . [O]ur brains gather data about people before turning to what they say. In person, we do this quickly. But speakers are harder to “read” on the screen, so we focus more on them.

While it’s fun to have ones own experience supported by current research, it means that videoconferencing is not a good way to be effective at a meeting, meaning a drive up to campus when I need to make an impact.

It may also have implications for our students when we use web video to present content. At the moment I’m only using it to introduce myself. But if I used it to lecture, would they get what I’m saying, or evaluate the lecture based on my personality, and learn very little?

5 comments to Videoconferencing and its impact

  • Hi Lisa,

    Thanks very much for including the link to this study. I read about it in the Sydney Morning Herald in October last year, but haven’t managed to get my hands on the full study itself.

    My conclusions were fairly similar to yours (as covered in this post ). Videoconferencing is a valuable way to represent the human form and goes a long way to bringing people together, but at the end of the day it should just be one way of covering the discussion and content.

    This is especially true when considering not everyone has a high-speed web connection – if you’re using it in a classroom setting, equity issues do come into play. Certainly it shouldn’t restrict people with the opportunities from engaging in these sorts of conversations; but we need to ensure that those without them aren’t disadvantaged either.

    Thanks for bringing this up 🙂 Hope all is well!



  • Hi Mike! Just goes to show what’s new to me is often very old news indeed. Unfortunately, it looks like they want you to pay to read the study. Do you know if it’s free somewhere?

    I was thinking of your desire to get people using Seesmic and other tools to communicate through video instead of text. One step closer to actually being there. But then this made me think — is that a good idea or a distraction? will I focus on your wonderful personality instead of what you say? and if I do, is that inherent cognitive functioning, or just a response to the novelty of the medium?

  • Bob Bell (B-ob

    Lisa, Mike,
    “I’ve got a sweet tooth for this ****!” – from the film: “The January Man” (1989)
    Moving directly past video conferencing to “It may also have implications for our students when we use web video to present content.”, I have these thoughts.

    Video conferencing is used at my local college to teach Spanish to a mixed distance and F2F classroom. When I helped design the class, I encouraged the instructor to use PowerPoint slides with rich media and brief bits of textural content to reinforce her occasional appearance on screen and her constant voice over. This seemed to create the best of both worlds. I also encouraged her to stop talking when she expected the students to be reading text on the screen (or even looking at images.)

    As you can tell from above, I think that the speakers picture (and sometimes voice) is often more of a distraction than a emphasis of the material. It is good to introduce the lecturer (more in earlier meetings) but the more the personality is present the less content should be presented. Also, we users that have fast connections sometimes forget that there are those others that don’t (thanks for the reminder, Mike). It was always my goal to find a way of including as little (if any) content that required LONG downloads over slow connections. I always promoted not having the talking head video because it helps avoid the necessity of a fast connection and now I can say probably distracts the student from paying attention to the lecture!
    Thanks for the links.
    BTW Though it would be illegal, it’s too bad there isn’t a group where one member could (buy) and download the PDF and then send it to all the members that wanted to share in the price. Probably a bad idea but it is frustrating to not be able to discuss the original work!

  • I’ve always questioned the effectiveness of any kind of remote learning via videoconferencing. We simply don’t process and respond to information from a TV screen the same we do with human interaction. Nice post, and thx for bringing the study to our attention!

  • I wonder how long it takes to get past the medium and focus on the message. I once organized a two and a half hour Skype meeting between students in Oregon and Gaza City, and I can report that our students remembered practically everything that was discussed.

    I recall the conversation reaching a point where I felt quite clearly that the students were the students were very fluidly interacting with the environment. The students were still conscious of where they needed to sit and speak, but nobody made reference to it, and they did it all with great fluidity.

    I would add that the personality of the speaker was an important part of the experience, since most of our students had never met a Palestinian teenager before, but all held preconceptions.