Top tips for teaching via video conference

There are so many ways you can use video conferencing to discover new educational opportunities, from visiting world-class museums and zoos to diving on the coral reef! Still, often as a teacher you get your training on how to use the newly installed VC system and then you’re left to your own devices to work out the intricacies on how to use it. If your school timetable means that you don’t get to use your system for a couple of months you can quickly forget some of things you need to know to make your experience much more enjoyable (for both your students and for the far end site working with you).

To help, here’s a few tips that can help out when preparing for a virtual excursion, plus some simple hacks to make you look like a pro.

Setting up your room

  • Connect a computer to your system with a HDMI or AV connector. You’ll then be able to share all sorts of content with the remote students. If you want you can use an adapter to connect to your iPad so that you have a document camera with extra functionality.
  • Have a remote mouse and keyboard at the table near you. That way you can access photos and applications easily. It’s useful to have a Google page open so that you can look things up on the fly as needed. Additionally it can be helpful to have the batteries easily accessible so that if you run out of charge you can quickly change them over.
  • Consider your placement of your audio. Try to get the microphones as close to the middle of classroom as possible. Sometimes this is not feasible so in that case you can have someone next to the microphone to relay questions and answers coming from the back of the classroom. VC systems come with a variety of noise cancelling microphones. If you choosing to run a web conference via your computer instead of a H.323 VC system it’s worth purchasing a USB noise cancelling microphone as the sound quality for the remote sites is far superior than what you usually get with your inbuilt microphone on your computer.
  • Put a white board right next to your TV or projector screen and list down the different schools who are attending (especially if you’re leading the conference). That way you can quickly glance to the list and know who you’re speaking with. It can really help if you have a magnetic button to that a volunteer can quickly slide along so you know who spoke to last!

Before the conference

  • Set your camera presets before joining the conference. This means a view of your entire classroom, a view of your experiment table and perhaps 3 separate views of the left, middle and right-side of the classroom. It can also help to have a whiteboard view as well so you can quickly write down things to show the other schools. How do you do this? Generally if you zoom your camera to view you need you can hold down a number button on your VC remote and a preset will become stored for later use. Check your usual manual on how to switch between views (Polycom is slightly different to Cisco for instance).
  • Learn how to toggle the various layout views from self view and ‘Brady bunch’ view. I personally like the self-view option as I can see exactly what the other schools are seeing and I simply toggle back to active speaker view so I can see the other schools when they speak back to me. It certainly helps me see what’s going on!     
  • If there are windows in the room, close any drapes or blinds. Daylight is a variable light source and can conflict with interior room lighting. Try to avoid ‘back-lighting’ as you will come across as shadowy figures with your faces hidden.
  • When adjusting your camera, try to fill the screen as much as possible with people rather than with the table, chairs, walls, lights, or the floor. People want to talk with people 🙂
  • For microphones not fixed to the ceiling or table, ensure they are at least 1 meter away from the video conference camera/endpoint and not near any other electronic equipment otherwise audio will be severely affected (think audio screech).
  • Have the experiment materials and volunteers ready in your room so that the conference can be more interactive. Your student’s experience in video conferences is affected greatly by what they get to do. Imagine if you were a student and have to sit by and watch another school do fun science experiments in their room without you getting to have a go, all because your teacher’s plan is to run the experiments later. You wouldn’t have much fun and certainly would report to the teacher that you don’t like distance learning as much. Give your students the best chance to get the most out of the conference.
  • Prime your students so that they’re ready to ask and receive questions during the conference. Some teachers get kids to research the content quite deeply and have a question written down so they don;t forget, just make sure that they don’t spend the time worrying about their time to speak and rather engage in the general conversation that occurs in the virtual excursion.

During the conference

  • Keep microphones muted until invited to speak by the presenter.  Mute your microphone directly after speaking. There is always peripheral noise at schools and the microphones pick up everything.  This is a big distraction to the presenter and other participating schools.
  • Use your presets you setup earlier to show the other schools your students, your experiments and your classroom itself. It’s great to have a view setup for outside your window too – kids love to see outside as a peek into your world.
  • Due to the nature of some school’s allocated broadband speed there is a chance of reduced clarity in picture. If a ‘dropout’ occurs simply redial into the conference.

After the conference

  • Like any lesson, this is the time to consolidate learning by asking questions with your students about the content presented and to run aligned follow-on lessons. The more you align a video conference with your standard learning sequence the more valuable it becomes.

As with all things, the more you use it the more familiar you are with what you can do and therefore the better your experience in virtual excursions. Learning to run one of these systems can be fun if you contact a colleague in another school to try some test runs with you. Even better, get some of your own students to learn the controls which means that you won’t have to always rely on having to set it up yourself plus the students will get extra technology learning outcomes and confidence with using modern communications.

If you need any help at all please feel free to drop me a line or you could have a in-depth read of my Churchill Fellowship report which details best practice in science education via video conference.

Fizzics Education

Zoom Video Conferencing


Recently there has been a bit of excitement in our community regarding using Zoom Video Conferencing as a gateway to reach potential audience that may not have invested in a full suite of Standard Based (H.323) v/c kit. Think of Zoom as Skype on steroids! You can set up a meeting, invite guests, and have them connect simply through their browser. There is no complicated software to install and everything works through the browser without having to install additional software, which is great for companies which have restrictions on such things.

On of the most exciting things for us is that Zoom is free, so anybody you invite to a meeting can use it. And the fact that they provide what they call a H.323 Room Connector. This optional extra can be purchased for a small price of $US49/mo and enables H.323 video conferencing units to join the meeting. Which finally means that we can connect all our v/c units and users together in one big conference!

This all sounds fantastic but there are a few caveats that you should be aware of. Firstly you need to know that DART has (for the moment) put a ban on using Zoom to dial directly into their system. The main reason for this is that the connection that Zoom creates is forced to a connection speed of 6 megabits per second. This is far to fast for DARTs front end points and causes congestion and high usage, resulting in poor experience for other users on the network. To work around this you will need to dial directly into Zoom using your H.323 device so as a result means that it is unusable with DET schools as you need to use DART to connect to them. However as you will read I have been able to work around this using two H.323 devices.

Secondly, unless your guest using the H.323 room connector and a standards based v/c unit, then they will be using their computer which mean they will also be using the webcam and microphone which is included. Generally these built in devices are fairly cheap and are designed to work with just a single person not an entire room of people, so depending on your application the results not be acceptable.

If you really want to take full advantage of what Zoom has to offer you can configure a set up in which you use two H.323 units and a video switcher such as a Tricaster. To do this you would dial the first H.323 unit into DART as you normally would and the second unit would dial into Zoom. In this scenario any schools you need to engage would be connected at the DART end and any ‘special guests’ could be connected to Zoom. Exactly who sees what is controlled by the vision switcher. However, doing this requires quit a bit of technical know how! I have personally done this with a video conference at The Powerhouse Museum and the results where similar to that of a TV broadcast. You can see for yourself HERE.

Is Zoom worth the investment ? Probably….. for $US49/mo I think it’s worth at least trying out, you may find that you have no use for it or your organisation does not have the technical ability for it, but you would not have lost much in doing so. But you may also find that your audience reach has been massively extended and the return will be far greater than the small investment.

Stephen Bancroft is an an Electrical Engineer and Computing expert, he has over twenty years experience with internet based technologies and has worked extensively with live sound and broadcast. He is currently writing technical articles exclusively for VEA.


Dialling H.323 from a mobile device.

Ever wanted to join in a video conference (H.323) from a your phone or tablet? Well it is possible. Start by installing the Polycom RealPresence application for Android or iPhone. Start the application and you should be greeted with a screen similar to this. I am using Android 4.4.4 so your screen may look a little different.

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At this point just enter your email address and click next. Now you will get the following screen.

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At this point you would be forgiven for thinking that you need to sign into some sort of Polycom server or infrastructure, but you don’t need to, just click ‘Skip Sign In’ and you will get this screen.

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Now your in business, you can enter a H.323 IP and dial directly. Test it out your self by dialling one of the VTCTEST numbers.

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Enjoy !


Stephen Bancroft is an an Electrical Engineer and Computing expert, he has over twenty years experience with internet based technologies and has worked extensively with live sound and broadcast. He is currently writing technical articles exclusively for VEA.

Tandberg URI Dialing

Recently I had some fun and games with our two Tandberg Video Conference units at the Powerhouse. It had been report to me that it was not possible to dial into any VMR’s (Virtual Meeting Rooms), DARTs VMR’s included. To dial into a VMR it is necessary to use what is known as a ‘URI Dial String’, this string consists of two parts, firstly some text or a number followed by the ‘@’ symbol then an IP Address or Domain name so,  <text>@<ipaddress>, this is typically implemented by inputting the VMR as the first part of the string then the IP address as the second part.

As you would imagine not being able to dial into the DART VMR is a big problem for us, and since I am still relatively new here I am not really sure how this was achieved in the past, but I set about fixing the problem, and after much back and forth and much googling I came to the conclusion that the firmware in our Tandberg units was way too old!

As it turns out URI dialing cannot be used with Tandberg software version prior to TC4.2 unless the system is registered with a gatekeeper. We do not have a gatekeeper and you would only really need one if you had to implement inbound URI dialing. Cisco only introduced full support for H.323 Annex O (URI Dialing) in TC4.2, we had TC4.1 so could only do IP dialing. Problem is that we do not have a CISCO support contract on our VC units and getting firmware upgrades is usually done through support contract channels.

Tandberg C60 at the Powerhouse
Tandberg C60 at the Powerhouse

Thankfully, if you are in the same situation, there is a way out. You can either go to the trouble of installing gnugk a free gatekeeper application on a seperate server or you can in fact get a firmware upgrade for your unit. CISCO only require that you have a support contract to get the most recent version of the firmeware TC6.3, the older versions TC4.2 and TC5.1.8 are freely avaliable HERE.  You will need a CISCO Tac login to be able to download it, but that is free as well.

There is a step-by-step process to installing a new firmware package in the administrators guide for your system. But basically you will need to;

– Download the package.
– Upload the packaged to the unit using the web interface that your unit provides.
– Wait about 10 minutes for the upgrade to finish and the system to reboot.
– Login to the CISCO Tac and obtain a Release Key from HERE.
– Login back into the web interface and apply the ‘Release Key’ from the maintenance menu.

Be warned though, a firmware upgrade like this is not for the faint hearted, things can go wrong, and if something breaks you will need advanced knowledge to recover from the situation!

So, if you’re brave, go forth, upgrade and enjoy all the new features that you never thought your VC Codec could do!