How Video Communication Happens

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Anytime I think about communication, I like to look back to one of my favorite writers; John Dewey, the eminent American philosopher of education at Columbia University who wrote, among many things, that “culture is communication”.

The concept of culture is a wrought term often employed in study abroad and international education to center a lot about what is important about the work that we do. Communication is very much a work-a-day idea that we don’t give much thought to unless when it miss-happens, or maybe also when we marvel when collaboration produces something impressive.

When Dewey wrote this, he was getting at a point about schooling in America around the turn of the 20th century –another time when society was struggling to integrate many new people into America– that culture forms through a dynamic and complicated discourse between people that reverberates out into larger conversations and narratives that frame society. At the most basic level, Dewey wrote, culture is what happens when communication is carried out, and schooling was a way for an industrial society to promote ideas and discourse about how a citizen populace governs itself.

The history of culture and communication – from the days of Dewey and Sassuere to work now being done by Henry Jenkins and Mizuko Ito– gives us some idea to the deep background that frame what we are talking about today. In fact, going from a theoretical perspective to a discussion about webinar technologies may make heads spin, but… there is a thread that connects the two.

Why does it matter how we communicate? It mattered to Dewey how communication about democracy was taking place and it matters to us how we talk to partners, clients, students, and parents with video.

There are a variety of ways that we make communication happen using video and virtual reality. Some of these are well-known and accessible to almost anyone with an high-speed internet connection and a modern computer, where others require licenses, payment and additional, sometimes expensive, equipment.

At the cutting edge are virtual reality applications that many companies see as the next step in collaborative work tools for synchronous communication. Right now, these mostly exist in labs and high-tech companies, but moves such as Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Oculus portend things to come. These tools simulate the experience of being in the same place as another person, and all the advantages of communicating face-to-face.

In wide-spread use today, are the a second class of technologies that afford HD video and high quality audio for communication. This technology is mature and diversified and there are multiple products and tools that afford variations on the theme of video conferencing with a computer. Despite the variation there are several abiding issues on how video-conferencing happens –video quality is impacted heavily by internet speed, audio quality is troublesome when communicating in a group, system setup is a challenge for people with lower technology competencies, and any number of idiosyncratic issues can occur with browsers, operating systems, and programs. There are often learned helplessness barriers when people start to communicate this way, but the technology is seamless enough and the advantages of synchronous communication are evident enough, that people decide to learn how to make it happen.

Finally, the work-horses of video-conferencing have not outlived their usefulness. It was five years ago that Microsoft shocked the tech world with a $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype, essentially buying user brand loyalty. One of the great beneficiaries of the WorldCom bust of the late 1990s, Skype was able to utilize the cheap surplus of worldwide bandwidth, and continues as, probably, the most common way to do video-conferencing. Into this ecosystem Google has given many enterprises an ‘out-of-the box’ video-conference product in Hangouts, and a free video-conferencing tool for anyone who signs up for an email account. When the US Vice-President starts using Google Hangouts for communication, we have to take a minute to reflect that a technology is part of culture. Add to this LiveStream/Ustream technologies to broadcast live video online, and iPhone and Android Apps, like Periscope, to stream video to individuals or broadcast to anyone. We can confidently say that video-conferencing communication is here to stay, and get better.

To conclude, all the above technology lingo matters because video-conferencing happens to make it easier for us to communicate and get things done together. The culture of international education must lead the way in this area, after all, we produce specialized knowledge and services to connect geographically different areas. Video-conferencing is not a panacea for interpersonal communication, as the thesis of the movie Up In the Air tried to make clear. We must not minimize issues of cost, working with people in less industrialized societies, the value of travel and relationship building over coffee, among others. However, we suggest a good look at what we are doing today with video and how to get where we want to be tomorrow.


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