User Reactions to Videoconferencing: Which
Students Cope Best?
Steve Wheeler, Plymouth, UK
English: This article reviews a study conducted to establish the psychological basis for user responses to digital
videoconferencing. Left and right brain laterality and the demographic factors of age and gender were examined as possible
predictors of user response. Behavioural and affective responses were measured in a small group of distance learners (n=60).
Affective measure ‘A’ concerned user perception of equipment functionality and usefulness, and the intention to repeat the
experience, whilst behavioural measure ‘B’ examined anxiety level and self-consciousness. Signi cant differences were
observed between age groups with older participants expressing greater satisfaction with functionality and less anxiety overall.
A lesser effect was observed between males and females with the latter reporting higher satisfaction levels and lower anxiety
with the technology. No signi cant difference between left and right brain lateralities was observed.
Français: Cet article rend compte d’une étude conduite pour établir la base psychologique pour les résponses des étudiants à
la vidéoconférence digitale. On a pris en compte la latéralité gauche et droite du cerveau et les facteurs démographiques d’âge
et de sexe a n d’essayer de mieux prévoir les réactions des usageurs. Les réponses concerenant les attitudes et les réactions
affectives ont été mesurées chez un group limité d’étudiants à distance (n = 60). La mesure affective ‘A’ concernait la perception
de la fonctionalité de l’équipement et de son utlité, ainsi que l’intention de répéter l’expérience, tandis que les mesures
d’attitude ‘B’ examinait le niveau d’anxieté et de conscience de soi. Des différences signi catives ont été observées entre les
groupes d’âge, les participants plus âgés exprimant davantage leur satisfaction de l’équipement et faisant preuve de moins
d’anxiété en général. Un effet moindre a été observé entre les hommes et les fammes, ces dernières étant plus satisfaites et étant
moins anxieuses devant la technologie. Aucune différence signi cative entre les latéralités droite et gauche n’a été observée
Deutsch: In diesem beitrag wird über eine studie berichtet, die zur herstellung einer psychologischen basis für
nutzerreaktionen auf digitales videoconferencing diente. Linke und rechte hirnhälften und der demographische faktor
bezüglich alter und geschlecht wurden als mögliche voreinstellungen für das nutzerverhalten untersucht. Das verhalten und
affektive reaktionen wurden in kleinen gruppen (N=60) von distance-lernern gemessen: die affektive messung ‘A’ bezog sich auf
nutzereinsicht in die ausstattungsfunktionalität und – nützlichkeit sowie die einstellung zu einer wiederholung des experiments,
während die verhaltensmessung ‘B’ angstlevel und selbstbewußtsein untersuchte. Signi kante unterschiede wurden festgestellt
bei gruppen mit älteren teilnehmern mit höherer zufriedenheitsrate bei der funktionalität und weniger angstüberschuß. Ein
geringerer effekt wurde zwischen frauen und männern b eobachtet, wobei die ersteren über höhere zufriedenheit und
geringerer technologieangst berichteten. Kein signi kanter unterschied wurde zwischen der linken und der rechten
The University of Plymouth is located in the south west peninsula of England and operates from six main
campuses spanning a predominantly rural range of approximately 150 miles (230 kilometres). It is the fth largest
university in the UK, with over 20000 full time students and more than 2000 full time staff. As a regional
academic institution, the University of Plymouth must deliver high quality education and training courses. Many
students are recruited from within the region and a high proportion of these live in small communities in the
surrounding countryside, often in remote rural areas. This can be problematic as they must regularly travel to the
main campus to attend lectures, tutorials and seminars. Often, particularly with part-time postgraduate students
who have work and family commitments, this can be extremely dif cult, expensive and time consuming. The
south west of England does not have a good transport infrastructure and travelling conditions are variable due
to the seasonal tourist trade and geographical remoteness of many communities. Furthermore, teaching staff are
often expected to travel great distances to reach these distributed student groups, for teaching practice
observations and tutorials, and costs of transport and subsistence continue to rise.
Education Media International ISSN 0952-3987 © 2000 International Council for Education Media
The University of Plymouth has therefore focused for several years on developing telematics solutions to enable
students to study substantially at a distance, whilst retaining close communications links with both their tutors and
peers. This approach has led to many prestigious projects and awards, including Rural Area Training and
Information Opportunities (RATIO), ADAPT through RATIO (Wheeler, 1997), and WIRE Media Space
(Vranch et al., 1997; Patel 1997). Since 1989, the University has also enjoyed privileged access to TDS-4, a V-SAT
uplink facility on long-term loan from the European Space Agency. Using this facility, the University and its
partner organizations can transmit signals to a range of communications satellite, with footprints covering most
of Europe. Live television and data have thus been broadcast regularly to deliver training and information to
remote areas. More recently, MPEG2 digital codec technology has been employed to improve quality, reduce
transponder bandwidth space and thereby reduce costs.
Study centres have been set up across the region offering students access to internet and e-mail facilities, digital
videoconferencing links and access to the digital satellite TV broadcasts. Centres also stock a wide range of
learning materials including paper based, CD-ROM and videotape resources. These include materials to support
the delivery of courses in computing, languages, business, nursing, midwifery, medical and probationary of cer
One of the most effective ways to support learning at a distance has been to offer tutorials using desktop ISDN
videoconferencing. Students work through materials at their own pace, and spend as little or as much time as they
need in the telematics centre. When they wish to communicate with their tutor, they use either the e-mail facility,
or increasingly, the videoconference link on a nearby personal computer. They are then able to enjoy ‘face-to-face
at a distance’ conversations with subject experts, and also share les and send assignments for guidance and
assessment of learning (Winders, 1993). Students who study in this manner can eliminate a great deal of the costs
associated with travel, accommodation and time spent on the road. By using telematics technologies, a cost
effective link between tutor and student can be maintained without sacri cing interactivity and dynamism.
Videoconferencing has also been used successfully on many occasions to enable remote students to ask questions
of studio guests during live TV transmissions.
Videoconferencing is therefore becoming an important strategic component in distance learning, and it is vital
that research is conducted into ascertaining the effects, both pedagogically and psychologically on users. Several
researchers have reported that technophobia and other associated problems arise when students are exposed
to computing and communications technologies (Brosnan, 1998; Gibson, 1996; Wheeler, 1993). Furthermore,
students learning at a distance from their tutors can often experience feelings of isolation due to lack of social
support and physical remoteness. This ‘transactional distance’ between tutors and students often creates a
psychological ‘gap’ which has the potential to create misunderstandings between the two (Moore, 1991; Willis,
1993; Marsden, 1996). If it is not effectively bridged at an early stage, this psychological gap tends to become a
chasm, with differentials between expectations and intentions on both parts resulting in confusion, frustration,
feelings of isolation, demotivation and, ultimately, increased student attrition rates.
There is still a dearth of research into how visual based communication systems impact upon individuals as they
study at a distance. Rowntree (1982) pointed out a lack of research to relate multi-media presentations to
individual characteristics of learners. Jones et al. (1997) echoed these sentiments by calling for guidelines to match
delivery modes to the individual learning needs of students. Ehrmann (1990) has also indicated an urgency for
research into individual factors in distance education students. This paper reports on a pilot study conducted to
lay the groundwork for research into these areas.
A good starting point for research into the psychological dimensions of user responses to new technology is at the
level of the individual. If we are serious about student centred learning, we should be examining the impact of new
technologies upon individuals before we study group effects. Individual differences such as cognitive style and
preferred approaches to study have yielded fruitful results in increasing our understanding of student motivation
(Entwhistle, et al., 1987), levels of processing (Entwhistle and Waterston, 1988) and the design of course materials
(Hayes and Allinson, 1993; Sadler-Smith, 1996). At the deepest level of individual difference study is brain
Neuro-psychological studies into split-brain individuals by Sperry (1968) and Gazzaniga (1970) established that
the two hemispheres of the human brain operate as distinctly separate yet integrated organisms. Studies into
cognitive style suggest that the left hemisphere is generally used by the majority of people to process language and
logic operations, whereas the right hemisphere is used to represent images and intuitive thought processes
(Ornstein, 1972). Cognitive style can be described as a consistent approach to organizing and processing
32 EMI 37:1 – DISTANCE EDUCATION
information (Tennant, 1988). Work by Paivio (1971) showed that when an individual processes information, a
dual processing occurs, whereby imagens (pictures and visuo-spatial information) are processed separately from
logogens (verbal and textual information).
The aim of this reported study was to establish whether left brain or right brain individuals showed a greater
satisfaction and general ease with using videoconferencing. It was predicted that right brain users would exhibit
signi cantly less anxiety and more general satisfaction with videoconferencing than left brain users due to the
visual nature of the medium.
The demographic dimension was also considered to be of interest in the reported study. In particular age and
gender were thought to be possible predictors of user response to new technologies. The second research
hypothesis therefore predicted that older participants would report greater anxiety than younger participants due
to less familiarity with the technology.
The third hypothesis predicted that males would report greater satisfaction and show less anxiety and self-
consciousness when using videoconferencing than females. This last hypothesis was based on the premise that
males generally demonstrate better visual-spatial abilities than females. It is also generally accepted that females
demonstrate better verbal skills (Maccoby and Jacklin, 1974; Linn and Petersen, 1986; Lips, 1988)
A number of remotely based ‘naïve users’ of videoconference (those who had never experienced use of the system
prior to participation) were recruited for the pilot study (n=60). There were 28 females and 32 males in the sample
with a mean age of 35.6 years (16–63 years). Twelve were schoolchildren aged 16–18 at Hautlieu School in Jersey.
The remainder was constituted of either business (small and medium enterprise) and education (student teacher)
All participants were invited to take part in small groups of between 2 and 4. Participants were asked to complete
a short questionnaire – Style of Learning and Thinking Inventory (Torrance et al., 1977) – measuring brain
laterality on a scale of +12 to –12. Each small group then used the videoconference link to contact a remotely sited
individual whom they had not previously met, and converse for approximately 5 minutes. Finally, after breaking
the link, each participant was then asked to complete a short satisfaction questionnaire.
The questions were presented as statements in a ve point Likert scale format and measured four subsets of data:
self consciousness and anxiety level (SC), intention to repeat the experience (IR), assessment of equipment
functionality (EF) and social facilitation (SF). A Pearson product moment correlation was performed on the four
subsets to check for internal validity of the questions. Strong association was observed between the questions
related to assessment of equipment functionality, perception of social facilitation and intention to repeat the
experience. These questions were grouped together under the affective measure ‘A’. Strong association was
also observed between the anxiety and self-consciousness questions, so these were assigned as the behavioural
Desktop Pentium 230 personal computers were used for the study, each equipped with PictureTel Live 200
videoconference systems and external speakers to facilitate group conferencing.
Table 1 presents scores as mean averages with standard deviations in parentheses. On the scale, higher scores
indicate higher anxiety and higher aversion (lower preference). Preliminary data indicate that left-brained
verbalizers reported less af nity with videoconferencing than right-brained imagers. However, one way analysis
of variance (ANOVA) revealed a no signi cant variance between the left and right lateral groups.
User Reactions To Videoconferencing 33
Analyses of the left-right laterality group means showed variance in the expected direction with right dominant
participants reporting less anxiety in measure ‘B’ left brain dominant participants scored slightly higher,
indicating a higher level of anxiety and self-consciousness than right brain dominant participants. Affective
measure ‘A’ also showed higher scores for left brain dominant participants, indicating that overall right brain
dominant participants generally reported less anxiety and greater preference for videoconferencing than left brain
dominant users. Generally, zero lateral participants fared the best, although uneven sample sizes prevent any
concrete conclusions from being drawn. This is shown in table 1. These data are represented in graphical form in
gure 1 (throughout this paper higher scores indicate lower preferences).
A gender analysis was also performed to establish if there was any signi cant variance between male and
female scores. Mean scores indicated that females reported greater satisfaction and less anxiety and self-
consciousness throughout the experience. Males reported greater reluctance to repeat the experience than
females and also viewed the functionality of the equipment slightly less favourable than female users. However,
one-way ANOVA revealed that responses on individual measures were statistically no-signi cant. A signi cant
variance was observed between the total mean scores of males and females, at F (3,55) = 2.96, p< 0.04 (table 2
and gure 2).
34 EMI 37:1 – DISTANCE EDUCATION
Table 1 Brain laterality mean scores and standard deviations (n=60)
Left lateral (n=29) Right lateral (n=25) Zero lateral (n=6)
Affective (satisfaction) 7.34 (3.36) 7.12 (3.12) 6.50 (3.88)
Behavioural (anxiety) 5.59 (2.21) 5.16 (2.56) 4.83 (4.62)
Total 12.90 12.28 11.33
Left Right Zero
Figure 1 Analysis of behavioural and affective responses: left, right and zero lateralities (n=60)
Table 2 Mean scores between sexes and standard deviations (n=60)
Male (n=32) Female (n=28)
Affective (satisfaction) 7.53 (3.40) 6.57 (3.19)
Behavioural (anxiety) 5.50 (2.84) 5.04 (2.55)
Total 13.03 11.61
Finally, the variance between age groups was analysed. Participants were designated as belonging to one of four
age groups: 16–25 years (n = 14, mean = 16.93, sd = 0.73); 26–34 years (n = 14, mean = 30.5, sd = 2.13); 35–44
years (n = 14, mean = 39, sd = 2.6) and over 44 years old (n = 17, mean = 52.5, sd = 5.32). One participant
declined to give an age and was therefore dropped from this part of the analysis (n=59). Initial analysis of sample
means revealed that the youngest age group was the most anxious and self-conscious when using the video link
and reported the least preference. They indicated more reluctance to repeat the experience and expressed a
markedly less favourable attitude to the functionality of the equipment than the older age groups. Generally this
population split produced the largest variance of scores in both measures as well as between total mean scores.
The 35–44 year old age group seemed a great deal more at ease with using video conferencing to communicate
at a distance than any other age group. ANOVA revealed a statistically signicant result at F (24,18) = 2.98, p<
0.04, between the total scores of all age groups. ANOVA also revealed signi cant variance between the total
scores of the 16–25 year old and 35–44 year old age groups at F (1,26) = 10.39, p< 0.03, and between the 16–25
year old and over 45 year old age groups at F (1,29) = 5.78, p< 0.02. Signi cant variance was also observed
between the 16–25 year old age group and the 35–44 year old age group on both the affective measure ‘A’ at F
(1,26) = 6.26, p< 0.01, and the behavioural measure ‘B’ at F (1,26) = 5.67, p< 0.025. Multivariate analysis
revealed no signicant interaction between any of the aforementioned factors (table 3 and gure 3).
Results of the data analysis suggest that the main factor generally in uencing user satisfaction within this sample
population, at least in terms of anxiety and self consciousness, is age (and therefore experience). Brain dominance
and other laterality traits are notoriously dif cult to measure accurately and this may have been a factor in the
distinct lack of signi cant results within this predicted dimension. Signi cantly, the direction predicted for gender
was reversed, with females expressing greater preference and lower negative responses to the technology. We shall
return to the discussion of these factors later in this atricle. Firstly, age – the most signi cant factor in uencing user
responses – will be examined.
User Reactions To Videoconferencing 35
Figure 2 Male/female differences (n=60)
Table 3 Age split mean scores and standard deviations
16–25 years 26–34 years 35–44 years >44 years
(n=14) (n=14) (n=14) (n=17)
Affective (satisfaction) 8.50 (2.85) 7.86 (3.25) 5.86 (2.77) 6.71 (3.50)
Behavioural (anxiety) 6.50 (1.95) 5.29 (2.81) 4.71 (2.02) 5.06 (3.25)
Total 15.00 13.14 10.57 11.76
It may be argued that in the age variances observed, older participants had had more experience of social
interaction within novel situations and therefore were more at ease communicating using the new technology.
This does not explain the responses of the oldest group, however, who although generally more comfortable than
the two youngest groups, expressed less satisfaction than the 35–44 year old age group. Younger participants,
conversely, may perhaps have been more self-conscious and anxious due to a lack of practice in communicating
to others in novel situations. This may have been a case of the ‘media’ having more of an impact that the
‘message’. Another factor possibly in uencing the youngest groups’ responses within measure ‘B’ may have been
peer group and ‘authoritarian’ in uence, as all those in the 16–18 year old age band took part in groups of four
within a classroom setting, with a teacher present. This does not explain the total overall effect however, as other
members of this age group participated outside of a typical school setting.
Females fared generally better than males in self-reported responses to both measures, expressing less anxiety and
self-consciousness, and reporting more favourable attitudes towards the functionality and usefulness of the
equipment. One explanation for this result is that females may ‘see through’ the technology more successfully than
males, perceiving the videoconference equipment as a means to an end, that is, social interaction. Studies have
shown that females have greater verbal ability (Maccoby and Jacklin, 1974; Halpern, 1989) and this factor may
be more important in videoconferencing than the greater visual-spatial abilities that males tend to demonstrate.
In industrialized nations, males are generally more technologically sophisticated due to well documented social-
ization and schooling in uences (Naffzinger and Naffzinger, 1974; Sharpe, 1976; Clarricoates, 1980; Brosnan,
1998) and this may prove to be a pitfall. Males may concentrate more on the effects of the technology rather than
the reason for the technology and this may create a psychological barrier to good communication, by raising
arousal levels. Generally speaking, it appears that cognitive abilities such as visual-spatial skills are less important
contributors to performance than the perception of the functionality of the technology being used. This nding
supports the work undertaken by Reid et al. (1997) who studied group discussion and decision making via
computer mediated conferencing (CMC). Reid et al. concluded that obtaining an understanding of the
psychological impact of CMC will come from an examination of the social meaning of goal directed tasks, rather
than the static properties of the technology.
Finally, a lesser, but possibly important factor impacting on the data may be that of left/right brain laterality.
Further research is demanded in this area as statistical analysis of the data offered no support for the original
hypothesis. One of two conclusions may be drawn from the results in this part of the study. Either the measures
applied were ineffective, failing to measure an in uence that may be present, or left and right brain differences in
individuals have no signi cant predictive value over the responses and preferences of individuals who use new
communications and information technologies.
Several potentially confounding variables and measurement errors may have in uenced the results presented in
this study. Firstly, most participants took part in the study in groups of threes and fours for reasons of economy
and time constraint. Future studies of a similar nature should focus on individual rather than corporate use of the
technology to eliminate this possible source of measurement error.
36 EMI 37:1 – DISTANCE EDUCATION
Figure 3 Age differences
16Ð 25 years 26Ð 34 years 35Ð 44 years >44 years
Secondly, because of geographical limitations different interviewers at remote sites were used, and thus the
content and presentation style of each video-linked conversation varied slightly. Although this would in no way
affect the data gathered in the rst questionnaire, it may have inuenced participants’ completion the satisfaction
questionnaire. Ideally, either a ‘scripted’ dialogue, or preferably continuity of presentation by one interviewer is
desirable for future studies.
Thirdly, users participated from several remote sites, and it was therefore impossible to strictly control local
environments to eliminate distractions or maintain a uniform setting for the study. Again, continuity of
environment would be desirable to eliminate any extraneous factors of in uence.
In conclusion, individual differences such as left/right brain dominance and gender appear to contribute to
anxiety, satisfaction levels and preference for videoconferencing as a communication method. However, these
results were inconclusive when analysed for statistical probability. More notably, the factor of age difference
revealed signi cant variability across groups, with older participants generally responding better to the technology
than younger participants. We can conclude therefore that age and possibly other individual difference factors
might have a negative effect on performance and quality of learning outcomes for those engaged in distance
learning activities using videoconference systems.
A desirable outcome for future research would be to design delivery and support systems and to develop
appropriate training programmes to match the styles and preferences (and particularly age and experience) of
open distance learning students, and so create the highest quality distributed learning environments. The author
intends to develop this study further and extend it to include cognitive styles and learning preferences. It will be
important to consider the dynamics of distributed groups also. Finally, there is also scope to extend this research
to include the study of other forms of telematic delivery and support methods, including text based and audio
based communication systems.
Glossary of terms
ADAPT: European structural fund.
Codec: coder decoder – the device that translates signals into a format t for transmission.
Footprint: the beam coverage of a satellite.
Geosynchronous: stationary satellites used for communication are positioned at an orbital altitude enabling
them to match the rotation of the earth and thus remain stationary in the sky. This eliminates the need for
expensive tracking equipment.
ISDN: Integrated Services Digital Network.
MPEG2: Motion Picture Experts Group; a digital broadcast standard.
RATIO: Rural Area Training and Information Opportunities; a European funded telematics project based in
South West England.
TDS-4: Test and Demonstration Site 4; The ESA uplink dish currently located at the University of Plymouth.
Transponder: part of a satellite; a broadcasting device, enabling signals to be transmitted back to earth.
Uplink: Term used to describe the transmission of signals up to a satellite.
V-SAT: Very Small Aperture Terminal; a specialized satellite dish used to send as well as receive transmissions.
Wire Media Space: a project aimed at the telematic delivery of multimedia courses to study centres across
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User Reactions To Videoconferencing 37
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Steve Wheeler is currently Senior Lecturer in Distance Learning at the University of Plymouth, UK. He has
responsibility for researching the effectiveness of telematic delivery systems in distributed learning and is in the
nal stages of writing up his PhD thesis into the psychological impacts of new technologies on distance learning.
His work can be accessed on the web at: http://www.fae.plym.ac.uk/tele/tele.html
Address for correspondence
Steve Wheeler, Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Arts and Education, Faculty of Arts and Education,
University of Plymouth; e-mail: email@example.com
38 EMI 37:1 – DISTANCE EDUCATION