Connecting the partnership: how video conferencing shaped the University of the Highlands and Islands

As the University of the Highlands and Islands celebrates its tenth birthday, our longest serving video conferencing expert, Roray Stewart, provides an insight into the importance of the technology to the development of the partnership.  

When did you join the University of the Highlands and Islands partnership?

I started as an apprentice IT technician with Shetland College UHI in 1998, before becoming a video conference technician with the university in 2001. At the time there was an expansion of IT services taking place across the partnership. Partners could submit bids to host services. Shetland College UHI won the right to run the video conference service.

As part of my work at the college, I’d had some experience of helping staff and students use the video conference facilities. I found it interesting and could see that it had potential for becoming a more widely used technology. I worked alongside the senior video conference technician and video conference administrator.

How has your role changed over the time you have been with us?

There have been a few significant changes over the years:

  • The growth in video conferencing demand. In 2001 we ran 2200 conferences. Fast forward to 2019 and we were running 22140 conferences. For obvious reasons 2020 saw a significant growth with approximately 92,000 meetings on Webex alone. Add on Microsoft Teams and we will have hosted over 100,000 meetings!
  • The technology has moved on leaps and bounds with better quality audio and video and added features. Two of the main ones that enabled growth were desktop calling and recording of conferences.
  • We are no longer as hands on with scheduling meetings. We used to manually create each meeting the morning of the day it was due to take place.

What are some of your most memorable moments?

  • When we hit 10,000 conferences in a year in 2011. That seemed like such a milestone at the time.
  • Presenting at two online sessions which I would describe as being well outside my comfort zone. In August 2020 I ran a Webex training session to over 180 staff members. I had never presented to as many people before (or since). I also gave a presentation to the Webex community recently about the university and our transition to Webex. The live session reached 17 countries with 43 different organisations represented by 78 attendees.
  • Being lucky enough to have travelled around most of our campus locations throughout the years. The scenery is stunning and we have great staff around the partnership.

What is your proudest moment of working with the university?

Seeing university title granted and becoming the University of the Highlands and Islands. The hard work by many over the years had finally paid off.

Do you think the role of video conferencing has been vital to the development of our university partnership?

For me, it certainly has been one of the key tools in the development of the university partnership. Video conferencing has been used since the early days of getting the university off the ground, through the different phases of our development, to being awarded university title and now continuing through a global pandemic.

Due to our geographic spread, video conferencing will remain a key tool in our development going forward. It may take on a new name and the technology may change, but video will still be at the heart of it. Using a blend of face-to-face teaching and innovative technologies offers students the flexibility to study when and wherever they choose.

Do you think the university partnership is a pioneer in this area?

We were well known for being a pioneer in video conference use and our opinion was respected by other institutions, at conferences and by the equipment vendors. I remember colleagues that had attended or given presentations at conferences saying that the other attendees were always impressed by the sheer volume of video conferencing we did back then.

What do you think the future holds for video conferencing and online meetings?

Video conferencing and online meetings are here to stay – I think that’s safe to safe to say. Conferences and events will offer some form of online capability alongside in-person attendance for a while to come, although I’d expect that to reduce over time.

A couple of possible developments down the line could be 3D video conferencing or virtual reality meetings where attendees will meet in either a virtual representation of a real space or a purely virtual one. There are start-ups and companies already working on this, but whether they come to market time will tell.

For me it’s an exciting technology sector to work in and one I have a real passion for. Also, I finally no longer need to explain what my job is as everyone has been video calling or ‘Zooming’ for the last year or so!

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