Videoconferencing in South Dakota

Jennifer Yopp


Finding time for training is difficult when a workforce is stretched thin, and the challenges are even greater in rural areas or for small agencies with limited staff. For agencies like this, attending a training often means traveling long distances and staying overnight. In agencies with small staffs, mandatory trainings may shut down an entire office for a day or more. In-person trainings take staff away from their jobs and impose significant travel costs and possible downtime on agencies.

These challenges face many courts in South Dakota. The state has a unified court system—policy, guidance, and resources are set at the state level by the State Court Administrator’s Office (SCAO). The agency also delivers training for court staff statewide, oversees funding for courts, and provides IT support to South Dakota’s 66 counties. Reaching staff, providing and tracking participation in mandatory trainings, and providing opportunities for networking and discussion with peers statewide have presented challenges to the SCAO because of the rural nature of much of the state.

To address these challenges, the SCAO began providing remote training via videoconference in 2006. Videoconferencing solutions enable staff to receive training remotely, without leaving the office, or even their desks. Typical videoconference trainings involve attendees in different locations participating in a conference remotely using software with audio and video links. Special videoconferencing products tailored for trainings (as opposed to simpler online meetings) are available. Prior to the videoconferencing, trainings were held regionally, or participants traveled to the capitol, Pierre.

Technology and operations solutions

The SCAO currently conducts remote trainings every two to three weeks. Most videoconferencing systems work in a similar fashion. An email announces the training and contains a link allowing users to register for the event. Upon registering, a calendar invitation and a registration confirmation email are sent; both usually contain the link and instructions for joining the meeting via either computer or phone.

The confirmation email often contains a link that users can click for the system to profile their computer’s audiovisual capability to ensure it will support the videoconference. If they cannot connect properly, the user is prompted to download software to support a connection. If this software confirmation is not done in advance, it will be done when user attempts to join the meeting. Once a user system has installed the required software updates or plug-ins, they can join the meeting.

Once participants join the training either online or by phone, the system captures their name on an attendance roster. For the South Dakota court system, the roster documents participation in mandatory trainings, allowing staff to demonstrate that they have fulfilled their legislative training requirements. The system is used for both mandatory and non-mandatory training, with no limit on participation.

The SCAO delivers their trainings live with audience participation, ensuring that the same message is delivered to everyone and that all participants have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion and hear others’ questions. This means that feedback on how top-down decisions affect judges, clerks, and judicial staff is heard live by all participants and the facilitator.

Trainings generally last 60 to 90 minutes. Each training session is recorded and multiple trainings may be provided on the same topic to allow staff to participate at a time that is best for their schedules. The best session from each training topic is then posted on the intranet, along with a frequently asked questions (FAQ) list. Viewing these recordings is considered equivalent to participating in the live training.

Appreciating the limitations of videoconferencing--such as not being beneficial for topics that require more than 60 minutes, reducing the opportunities for networking with peers and colleagues, allowing onsite distractions (phones ringing, answering emails, dealing with customers, etc.), and for some, decreasing participation in discussions--the SCAO continues to bring its judges together twice a year for in-person training. Other staff (clerks of court, probation officers and administrators) meet once a year. The face-to-face interaction is important, and complements the more time-sensitive trainings that are delivered via videoconferencing.

Outcomes and advice
From the SCAO's perspective, adopting videoconferencing technology has been fairly straightforward—no policy or legal changes were necessary, and technical issues have been very minor. The IT Department provides participants with general instruction on the system, if needed.

The greatest challenge for trainers and participants was getting used to giving and receiving training via videoconference. The presenters reported feeling awkward presenting at first; and the audience had to adjust to receiving trainings online--getting comfortable with contributing to discussions and asking questions online. However, the SCAO committed to using the system frequently enough (e.g., every several weeks as opposed to once a year) that users have become familiar with it as a technology and training platform and have integrated it into their day-to-day jobs.

The use of videoconferencing has provided a number of benefits for the SCAO and court staffs, especially those in small and rural courts. Participants quickly discovered that the technology allows them to attend the training in a setting that suits their learning style: the staff from some courts sit together in a conference room for the trainings; others prefer to sit at their desks and participate on their own.

The remote training approach has made training on a broader range of topics more readily available to a greater range of participants, and with less impact on state court operations. Staff in small and rural courts are able to participate in more trainings than before remote training began. Remote training also supports courts' operational and logistics needs (e.g., providing timely training, reducing travel burdens). Finally, the interactive nature of the trainings enables participants to ask questions and voice their concerns and issues to both trainers and their peers

At the state level, the real-time feedback from staff across South Dakota on different topics is important information for the SCAO to have when crafting policy and future trainings. In addition, the discussion and question and answer (Q&A) opportunities during these trainings have built credibility and rapport between South Dakota court staff and the SCAO, because more SCAO staff can participate in the training, whereas with regional training only a limited number of staff were present at the training.

SCAO chose the Cisco WebEx Training Center because several of its staff members had used it in other, non-SCAO trainings and had positive experiences with the product (a web-based communications platform). In addition, after investigating the product's capabilities, the IT Department was comfortable with the technology and service it provided.

For further information: Denise Wilson, Judicial Branch Educator,