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Organising online meetings

February 10th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

Comments and informal discussions about my past post on virtual classrooms and online simultaneous meeting platforms seem to confirm my feelings. Adobe Connect is seen as very good, but also very expensive. Elluminate is also pretty good, but also costs money. DimDim and other Flash based systems are trying – but the audio is extremely unreliable. I was interested to see today that Scribblar is adding skype support to its platform – although at the moment only for one to one communication.

For meetings, I still think FlashMeeting, free and supported by the UK Open University, is the best of the bunch. The design does not really scale for large groups, neither is the feature set particularly extensive. But it is adequate and functional for project meetings.

Last week we were asked if we could support a board meeting of VETNET, the vocational education and training network of the European Educational Research Association (EERA). With little funding not all the members could afford to travel to a meeting in Germany. Around seven would be present face to face, but would it be possible to link in with four more members online?

Of course there are wonderful video conferencing suites which make this very easy. But once more they cost money. How could this be done on the cheap?

We used FlashMeeting. The remote participants simply logged in as usual from their computers using headphones for audio. All but one also has a webcam. In the face to face meeting we used a video camera with a gun microphone and projected the Flash meeting with a data projector onto a screen.

At first everyone was a bit concious of the technology and we made a few mistakes with people speaking when the microphone feed form the camera was not being broadcast into online meeting. But soon people seemed to forget the technology and the meeting was highly productive.

For Angelika Wegscheider, the EERA Administrator / Geschäftsführung from the European Educational Research Association and based in Berlin, it was the first time wshe had taken part in such a meeting. Afterwards she commented: “I would also like to thank your for having me virtually in your board meeting. Two reflections on this: I found it fascinating how much I felt to actually “be” in the meeting. I did most of the previous skype and online meetings without a camera and was surprised what value was offered when almost everybody is using a camera.

What I felt a bit difficult – and this might be lack of experience with meetings like that – is the following: if you speak as a virtual participant you see the same picture as all others – which is you yourself. I a way this is irritating, because you do not reactions of others on what you said. You have no means to check if people got your point. On telephone the second signals understanding with small words, in face to face you have body language in addition. Having none of both, mislead me in talking longer and explaining more than was probably necessary ….”

Angelica’s feedback is interesting. Not only do we need better technology, but we also have to look at how we can organise such meetings to overcome some of the social limitations of online meeting software,

4 Responses to “Organising online meetings”

  1. Martin Owen says:

    Grahma, there is an obsession here with the need to services to be free (ie apparent zero cost). People have to live- and that includes people who work for software houses…. but that is by the by.

    The affordances required to have of multi-way synchronous communication have by and large been down to the ingenuity and good manners of participants. In the primitive days of 1992 cloeeagues in Wales taught across 4 schools using audio-graphics techniques. There was voice communication coupled by what people these days would think was a whiteboard in each location (in reality a big telly and a graphics pad). Very soon you need to be able to put your hand up (hopefully to ask questions – but sometime to answer them). You invent a protocol.
    4 sites 4 corners. Each location can put a mark in their designated corner indicating they want to interject…. if the corners are clear you cna put a “1” to indicate you aare first… “2” for second….
    Later 6 channel isdn was used and video was introduced – so now you can use flags etc….
    It does not take much imagingation to show how you could flag different requirements. Practice merges and develops and sometimes gets instantiated in the technology. ( I remember an isdn system supported by a Finnish company Xenex OY- who still seem to be in the business http://www.xenex.fi/?ID=3&LANG=1) – who were “sort of” partners in REM an Telematics and Education Project.
    Many practices were developed under 3rd and 4th Framework EU R & D programmes. Millions in grants were awarded, They were written up and reported. Papers were given at CSCW and CSCL conferences. Who is reading it? I read, and sometimes review current literature which may brand theselves social media or web 2.0 who have no sense that CSCW or CSCL ever had a literature or thought or practices.

    Maybe for followers of Pont Y Dysgu a good place to start is the practices developed in the South Wales Valleys in 1995 http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/programmes/jtap/jtap-035.pdf

  2. Chris says:

    Angelica’s comments are dead-on. As we migrated to virtual meetings using phones and online meeting tools the information content of the meetings decreased precipitously. Visual and verbal queues, impossible to see or very difficult to interpret on a poor quality phone lines, means that we now only get a small percentage of the information we use to get in person-to-person meetings. Video, as Angelica noticed, helps greatly but I think we need to couple video (which even when perfect is imperfect) with new online meeting tools. This can include means of real-time conversations, support back-channel meetings (Twitter?), etc. Once we blend new technologies or ideas with video is when we’ll get back to the information rich meetings we used to have, and hopefully even surpass them.

  3. Glen says:

    I’ve used Flashmeeting and it was great. I also recently tried out the new Skype based product called VuRoom. It looks great but not free.

    I recommend that you check out the open source webinar project Big Blue Button. http://bigbluebutton.org/ The operation is similar to Elluminate, the quality is excellent and the price (free) is right.

  4. laura says:

    For web conferences you should try http://www.showdocument.com ,
    Great for online teaching and collaborating. I use it for working on my designs with other in my field.
    Its free and pretty simple – you just upload your file and invite others to view it together.
    – Laura W.

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