More on online conferencing

July 10th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Yesterday we held the first of a series of online conferences for the Jisc SSBR project which supports the 40 odd projects presently being funded under the Jisc Institutional Innovation programme.

We gad about 70 attending the confernce which used Elluminate as the main platform. I have organised and participated in a lot of on-line events over the past 18 months and though we have much experience in organising such events by now we are still, I think, in a learning curve. Therefore it is worth a  few reflections on what works, what doesn’t and what might be improved.

First something (short) about my main role in the event. We ‘wrapped’ the conference in an internet radio show, broadcasting before the conference opened, at the coffee, lunch and tea breaks and with a  follow up evening programme. the daytime broadcasts were also streamed into Elluminate and we continued on internet radio in the morning to allow those not registered for the conference to listen to John Cook’s keynote speech on ‘Surfing the Moble Wave’ (podcast available here shortly). I think this worked well. To get the stream into Elluminate is easy – we merely hijacked the feed as a microphone in Elluminate. Although the sound quality in Elluminate is not great, from what people tell me the radio provided continuity to the conference.

In the main event the presentations went well. we are well rehearsed in organising and moderating these by now. The one thing we were most nervous about was moving people into breakout groups in the afternoon. Somewhat surprisingly this worked well at a technical level. However people felt that these sessions were too short. And one session in the morning where we invited people to give short reports to the whole room was not so successful. Overtly the problem was technical, with sound breaking up and poor quality audio at other times. I am not quite sure what the problem was. It may be lack of bandwidth from participants although elluminate claims to work on low bandwidth. More likely I suspect, was poor quality headsets. The quality of the microphone seems to make a huge difference for online presenters. I also think that 70 is too many people to organise a high degree of interaction in online events. Merely managing so many provides problems. If we want to organise interaction, participation and discussion in large online conferences, it is probably better to divide into groups with feedback in short plenaries.

As always in such conferences when technical problems occur, people were extolling the virtue of various different platforms. I am unconvinced that any are better than Elluminate. However some rethinking of the user interfaces would be helpful. especially to make groups management easier (allowing people to move themselves int0 a group would be good – anyone listening at Elluminate? – and also a larger chat box).

At the end of the day, organising and managing online confernces is not that different form face to face events. But there are some significant differences and we still need to keep thinking how we can best facilaite interaction in online events.

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