Online Conferences: Why waste a good economic crisis?

From 7th through 14th January, 2010, Beyond Distance will hold its 5th Annual Learning Futures Festival. This year, for the first time, the festival will be completely and only online.

Is it good to have a conference in a completely online format? How can sitting in one’s office in front of a computer monitor, clicking, typing, discussing, watching and listening to something taking place many miles away be preferable to actually traveling to that distant city, booking in for the nights, sitting amongst rows and rows of participants all listening to a single speaker on the podium, standing in a queue for the finger food – to say nothing of the expense? The fact is that online conferences are beginning to look more attractive, especially in these days of economic challenge.

But saving money is not the only benefit. Participants report other benefits, such as: more in-depth, more detailed, and more inclusive discussions; participation from delegates further afield; time flexibility; and having a permanent record of proceedings. Online conferences tend to challenge the sage-on-the-stage model of presentation by offering every delegate more direct access to the speaker as well as to every other delegate – in real time and in his own time.

I had an interesting online conference experience this week. I assisted as my colleague Gabi Witthaus served as a keynote speaker for the National Association of Distance Education and Open Learning in South Africa (NADEOSA) annual conference. (See Gabi’s OTTER project blog post about this.) This conference, while not an online conference, was online for me and Gabi – the conference took place in Pretoria, but Gabi and I were in the Media Zoo at University of Leicester.

Gabi had sent a good-quality video file of her presentation to South African colleagues, using filemail, so as not to disappoint if a live presentation connection to South Africa did not work. It was a good thing Gabi decided on a belt-and-braces approach. The first difficulty was that filemail, though always rock-solid, proved problematic for South African colleagues; in the end they settled for a low-resolution version of the file. The second issue arose with the live question-and-answer session; we tried various conferencing software, but all proved unstable. We had hoped to at least connect via a phone landline, but there was no landline in the auditorium where the keynote was to take place. Finally we settled on Skype – with video in the Media Zoo so that Gabi could be seen and heard in Pretoria, but with sound only in the auditorium so that Gabi could hear, but not see, the delegates.

In the end, the keynote presentation, though not without its difficulties (Skype dropped the call several times but we quickly reconnected), was a great success. We wondered if the audience, simply watching a movie of a presentation, would feel engaged enough. The many in-depth and insightful questions revealed that they had engaged. We were indeed at a very lively and thought-provoking conference with an auditorium full of academics, even though it was only two of us in the Media Zoo with a laptop, thousands of miles away. The fact that we fruitfully participated with colleagues with much less access to technology than we have underlined the need to continue exploring online conferencing in higher education. Please watch this space for upcoming information on our own Beyond Distance Learning Futures Festival Online – and plan to join us!

Terese Bird

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