Online Conference: A Participant's Perspective
Do you attend conferences? If so, I'm sure you have experienced a number of barriers like traveling to a distant location, struggling with your schedule and managing your budget. Is there a way to avoid these difficulties? Yes, go online! Attend an online conference!
Professionals go to conferences to present new ideas, to exchange information and to keep pace with the latest developments of the field. Although conferences are an important forum for professional development, there are barriers to attending conferences, for example, distance, time and cost. However, the Internet, one of the greatest human inventions, brings another type of conference to our desktop: the online conference. Online in cyberspace, busy professionals can attend conferences without having to endure those common barriers.
Recently, I participated in an online conference entitled "Trends and Issues in Online Instruction." Here I will share my experience and offer some insights about online conferences from a participant's perspective.
History of Online Conferences
The online conference or virtual conference is "a professional education conference - with some changes in the technology that supports interaction and communication" (Anderson 1996). To be more specific, I would define the online conference as one organized and attended exclusively through the Internet.
The online conference has a rather brief history. Consequently, there is scarcely any literature documenting this topic. The International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) organized the first international online conference in 1992. The results of this experimental project were encouraging. "This project showed that electronic networking can provide cost-effective, yet meaningful, interaction among distance education professionals" (Anderson 1993, 15). Since then, other organizations have sponsored numerous online conferences. Nevertheless, these conferences have rarely been documented in print.
Earlier online conferences were entirely e-mail based because of the limitation of network capabilities. Anderson and Mason (1993) described the technical set-up of the first international online conference as follows: "A central mail distribution list was established at the University of Calgary in Canada. All conference messages were posted to this central list, from which they were fed to approximately twenty-five different networks or mail discussion lists for further distribution" (p. 6).
The rapid development of computer network technology has since offered online conferences a larger pool of delivery tools. For instance, the ICDE 95 online conference used MOOs (Multi-User Dimension/Dungeon Object Oriented) to provide participants real time interaction. Later conferences included real time audio, video broadcasting and the World Wide Web.
The online conference I attended was hosted in Hawaii, with perhaps as many as 1,700 participants and 60 presenters from all over the world. The presentations covered a variety of topics: "Planning For Online Instruction," "Facilitating Online Instruction," "Evaluating Online Instruction," "Internet Across the Discipline," "Internet and Distance Education," "Conducting Online Research" and "Online Rhetoric." All the papers were posted on a Web site, together with presenters' photos and brief biographies. E-mail, mailing lists, archives and MOOs were utilized to facilitate interaction between presenters and audience.
Besides attending the conference, participants could experience a virtual tour of Hawaii by going sightseeing, visiting museums, listening to Hawaiian music, shopping or wandering on the campuses of universities and colleges in Hawaii. If their spirit moved them, participants could send electronic postcards to their loved ones. There were a variety of beautiful postcards for them to choose.
Advantages of Online Conferences
Compared to a face-to-face conference, an online conference has the following advantages:
1. Early Access to Conference Papers
Before the conference started, participants could access conference papers through Web sites. All the papers were downloadable. Participants could print the papers out and read them where and when convenient to them without being constrained to computer screens. In contrast, most face-to-face conferences do not have proceedings available until two or three months after the conference. All the information participants can read is a brief description of each presentation in conference programs. Easy and early access to conference papers allows participants time to read and reflect on the content of the papers, thus preparing them for more meaningful interaction with presenters.
2. Participants Have More Control
Participants of a face-to-face conference always wonder what he/she missed in concurrent presentations since one cannot physically be in two presentation rooms at the same time. We managed to handle the situation by asking somebody we know (if you are lucky to have one available) to "grab a handout for me because I cannot be there." Worse, if you find the presentation d'es not meet your expectations, it is embarrassing to leave. Even if you decide to leave to attend another presentation, you already have lost 5-10 minutes of that presentation. Usually, conference presentations last from 20 to 25 minutes. How much could you still hope to learn from a 10-15 minute presentation?
Participants have more freedom and control at online conferences. They can attend as many presentations as they want without worrying about missing other presentations. They can leave a presentation at any time or for any reasons; run an errand, visit the bathroom and get a beverage. They can always come back to catch up from where they left.
3. Increased Interaction
Presenters at face-to-face conferences are usually given 20-25 minutes to present their papers with just about 5 minutes for the audience to ask questions, thus severely limiting the interaction between presenters and the audience. Online conferences utilize a variety of communication modes to promote interaction between presenters and participants. Participants can interact directly with individual presenters by sending comments via e-mail. The interaction also occurs between the members of the audience. Participants can interact with each other by joining in mailing lists or attending MOO sessions.
It is also possible to catch up with group interaction, since all the e-mail messages, mailing list discussions and MOO communication are archived. If one did not join in a mailing list early enough or misses a MOO session, one can trace group interaction by accessing the archives. Interaction between presenters and participants can also extend beyond conference time. Even after the conference is officially closed, participants can continue their discussions over the network.
Since interaction at online conferences takes the form of written communication, participants can take more time to compose responses. English-as-a-Second-Language and shy members of the audience can especially benefit from this type of interaction.
Think of all the time and trouble we take to attend a face-to-face conference: the time we spend traveling to a distant conference location (I have to spend 20 hours in a plane to attend a conference in the mainland U. S.), taking shuttle buses, finding a restaurant and rushing from one presentation room to another; the trouble we go through purchasing a plane ticket, booking a hotel room, and packing and unpacking our luggage.
For instance, two years ago, I attended a face-to-face conference that coincided with Valentine's day. All the restaurants were crowded and I waited three hours to get my dinner served. Online conferences eliminate these problems. Everything is available at our fingertips. While browsing conference presentations to my heart's content, I felt quite cozy sitting at home comfortably in my armchair with a cup of tea in my hand.
Generally, it is expensive to go to a conference. Participants have to pay for transportation, hotel, meals, registration fees and conference proceedings. Lucky ones can get financial support from their universities and institutions to cover expenses. Unlucky ones are left on their own to pay the cost. My university covers 75% of the cost for only one conference per academic year. You have to pay out of your own pocket to go to more conferences. Cost is one of the factors that prohibit most professionals from attending as many conferences as they need.
On the contrary, I did not pay a penny for the online conference I attended. Registration was free, although there might be a $10-30 registration fee next year. Even so, the cost of an online conference is nearly nothing compared with that of a face-to-face conference.
6. Online Conferences Do Not Interrupt Routine Work
While away attending a face-to-face conference, I have to find somebody to cover my classes. I offer three different courses each semester and need to find more than one substitute teacher. This is always difficult since my colleagues all have full work loads. Even when somebody agrees to substitute for me, I cannot help feeling guilty to have burdened my colleagues and left my students behind. Face-to-face conferences always put me behind my schedule. I need to work twice as hard to catch up.
An online conference d'es not pull participants physically away from their work. It d'es not interrupt one's routine working schedule. Actually, while participating in this online conference, I was teaching and attending another local conference at the same time.
Suggestions for Future Improvements
This online conference provided me with an exciting experience. However, online conferences are a new forum, thus leaving much room for improvement. Based on my experience, I would recommend that future online conferences consider all of the following:
1. Longer Conference Time
The online conference I attended lasted three days. This was too short. Some participants complained that they did not have enough time to read papers or respond to e-mail messages. Participants were working full time while attending the conference. With busy working schedules, it was impossible for participants to devote all of their time to attending the conference as they would at a face-to-face one. One solution is to extend conference time. Future online conferences should include weekends when most faculty are not teaching. Since participants do not need to worry about paying a large hotel bill, they will lose nothing if they linger in cyberspace. They will only gain.
2. Getting Papers Out Early
All the papers were published on the Web sites three days before this conference started. However, it takes time to review papers. So many wonderful and high quality papers were available that participants needed time to do them justice. It is crucial to have papers ready on Web sites even earlier (perhaps a week or more earlier) to better prepare participants for the conference.
3. Educate Participants on Cyber Communication
Participants need to be educated on how to interact with each other in cyberspace. Since online conferences are deprived of physical cues so essentially attached to face-to-face conferences, participants need to provide a context for their interactions and responses.
I found it difficult to follow discussions if an e-mailer did not specify the topic of the paper he/she commented on because there existed numerous discussions on different topics at the same time. Future online conferences should require participants to make it clear in their responses to whose papers they are reacting.
In MOO sessions, several questions were usually thrown out simultaneously, cutting through each other and leaving no time for presenters to provide answers. To keep the discussion focused, audiences need to allow enough time for one question to be addressed before throwing in new questions. Irrelevant questions and remarks are distracting. Participants should visit a chat room where they can talk freely if they wish to conduct private conversations.
Tips for Participants
Here are some tips for those who plan to attend an online conference:
1. Making a Commitment
Online conferences, like other academic endeavors, require commitment in terms of time and effort. Although online conferences allow flexible and adjustable schedules, you have to make your time available. Online conferences will not generate time for you. Arrange your schedule so that you can "sit" at the conference for a certain amount of time per day. Web sites provide easy access to conference papers, but you have to be the one to read papers, or you will not be able to participate effectively. Even if you decide to just lurk (watch without participating), you will find it difficult to follow comments and debates. Take notes while reading papers, which can be handy when you post questions.
2. Be Prepared
Before the conference starts, spend some time familiarizing yourself with the "virtual" environment. Attend pre-conference workshops if needed. I benefited from the MOO workshop I attended. Keep e-mail addresses of conference staff in case you need to contact them for assistance. Check conference schedules and pay attention to conference announcements. Preparation ensures you the maximum gain from conferences.
3. Be Realistic With Your Time
It is understandable that participants want to gain as much as possible from a conference. Nevertheless, within the limited time, it is impossible to read every paper and be present in every discussion group. At the online conference I attended, some participants subscribed to a dozen discussion groups and complained that they received too many messages. They were not able to catch up and fell behind. Remember that a conference only lasts for several days. So weigh your time and focus on the topics you are most interested in.
4. Keep Other Participants in Mind
Participants can contribute to the quality of online conferences. Participants tend to be self-centered since physical presence is lacking at online conferences. Be aware of each other's existence and be responsible for your behavior. When you e-mail, check to see whether you include necessary information such as the title or the author of the paper so that other participants can follow your comments. Write concisely and clearly. When you MOO, remember anything you type appears on everybody's screen, even though you may think you are only talking privately to one participant. It takes everybody's time to read. Always fill in an evaluation form to give your input, and don't forget to send a thank-you note to conference staff. They deserve a credit for creating an opportunity for your professional development.
The online conference adds a new dimension to professional development and provides a truly international forum for scholarly presentations and discussions. The online conference collapses distance, tears down social and cultural barriers, offers more flexible scheduling and significantly reduces costs.
Online conferences will not obliterate face-to-face conferences. The relationship between the two are complementary rather than competitive. A face-to-face conference can run an online conference in addition to facilitate pre-conference, conference and post-conference activities. The Bangkok project (Anderson 1993, 7) presented a good example of the union of the two: "The electronic conference was designed to provide an introduction to issues that could be further explored in the face-to-face sessions and as a forum for reflection and comment once face-to-face delegates returned home."
An online conference d'es not have to be exclusively online. Online conferences can include some of the features of face-to-face conferences. For example, online conferences can have proceedings published in paper format or CD format, which would be a more reliable resource for scholars and researchers to cite references in a world of constantly changing Web sites.
The online conference has expanded the horizon of the traditional face-to-face conference. Any institution with an Internet infrastructure can sponsor an online conference with practically no cost. Any individual, anywhere in the world with Internet access, can participate in an online conference. I am already considering attending another online conference, not only as a participant, but also as a presenter. It will be another exciting professional experience, and you are invited!
This article originally appeared in the 03/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.