Thursday, February 24, 2011

Staying Home for an Online Conference

It was chilly today so I didn't feel like getting out of bed to attend the conference I registered for. So I didn't. I just turned on my computer and laid back in cozy warmness. Yes, the Internet has truly allowed me to not only stay in my pajamas while working, but now to not even get out of bed. Most enjoyable conference experience ever.

I attended the Handheld Librarian Online Conference today. As someone noted on Twitter, the title sounds like a diminutive librarian that we can hold in our hand. Sounds like the plot for an educational show with a bun-haired, straight-laced reference librarian magically appearing on kids’ hands when they need to find important information. Well, with current mobile and Internet technology there may not be such a need for real life experts, Lilliputian or otherwise.

This is the second librarian conference I've attended this month and ever (see my post on the Ontario Library Association conference). It's also my first ever online conference. I've attended webinars and webconferencing discussions before, but nothing that billed itself as a virtual conference. Aside from not having to leave one's house on a cold Canadian morning or occurring horrific travel costs and jet lag, I was curious if online conferences had other benefits.

Rather than cover the key take-away messages from the conference, which one can get from the Twitter feed, I'm more interested in the structure and issues of an online conference.

Adobe Connect
The webconferencing system used was Adobe Connect. I've been investigating Adobe Connect recently for an online training session I'm hosting. It is web-based software that allows live and canned:
  • presentation and screen sharing
  • text-based Q&A
  • text-based chats
  • interactive polls
  • audio or video integration
The presenters at the Handheld Librarian conference generally made good use of all these features. Someone told me that playing a video via Adobe Connect can crash the system, but this didn't happen. The polls used were a fun way to solicit audience feedback, but weren't used to shape the direction of a presentation which would be preferable (if daunting for presenters).

There are always technical challenges and other obstacles with real-life (RL) conferences (like presentations that won’t load, microphones that don’t work, overcrowded rooms, horrid caterers, etc.). So glitches are to be expected. Registration didn’t work seamlessly for me and others – but I got access at the last minute. The conferencing system worked quite well. There were occasional audio quality issues – blips and cut-outs – but for two days of conferences it worked most of the time.

I wasn't fond of how the conference organizers structured the accompanying text chats. Adobe Connect allows a text chat window for Q&A and one for general chat. Often the amount of chat for an event like this can be onerous so distinguishing genuine questions from commentary or banter is difficult for the audience let alone presenters. Separating these by window would help.
As would using Adobe Connect's features to distinguish the type of comment and to direct messages – but these features weren't consistently enabled.

I was mystified by Adobe Connect’s various “status options” (i.e. emoticons) feature. It seemed perpetually set at “Raise Hand” and even when I clicked on “Laughter”, “Applause,” or “Agree” (they also have options for speed, volume, etc.) nothing seemed to happen.

In addition to the live web conference each session had an associated discussion area. Only two comments were posted, however. For some reasons none of the keynotes had a discussion board – this is odd as they naturally attract more attention and interest. Discussions might also have been fostered more if they were seeded with 1-2 topics arising from the session. Or the presenters could be asked to answer questions posted there for a set time afterwards. These discussion boards are a great idea though as they are unique to the Web medium and a great way to encourage and extend further and deeper discussion (in theory).

The reduced costs for hosting an online event were reflected in the very reasonable conference fee. Normally the multiple hundred dollars registration fees of most RL conferences are a huge barrier. Travel costs and time constraints of international conferences also prevent me from attending many that I would like to. The online format allowed me to afford attending and balance personal obligations. I'm looking forward to the sessions that I had to miss being archived and posted.

The online conference format also allowed me to multitask. The benefit of a constant access to a computer and Internet connection (something lacking more often than not) meant that I was able to follow up on leads mentioned by presenters. I was able to instantly investigate if an online tool mentioned was suitable or to google unfamiliar terms and concepts (I hadn’t heard of JPEG 2000 until today). I also got non-conference related work done too (dishes done during the lunch break, for example).

Perhaps because I was on my computer for the entire time, I was able to use Twitter much more effectively than at RL conferences. The conference was very supportive of the backchannel conversations both during the sessions (via the accompanying chat windows) and promoting the Twitter hashtag. (The Twitter feed was integrated on the homepage, but I believe it had to be removed as the volume crashed the site). The backchannel conversations can be the most valuable part of a conference, so it was good to be able to fully benefit from them.

It seems standard nowadays for every conference, particularly ones relating to the Internet or digital media, to promote and integrate the event with Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter. The Handheld Librarian conference didn’t do this as I would have liked, but they did offer a discussion area for participant introductions. This page has a lot of posts so I think it demonstrates the value of online conference networking. Considering that an online conference lacks some of the ways to meet and get to know fellow participants of RL, these techniques are more important. The conference did offer two online “Happy Hour” sessions. I wasn’t able to attend, but it sounds like a cool way to facilitate discussion and networking.

Overall, it was an excellent conference experience. The speakers were really good and the topics interesting. The online format has distinct advantages, as mentioned. With a few glitches resolved and more support for fostering online discussion, I would be happy to attend all future conferences this way.

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