Web-conferences Woes

I’ve not been impressed by three different web-conferences or web-meetings I’ve joined lately. Conferencing tools such as DimiDim and Elluminate have a few problems, but more fundamentally I think the basic structure of these online sessions is flawed. Too much is happening all at once to be useful, that is if I can take the web-conferences I’ve participated in as typical.

In the most recent session, a discussion of Moodle hosted by Classroom 2.0 , there were over 100 participants in a one-hour session. That would give each person about 36 seconds of airtime–not allowing for a reply from the moderator, guests or anyone else in the chat room–if everyone had his or her turn. But, as it turns out, everyone speaks at will. With so many people talking the comments come too fast to sustain meaningful dialogue. The back-channel is distracting to me–it always threatens to hijack the speaker who feels pressure to respond to the comment stream. That was the case for guest speaker Miguel Guhlin, a director of instructional technology in Texas, who several times had to stop what he was saying and ask the moderator if he should answer questions or press on with his points.

This phenomenon–or bad habit–spills over into live conferences. At Northern Voice this year, the audience did not give James Chutter a chance to deliver his controversial talk on “Mash Media Storytelling”, which is what I paid for, and we all lost out as a result. I understand that socially-constructed learning gives the audience more say in what it wants to know. But this sort of expropriation is not dialogue. It says “We aren’t interested in what you have to say. We want to hear what we already believe.” and that undoes any collaboration. Anyway, how can anyone carry on a conversation about what a speaker has said before he or she has said it?

The volume of back-channel chat that goes on during a presentation seems to me to be a measure of the audience’s interest and engagement–but it’s an inverse relationship: I know that at Northern Voice the number of my Tweets went down when I was really interested; and when the speaker was really good I didn’t open my laptop at all.

At the very least, it seems rude to me to be talking when someone else is speaking. It would be wrong if everyone in a lecture hall were talking out loud amongst themselves while the presenter was speaking, don’t you think? That the back-channel talk is silent and online doesn’t materially change this. I take simultaneous

The best online conference I’ve attended was on opening up educational (OUE) featuring John Seely Brown, Toru Iiyoshi and Vijay Kumar and hosted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Participants were asked to listen to the keynotes before the chat room opened. This kept everyone much more focussed during the discussion. And, although the interface was a bit clunky, it threaded conversations so it was much easier to follow the various discussions that evolved.

I can see using web-conferencing in small groups–under 20 participants or so I’d venture; beyond that they get unwieldy. In any case, I’d like to see DimDim, Elluminate and others, find a way to thread conversations in chat rooms. And I’d recommend moderators let their guest speakers say their piece first, before opening up chat.


  1. Reply
    Kevin Micalizzi, Dimdim Web Conferencing March 15, 2009

    Brad-It is possible to disable the public chat for a meeting, but then you lose the meaningful conversation that can accompany/follow the speaker. I like your suggestion of meeting hosts being able to suspend chat when needed, in the same way people mute all attendees in a conference call to allow the speaker to present without interruption. I’ve shared it with our product management team.If there are other ways you feel we can improve, let me know.Thanks.-kKevin Micalizzi, Community ManagerDimdim Web Conferencing e: kevin@dimdim.com twitter: @dimdim facebook: dimdim.com/facebook

  2. Reply
    Beth March 16, 2009

    Hi Brad,Appreciate your comments about the distraction of the back channel. For larger sessions, a moderator who specifically handles the chat can be really helpful, so the speaker can concentrate on presenting.In addition, with Elluminate, you can easily enable/disable chat for any or all participants to better manage traffic during the presentation. However, many participants like the additional “noise,” and I’ve even seen sessions where someone reiterates what the speaker is saying in the chat window.Here’s a recent Elluminate blog entry that includes some other thoughts on the value of the back channel. http://elluminate.edublogs.org/2009/03/05/the-value-of-the-back-channel/Keep on Elluminating!- Beth, Elluminate Goddess of Communication

  3. Reply
    mollybob April 2, 2009

    It sounds like something’s gotten out of hand somewhere! I agree that the role of the moderator is indeed an important one in the situations you’ve mentioned, and that as our level of noise is ever increasing, we need to get better at finding meaning in it. I also like the back channel too and think it has a role, as it always has, it’s just that it’s digital now. I really like hearing the banter on Twitter at conferences, and think it’s not just about gossip, it can also be about people synthesising information, and sharing with those that are absent. I’ve never been at a conference so huge that the audience takes over via the back channel, living in Australia I’m just happy to have someone give us internet access at a conference, and if the speaker has twitter going that’s just great! (and a rarity). Maybe I’ll be fortunate (or unfortunate) enough to see it happen one day. Social learning in action huh?

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