TAO/Web conferencing

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Web conferencing may be a way to enable exchange and discussion within your community or organization wherever or whenever real-life meetings are not possible. Furthermore and according to the focus of this handbook a web conference may also be of special interest for elderly people for whom leaving their homes may have become more laborious or impeded.

Compared with e.g. telephony web conferencing software potentially benefits from providing different properties and additional features, besides the commonly expected video transmission. As the channels that enable remote participants to communicate can hardly avoid to limit the familiar and manifold range of immanent human interaction there may be features incorporated in a conferencing software to compensate for this. Furthermore features that reach beyond this scope of compensation gradually extend such solutions to more or less enriched “working environments” which often aim to support a specific purpose. In the field of education there are for example two classes of solutions, which will be described in the subsequent chapters: virtual classrooms and even more comprehensive e-learning environments.

The topic's title “web conference” was chosen to discriminate or respectively define its focus within the long range of solutions that exist to enable remote communication: from traditional telephony (which enabled primarily only one-to-one, simultaneous transmission of audio) via videoconferences for two or multiple participants (which actually only adds a video channel to the previous category) up to before mentioned virtual working environments.

How-to: organize and carry out a web conferenceEdit

This section gives the most important directions for carrying out an web conference. Of course the process is actually the same as it should be for every real-life meeting. However the participants will probably be more content (and therefore there may be a better outcome) if you take some care of the specifics that are brought in by the technology used (especially software).

Besides the participants there are commonly two more roles to be aware of. They can be defined as follows:

  • A host who provides and administers the software or service that is used, who takes care of the accounts and respective privileges that the participants will need etc. She or he is mainly concerned with technical aspects.
  • A moderator who manages the actual meeting. This role is identical with the real-life representation but the moderator should be very experienced in the use of the conferencing software.

Whoever is put in charge of these tasks may execute them according to this list:

  • Invitation: containing at least date and “place” of the meeting. Often the place, i.e. virtual meeting room, is provided via a link by which the meeting can be joined. Depending on the experience of the participants a short guide on how to join should be included or linked. Also it is helpful to mention how far in advance the meeting room will be accessible, so everyone has enough time to check if his software and equipment is functional some minutes in advance of the appointed start.
  • “Testing“: generally it is very recommendable to provide a possibility with which every participant may try out the web conference and get accustomed to it by himself at any given time. “Getting ones hands dirty“ in such a demo meeting is possibly the best way to get comfortable with the respective software, often better than an exhausting manual. If some participants did not use the solution in earlier meetings it is nearly indispensable to provide a demo meeting as everyone will need to check his or her setup. How to access a demo meeting should also be mentioned in the invitation. And maybe there is also someone to turn to for support.
  • Backup plan: eventually it is wise to prepare an alternative (like a telephone conference) and communicate the respective proceedings to come into action in the unfortunate case that something goes completely wrong.
  • Meeting: Have the needed materials (documents, presentations) ready, manage the available tools to support the course of the meeting, check if someone seems to have troubles and misses contributions of others, inform everyone if the meeting is recorded and eventually will be published etc. If possible provide an alternative channel of communication (like a phone) to communicate problems.
  • Follow-up: deliver or publish the meeting's documentation, take care of problems that occured, plan the next meeting.

Software properties: guidelines for deciding on the solution you need or want to implementEdit

In the following we compiled some common properties and categories to help you in examining and deciding on the software that may meet your needs best.

On behalf of participating in the meetingEdit

  • Managing the meeting
    • Is there a need to assign different roles (moderator, main speaker, guest, …) to the participants?
    • Shall discussion supporting features be included? Think of virtual hand signals, emoticons expressing everyone's current opinion or a list of speakers.
  • Audio and Video
    • Is sending video optional for every participant? (“Is it possible that a participant who is not able to send video joins the meeting?”)
    • What quality does the transmitted material need to have? Is low resolution video and audio enough as everyone uses his own laptop and will have lots of small video windows of every participant on his screen or will you show the meeting in a large room projected with a high resolution projector.
    • Will you use the meeting software to connect single participants or multiple meeting rooms in which more than one participant sitting around a table will be present? In the last case special audio equipment will be needed.
  • Tools and Technology
    • Shall the participants be able to chat within the meeting? It is often a great opportunity to be able to communicate without interfering with the current speaker or to have the possibility to exchange small hints or links.
    • Is simultaneous translation possible, e.g. via sign language or captions? Maybe your target group has characteristics that require such or will massively benefit from it.
    • Shall a user be able to use every application installed on his PC into the meeting (often refferred to as “desktop sharing”)? Shall the others be able to control his application using their keyboard and mouse?
    • Is collective work on documents needed? What kind of documents do you think of? Plain or formatted text, presentations, spread sheets, graphics?
    • Do the users need to exchange files during the meeting?
    • What about methods like brainstorming, mind maps or votes?
  • Documentation
    • Do you want to assist documentation during the meeting? By the means of taking notes or recording everything or just the audio?
    • Do you want to playback the meeting, e.g. via a video file or a podcast published automatically published on a website.

Challenges on the provider's sideEdit

  • Exact requirements – What is needed to run the web conferencing solution?
    • Webcam, headset, personal computer? Or any more specialized devices? (See above section “Requirements: participants”).
    • What are the hardware requirements? (Buzzwords: CPU, RAM, …)
    • What are the software and operating system requirements? Especially:
      • Is it web based?
        • Browser-only: What browser variant (Firefox, Chrome, Internetexplorer, …)? All versions or only current (or even outdated) ones?
        • Browser-plugin: Is a specific or general browser plug-in required? (application specific or a general one like Flash)?
      • … or a stand-alone application?
        • What operating system is needed? Is it cross-platform?
        • How easy is the installation process?
The last two items are crucial regarding the acceptance among your users. They determine if all members of your community will be able to use the personal computer they already own or have access to, at their homes, whatever system and additional software they have already installed or are able to install.
  • Infrastructure – Will a client-server scheme be possible (Do you have the means to provide a server installation?) Or will a P2P approach suit you more?
  • Cost
    • Is there a licensing scheme for your purposes? Are there charges on every installation? Every use? Every participant? Etc.
    • Has every user to pay for using the service or shall only the providing organization bear the cost? Or are only free alternatives coming into question?
    • Is there a service which is already provided and your organization can access? Maybe for free?
You should investigate on this question very carefully as there are often lots of services already provided for free either in the educational sector or for people working in volunteering projects.
  • Support and development
    • Can you get “professional” support if you are running into problems? Maybe even by the producer? Who might also guarantee some minimum results?
    • If you're not satisfied with or are not able to fulfill all the requirements you specified:
      • Is there active development? Maybe a road map that points out what you are missing?
      • Are you able to extend your solution with other software eventually created by yourself?

ConclusionEdit

As there will be no overall solution, it is recommended to first triage the above properties according to your requirements. E.g. in three categories like must-have, nice to have and not needed. And then go on filling in the properties of the software that is available and in your focus.