Remote Conference Participation – a Successful Pilot


Strangely, this is the post that nudged this blog into existence.  A fellow eLearning enthusiast asked if I was going to blog about my recent experience of convening a conference with both a remote speaker and a remote audience and, not having anywhere appropriate to make that post, and realising that I hadn’t started blogging my new(ish) PhD journey, led me here.  So here goes …

I am based in the Centre for Education and Education Technology (CREET) at the Open University, and, early this semester, I volunteered to convene the CREET Work in Progress seminars along with fellow student Joe De Lappe.  To begin with, we kept things pretty simple: just two speakers per event, and only the room, the IT equipment (PC and large screen) and tea and coffee to organise.  The idea is that students practice in a supportive atmosphere for participation at more formal events.  All that has worked very well, and it has been a great way to get to know other students and staff around the university, but this week we really pushed the boat out with a Work in Progress conference.  There was a keynote speaker (our Director of Studies) as well as lunch and a couple of coffee breaks.  The biggest breakthroughs though were with the twin challenges of bringing in a speaker and an audience from remote locations.

First, the speaker.  Theron Muller works in Japan and is doing his PhD part-time, but he wanted to be involved and to make a presentation at the conference.  To add to the interest, Theron runs Linux on his laptop while the Open University software is all Windows based.  We tried out the video-conferencing equipment and MS Lync in advance of the conference without success.  First, we only managed to make an audio (not video) connection to the video-conferencing equipment, and then, when we tried MSLync to MSLync, where the video and projection of Theron’s powerpoint presentation did work, we found the sound quality was very poor.  We weren’t sure about the capability of Skype (which also worked) to share presentations so we settled on google hangouts as our means of connecting. This worked wonderfully though we only used it to carry voice and powerpoint while Theron presented, and voice and Theron via camera during the Q&A session.  At the conference side, we had a marvelous piece of ’round table’ equipment which sat in the middle of the audience horseshoe.  When a member of the audience spoke, one of the six cameras on the device tracked to their face so Theron could see and hear them asking their questions.  I believe the Polycom CTX 5000 is ‘optimised for use with MS Lync’ but it worked just fine with google hangouts.

Next the remote audience.  For this conference we had invited along all the EdD (doctorate in education) students, but, as this is a course usually undertaken by teachers while they work, few of them were able to attend.  We therefore asked our audio-visual unit if they could broadcast the conference live over the internet.  They came in and set up sound equipment and a camera (with cameraman) and  we also had a link on the website where the watching audience could send in questions or comments for the speaker.  This also worked very well indeed.  There were watchers in Europe, Malaysia and the USA and a couple did join in by sending in live questions and comment.  The conference presentations and Q&A sessions were also processed and posted to the website afterwards and can still be viewed by clicking here (scroll down to find two recordings, one for the morning and one the afternoon). It is still possible to send messages in to the speakers via the ‘Post a Questsion or a Comment’ button.

All in all it was a very successful event and the double excitement of bringing in a remote speaker and a remote audience without problems made it really memorable.  This certainly expands the possibilities for interaction at future conferences or seminars here and perhaps I can claim for it some sort of demonstration of the affordances of technology for communicating scholarship.

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