Online Conference Discussions

Increasingly conference organizers are thinking of adding an online discussion to the in-person proceedings. This is a good thing to do and strongly encouraged, since it adds a dimension not possible to achieve with a strictly in-person event. This paper was written in response to a request for advice by the organizers of one such online event, and while it is by no means the last word on the subject, it constitutes a good overview of how you can approach such a project.

The first and foremost thing I would advise concerns the interface. My experience is that forums like this tend to adopt overly complicated interfaces. I would suggest keeping the interface as clean and as simple as possible, something that keeps searching for the discussion to a minimum. Drupal is very popular and widely used, and as you will see, the price is right. Many people have experience with this interface, and it is intuitive to those who are new. Significantly, there are no major barriers to participation, though control can be enabled by requiring a login to participate. Please do not use a proprietary conferencing system, since you are paying money you don't have to and since many such systems require the use of specific operating systems and browsers.

Use of a system like this adds capacities that will be necessary for your discussion. Specifically, you will want to add an RSS feed and email notification of new topics or responses. This allows people to stay up to date without having to remember to visit the web site each day. This also allows people to follow the discussion even though they aren't formally a part of it.

The audience: there may be some resistance to this - but it is important to remember that most discussions, most fora, have an audience consisting of people who are interested but who don't have time or inclination to take part. It should be possible to read the posts without logging in. If the discussion is sufficiently interesting, it will attract a wide readership.

To attract a large base of participants and audience members, it is necessary to advertise. A series of notices should be planned, leading up to the opening of the discussion. Probably these would be coordinated with the general conference notifications, but it should be kept in mind that discussions will attract a different audience than the conference itself. Notices should therefore be sent to major e-mal lists (WWWDEV, WWWEDU, DEOS, ITForum, TRDEV, and others). They should also be sent to major bloggers in the field. Here is a list

The discussion itself should be longer than the conference, and leading up to it. Online discussions typically progress at a slower pace than in-person conferences, because people are distracted by other things and take longer to post replies. A good discussion period (based on my experience with things like Net*Working is about two weeks. Longer, and people lose focus. Shorter, and people are unable to get into the flow. The discussion should lead to the presentations at the conference, and while the conference is on, participants in the discussion should get updates. More on this below.

Discussion should be focused into topics; I have yet to see a viable online event discussion that wasn't led in some way. Good models are provided by ITForum and IFETS (though I don't like their website set-up). Typically, a discussion paper is posted on the site and comments are invited surrounding that paper. The paper's author should be available on a daily basis to add to the discussion, posting responses and sometimes seeding with more commentary. The papers should be invited and vetted; if you have saved money on the discussion list software then this can be used to induce higher profile authors to contribute their work (though many, especially government employees, will require the option to contribute for free).

Though it is not typically necessary to moderate the discussions, a conference moderator should be available just in case. The typical role of the conference moderator will be to provide technical assistance (if the moderator is not technologically astute, have a tech person write those items - the moderator does not need to be a single person, simply a single persona), to introduce the next paper/speaker and place the discussion into context, and perform general housekeeping chores.

One thing IFETS does that is very nice is to have the author summarize the dicussion at various intervals. For one thing, this encourages discussion, since people want to be included in the summary. Additionally, it makes it easier for browsers to get the gist of the discussion without having to read all the posts. In addition, the discussion summaries are often more interesting than the original paper, since they are the result of many voices. It should be noted that a discussion, and hence the summary, may drift from the original objective of the paper. While completely off-topic discussion should be discouraged, it is important to allow the participants to wander. Often an important issue is teased out through the discussion of an apparently unrelated paper.

It is also worth noting that discussion of a particular paper need not be restricted to the discussion forum. As the papers are distributed (since you are using RSS), bloggers may comment on their own blogs. It is worth aggregating these and associating them with the discussion. Drupal has a biolt in aggregator to help with this. The RSS trackback feature (which might not be implemented in Drupal yet) is also a good tool for harvesting comments. For the Merlot conference last August, I wrote a conference-specific harvester. There are many ways to import external discussion to the site, and they are important for allowing people to participate from their own space and using their own tools.

The selection of the papers is important. First, the papers selected must be the sort that can be discussed. Product show-and-tell papers don't really raise many discussion points, nor do narrowly focused surveys or studies (obviously, if the product or survey is controversial, an exception applies). Papers devoted to the study of issues, proposals, and theory are more suited to discussion. The intent of the paper should be to inform as well as agitate - it is to be remembered that conference participants may not be familiar with the background of the matter under discussion. Hence, a good literature survey (with links, not references, since many readers do not have collections of journal articles easily at hand) is essential.

It is also worth remembering that the web is a visual medium. Papers should include diagrams and charts to ease comprehension. Dave Pollard's How to Save the World blog is one of the best examples I can show of a good online writing format. Also see Jay Cross's Internet Time blog (don't put so much on a single page as he does though; it will crash reader browsers).

An open and fluid graphical design is important. Though text is an important component, readers should not be presented with a solid wall of grey. Additionally, the papers should be of reasonable length (though for a formal conference presentation up to 2000 words could be contemplated), the paragraphs short and manageable, and plenty of white space provided to ease reading. Longer papers should have sections for easy identification. It is essential to allow readers to easily cut and paste blocks of text into their responses, so papers should be presented in HTML, not PDF or some other proprietary format.

Since the discussion is associated with the conference, it seems reasonable that conference papers would be selected for discussion. It may therefore be necessary to work with the author ahead of time to prepare the papers for discussion, since the typical conference submission is unsuitable for easy reading on the web. If you can, and if necessary, provide the author with graphical and design support. It may be necessary to remind the author that the online paper is different from the conference presentation, and that readers will need cues, aids, links and diagrams.

During the online discussion, introduce each paper in sequence, one every three days or so (one a day is too short; remember that you are dealing with time differences and that it will take 24 hours to get even the first round of responses). This allows you about five papers for your discussion, so you can pick and choose from the conference submissions (in an important sense, the online conference requires more rigorous selection than the conference itself). Note that discussion of one paper will not end when the new paper is posted (though the formal discussion ends at that point, and the summarization activity ends at that point), so place the more important papers first in the sequence.

When the conference itself takes place, it is most valuable to integrate the online discussion with the conference activities. Visitors to the conference should have easy web access to the online discussion, and the online discussion should be promoted. Even if the creation of new discussion topics was restricted prior to the conference, this should be opened up. As each paper is presented in person, open up a new discussion with access to the paper in HTML format. At the end of the in-person presentation, advertise the existence of the discussion and provide the web address to the online conference home page (where, if you are using Drupal, readers will be able easily to find the paper discussion).

A nice touch would be to make online discussion transcripts available to in-person conference attendees. Distributing these printed versions of the online discussions will enable access to people who do not have a computer and may inform the in-person discussion that takes place. It also reminds people of what they missed by not participating in the online discussion (always plan for next time).

If possible, online participants should be able to view the paper presentations in progress and discuss them as they occur. Hence, support for a streaming video (or at the very least, audio) presentation is recommended. Three major platform options exist here: Windows media, Real Media, or Apple. You can find a good overview of options and requirements at the this streaming media research page.

Live online discussion is also an interesting thing to add (though your speakers may become uncomfortable). Several conferences have experimented with placing a separate video screen in the conference room to allow typed comments via a chat service, instant messenger. If you do this, make sure the text is large enough to be read by audience members. The speaker, as well, should be able to view the comments. This can be done very cheaply - set up an ICQ account, have a computer logged into the account attached to a digital video projector and showing at the side of the room, and allow participants to submit messages either directly through ICQ or on the web through ICQ's web interface. Don't use IRC; most participants won't have a client installed.

After the conference, it is important to preserve the online component, since this will be the best location for access by later researchers. Plan for archiving in advance. The content submission features of Drupal can be turned off and the discussion simply presented as web pages. Links to the streaming media archives can be provided. The ICQ transcript should be captured (ICQ has a text capture and save feature) and added. Each discussion paper in the conference - whether it was part of the online pre-conference discussion or not - can be presented not as a single blob of text, but as a set of resources: audio, video, chat transcript, discussion transcript, and the paper itself. If an official conference publication is produced, include not only the original paper but also the discussion summary provided by te author.

Right now, the online version of a conference is usually an afterthought, something derivative, and typically attended by a small cadre of early adopters. In the future, however, the online component will be most peoples' primary access to conferences. It can be (and should be) free for online participants. Conferences that employ an online component will tend to be much more widely publicized, and will reach a much wider audience. Actual attendance at such conferences will be more in demand, since the overall experience will be of higher quality. And the preservation of discussion and conference archives ensures the lasting impact of the work beyond the individual memories of the participants.

More Advice

E-Discussion Toolkit Good overview resource outlining the major steps involved in hosting an online discussion. Each step is described, with additional resources offered. Navigation is at the top of the page, so you'll have to scroll back up to find the next page.

The Moderators Homepage "This page is a growing set of resources for moderators and moderators-to-be of online discussion in both academic and non-academic settings. Where possible I have linked to the full text of articles, and provided abstracts on this page. As this is part of my dissertation research, I would very much appreciate your suggestions for additions to these listings. The topics of "computer conferencing" and on-line teaching are closely allied, so I am including references in those fields, too."

Online Collaboration and Exchanged Consistently good commentary and references to tools and advice by Robin Good.

If You Build It, They Will Come. "In compiling this article both authors reviewed material addressing current practices in assessing student participation in the online classroom. Careful attention was given to information related to the construction of threaded discussions as well as insight into the concerns that a facilitator may have when determining the value of threaded discussions within his/her online course."

Creating a Connected Community? Teachers' Use of an Electronic Discussion Group Looks at the use of online discussion forums in professional environments and in particular at the development and use of the a Special Needs Coordinators (SENCo) Forum in the U.K. Discusses the use of the forum as an information exchange, the forum as a "virtual respite" and using the forum to create a sense of community. That said, the study accurately captures the a weakness of many discussion groups designed for education.

The Threads of Conversation People who moderate online discussions and chats would do well to look at this article. Its key insight is that web discussions are what it calls 'hyper-threaded' - multiple threads emerge, get tangled, and rise and fall and rise again through time.


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