The infrastructure that supports virtual conferences has expanded and improved enormously since the mid-1990s. More than 100 companies now offer programs to deliver online and video conferences, according to research compiled by Athabasca University graduate student Lynn Anderson (no relation to her thesis adviser, professor Terry Anderson).
Adobe, WebEx, NetMeeting, and Calgary-based Elluminate are among the better-known commercial providers. Free software is available, but commercial providers are more likely to offer reliable technical support, cautions Bobby Hobgood, director of research and development in online curriculum at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Though you needn’t be a techno-geek to host, attend or present at a virtual conference, those familiar with the events say that readily available support is crucial.
The conference organizing industry is beginning to climb on the virtual bandwagon. For a fee, companies such as Consultants-E, the U.K.-based Direct Learn Online Conferencing, iCohere and LearningTimes will handle everything from a call for papers to technical support.
Nuts and bolts about virtual conferences
Lynn Anderson, a graduate student at Athabasca University, has compiled a list of websites that list (and in some cases evaluate) different virtual-conferencing platforms. Some sites offer professional consulting services to help organizations choose online conferencing software. These are:
- e-Learning Centre
Video conferences require hardware to display the video and software. Online conferences require only software because participants provide their own hardware (a computer).
Prices vary depending on the features offered. For example, for $299, you can buy 25 “seats” in a virtual room from Elluminate for one year. The “seats” can be used for conferences, distance learning, meetings or seminars. If the host venue has use of technology to project a computer screen onto a large screen, far more people will be able to participate, because even though they’re technically in the online session as one “connection” or seat, they all benefit from the video, audio and collaborative features.
Sorting out the lingo
Here are some terms you’re likely to encounter while attending, hosting or presenting at a virtual conference:
Synchronous: Participants watch at the same time that the speaker is actually speaking.
Asynchronous: Sessions are recorded so participants can log in and watch at their convenience.
Real time: Same as synchronous
Moodle: An open source learning management system that allows participants to engage in conversations, but without all the social networking functions found in a site such as Facebook.
Ning: A social-networking site room similar to Facebook but where attendance can be restricted, for example only to those registered for the online conference.
Conference tag: A short and unique identifier (for example CNIE2009) that can be used as a keyword in blogs, Twitter and other web communication tools. The tags allow others following the conference to search and select contributions from other participants.