Every year, there are new options for remote conferences, largely due to advances in software. Now web conferencing includes social networking features such as chat boxes (for discussions with participants and the presenter during and after sessions), emoticons (for communicating quick thoughts), and space for a brief biography and a photo in the participant list.
The speaker usually appears in a video early in the talk, long enough to provide face-to-face contact. (Because bandwidth may not be sufficient to support video, audio and data on a computer screen for extended periods, the video is often replaced by a slide presentation or a document while the speaker’s voice continues to be audible throughout, either on computer speakers or over the phone.) Participants can virtually raise their hand to get attention and the microphone from the speaker.
Participants use icons to control such functions as the microphone, the whiteboard (which allows everyone to view and interact on a common surface – marking up a graph or table together, for example), a pointer, drawing tools, and even a door (to inform participants when someone is temporarily stepping out).
Polls and surveys are a common feature. These let the speaker gather and disseminate information quickly, and keep participants engaged. Noreen Kamal, assistant director of technology and innovation for the e-health strategy office at the University of British Columbia, has attended sessions where the presenter puts a map of North America on the screen and asks everyone to use their pointer to say where they’re from, providing an instant demographic, something not possible at a face-to-face conference. She also appreciates the onscreen box that lists participants. “In a face-to-face conference, you could often miss that someone is there because they’re sitting behind you,” she points out.
George Siemens of the Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba has organized events where participants were encouraged to comment using Twitter and to blog using the conference tag: “What we were trying to do, and this is one of the key elements to consider, is permit individuals to interact around information and with each other in a way that they find personally relevant.”