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May 14, 2008

Symposium thoughts

Some brief thoughts on the symposium which happened last Thursday...

Overall, it seemed to go well I think, with relatively few hiccups.  We had one near miss - a Mac which decided not to work 5 minutes before its owner was due to go on stage.  Oh, and the air-conditioning at the venue, which appeared to be totally broken.  Other than that, things went pretty smoothly.  Note that we've still got to read thru the evaluation forms in detail, so it may be that I've got this all wrong and people hated it! :-)

The talks seemed to be well received and I'm grateful to all the speakers for turning up and doing their stuff.  One of the problems with both chairing and getting involved in the technical side of the event (which I love doing) is that I find it very difficult to concentrate on what the speakers are talking about.  It's also difficult to do any real socialising :-(  We're currently waiting for the media from our streaming company to turn up at which point I'll watch all the talks again.  We expect this to be available via the Web site by Friday this week.

Photos from the event are available in the following video:

Alternatively, if you prefer your photos in a more static form, look on Flickr.

We had 180 delegates registered for the day.  For one reason or another about 25 of those were unable to make it, though some sent replacements in their place.  This is understandable - given illness, travel problems and so on - though somewhat frustrating.  With the delegate day rate we were paying for the venue it is perhaps worth noting that it probably represents something like £2000 wasted investment on our part.

We streamed the whole event live on the Web and about 60 additional people watched throughout the day.  In his opening talk, Larry Johnson of the NMC noted in passing that, given the rise of free video streaming services like Ustream.tv, it is no longer necessary to pay large sums of money to stream events live on the Web.  He may be right, though my personal view is that it is worth paying to get an experienced camera operator, sound engineer and vision editor.  Decent sound is, above all, absolutely critical in my experience.  On this occasion we chose to stream in Windows Media format (.wmv).  In part this was because the streaming company assured us that, given the greater number of Windows machines out there, this approach would lead to fewer compatibility problems than streaming in Quicktime (.mov).  I was also a little worried that if we streamed in a format compatible with Second Life, our virtual audience would fork into two sections (those in-world and those not) whereas we wanted them in one place to maximise the social aspects of the live chat facility (see later).  On reflection this was perhaps a bit of a hard line approach.  I certainly lost some sleep the night before the event, worried that Mac users wouldn't be able to see the stream.  However, as far as I can tell, this wasn't a problem for people.  I am aware of one issue, noted by a couple of bloggers including Joe Blogg - the streamed video wasn't good enough to read many of the slides.  Apologies for this.  With slightly more forward planning we could have got all the slides uploaded to Slideshare before the event (though I should note that at least two of the speakers were still tweaking there slides right up to the start of their talks!). 

Anyway, there's definitely room for some improvement in that area.

The use of Coveritlive as a live chat facility for both the delegates in the room on wireless and the remote delegates watching the video stream also seemed to be very successful.  Again, as chair, I didn't get as involved in this as I would have liked, but the virtual discussion certainly seemed to be flowing for most of the day.  We had a member of Eduserv staff in the venue (Mike Ellis) monitoring the chat for possible questions and asking them from the floor during the question and answer sessions at the end of each talk.  Furthermore, my co-author on this blog Pete Johnston, spent the whole day moderating the chat from the back of the room - a thankless task if ever there was one, especially seeing as moderation wasn't really necessary, but one that was imposed on us by the use of Coveritlive as the chat tool. Note that Coveritlive is not really designed for this purpose, it is really a live-blogging tool, so we were stretching its capabilities in rather unusual directions.  However, its ease of use (for delegates rather than for Pete) proved successful.  We also displayed the live chat on the screen in the venue during the Q&A sessions and this really helped to bring the remote audience into the room.

In his blog entry about the event, David Harrison (who spoke during the afternoon session) noted how odd it felt to be giving a presentation at the British Library in London, while his colleagues back in Cardiff answered questions in the live chat as he was speaking.

At this point I should stress that the video stream and the use of Coveritlive were completely separate.  We chose to co-locate them on the same Web page - such is the beauty of small tools, loosely joined - but they were unrelated and separate tools.  Coveritlive doesn't actually do streaming as far as I know.

Finally, we offered a Ning social network for the event, offering a chance for delegates, both real and virtual, to create a profile and share information about their interests - a kind of virtual delegate list if you like.  This worked reasonably well - at the last count there were 119 delegates signed up, though I don't currently know the balance between real and virtual delegates.

In his presentation, Chris Adie questioned whether Eduserv were taking risks in hosting such a network on an external service (because of data protection concerns primarily).  While I think there are valid issues to think about in this area, I don't think we were taking a risk at all - part of the point of using an external tool was to emphasise the topic of the day.  Indeed, I tend to think there is a greater danger in the paralysis that comes from being over sensitive to concerns about data protection, privacy and other legal matters.  Chris also made this point.

In his blog, Michael Webb questions the value brought by the social network, particularly for a one day symposium.  I have to confess I'm not sure either.  Some delegates reported using it to see who else was going to be at the event beforehand and it was very cheap to set up - free actually, though we paid a small amount to get rid of the Google adverts for a month.  So I'm not sure it matters too much.

Anyway, clearly there are things we could have done better - and we hope to do so next time - but all in all I'm pleased with the way the event turned out.  I hope those who took part feel likewise.


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First of the things I forgot to mention :-) - there'll probably be more...

During the course of the day an ad hoc but interesting convention grew up in people's use of the Coveritlive chat facility - that of using the participant's name to indicate whether they were in the venue or watching remotely. I think David Harrison may have initiated this but I'm not sure.

Whatever, it certainly wasn't suggested by us (the organisers) and strikes me as an excellent example of people working creatively within the limitations of the available technology to meet their own functional requirements.

Second thing... Brian Kelly has suggested to me (verbally) that we should have been more up front about the terms under which the log from the Live Chat session was going to be made available.

I half agree with this - certainly it seems like good practice to be explicit, and we could have easily added a short note to the containing HTML page to say that we were planning on making the chat log public after the event.

On the other hand, making chat logs of meetings public now seems to be so much the norm, especially for those of us who regularly attend Second Life meetings, that I wonder if it is really necessary at all??

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