Virtual Conferencing

In many respects I have a moderate carbon footprint. I drive a very fuel-efficient car, and I don’t drive it much. Despite all my electronic toys, my power bills are always fairly low. And my heating bills aren’t as bad as they could be. But there’s one respect in which I use a lot of fuel, and it overwhelms the rest. That’s air travel. Now part of that travel is for fun, but much of it is for conferencing. So I’ve been wondering how much of the benefits of conferencing could be obtained without the travel. Some of the benefits, getting to see wonderful parts of the world, go drinking with friends from around the world etc, could not be had. But some benefits, arguably, could.

It should be possible, that is, to run virtual conferences. I don’t mean conferences done through emails or blogs, which have their benefits but don’t provide the same level of interactivity as actual conferences do. I mean something where the participants, from around the world, get to all be talking just about a single paper for an extended period of time.

The main point of this post is to ask whether anyone has any experiences with such conferences, and if so how they have worked. Below the fold I have some thoughts for a few models for how to run such a conference.

The geekiest option would be to have all the conference participants join some virtual world, like Second Life, and have the meeting in virtual space. The downsides are a) many people aren’t going to be interested in joining, b) it would be a pain to set everything up, and c) some computers (like, er, mine) simply aren’t strong enough to run things like Second Life. So this is probably out.

Another option would be to use conference calling facilities. But these are prohibitively expensive, probably more expensive than flying to conferences. Online calling services, such as Skype, don’t seem to have built in large-scale conference facilities. Skype itself only allows conference calls with up to four people, and Google Talk seems to not have any conference calling facility at all.

Most video conferencing packages I know of are set up to connect people at two, and just two, locations. But conferences typically bring together people from many many different locations. I’m sure there are some web-based packages that allow this kind of meeting, but I don’t know what they are.

The most practical option seems to me to have everyone chat using instant messaging software. There are some downsides to this, notably that the contributions have to be typed rather than spoken. (But maybe that would have upsides too.) And of course different chat programs have different costs and benefits associated. But this kind of thing might just work.

Anyway, I was mostly interested in hearing whatever thoughts people had about virtual academic conferences of this kind, ones that involved the kind of instant feedback and interaction that you get at a physical conference, and what experiences they had had with such conferences. Obviously this kind of thing won’t replace traveling to conferences, but it might replace some of the more needless travels.

6 Replies to “Virtual Conferencing”

  1. I started looking into this about six months ago in the hopes of doing something through Prosblogion. I think the technology has come further than you indicate above. There are some low cost video conferencing packages that people can use from the home or office, and there are some freeish options too. I’ve recently been toying with Festoon, which has the facilities to do video conferencing for 8+. Festoon has the upside of integrating with either GoogleTalk or Skype. Also, Skype now supports audio Skypecasting with up to 100 participants.

    My wife works in educational technology field and reports that there have been some successful small scale conferences. I think these are more like work group sessions rather than a full scale conference. I suspect that if you could string several such events together you might get more of the feel of a full conference.

  2. I would very much like to see more efforts in this direction. Right now, I usually just don’t go to conferences as I can’t think of any credible excuse for the likely harm caused by my traveling.

    In the programming world, IRC (chat) meetings are common and often quite productive if the participants are well-behaved. I imagine that for philosophy conferences, one would need more rules to prevent people from talking all at the same time — something like virtual hands (“I have a comment/question”) and fingers (“I have a comment/question on what you just said”), with a moderator giving voice accordingly.

    The biggest drawback of this approach is perhaps that you can’t really give a lengthy talk or comment on IRC. So either the talks would have to be replaced by papers distributed in advance or transmitted by streams outside the chat. The latter would make the event feel much more like a real conference, and probably make it more attractive. It obviously requires that the presenter has some kind of equipment to stream their presentation. From my experience, the equipment and setup required on the client isn’t a big deal. Setting it up on the server is harder and much more expensive (for Flash streams, around US$5000), but of course that would have to be done only once.

    A few years ago, I taught a philosophy of science course at HU Berlin via some expensive video conferencing setup, where the students and I saw each other projected on a wall. For lecturing, this was almost like being in the same room with them. It didn’t work so well for discussions though, because the microphones always had to be turned off on one side to prevent feedback loops.

  3. Skypecasting looks great. That might be very useful. Some people are always going to want to literally talk rather than type-chat. I had no idea this was an option.

    Most of the conferences I go to these days have papers distributed in advance. The real focus is on the discussion period. If that could be run successfully through IRC it would do pretty well. My thought for the questions queue would be that people would put themselves on the queue by a message direct to the moderator, rather than the main chat screen filling up with requests to be put on the queue.

  4. Blog based conferences certainly have a place, and the Danto one seems to be doing well. Indeed, it’s something I’ve thought we should do at TAR, maybe have a paper of the week or something.

    But I think it will be better to have something that has more of an event feel to it, rather than something like an email exchange conducted in public. Or, perhaps better, something event-like would be good to have as well as more and less organised comments thread discussions of topics. Maybe it’s just me, but I find that things that can be put off will be put off. If there’s a time and place to be somewhere, I’ll give it more attention.

    (One other pet gripe. An unthreaded comments section of a blog really doesn’t look like the best way to organise a HTML-based conference. I’d have thought using bulletin board software, or at least something with threads, would be much preferable.)

  5. For what it’s worth, Eddy Nahmias and I are in the process of exploring precisely these possibilities with respect to future installments of the On-line Philosophy Conference (OPC). For instance, we hope to use Skypecasting to facilitate a “live” Q & A with some of the authors for the 3rd OPC (2008). For the second installation—which will take place during the first two weeks of May, 2007—we will have two keynote addresses. These talks will be recorded in audio/video and posted to kick off each of the two weeks of the conference. The goal is to give the conference more of the “event feel” that Brian mentions.

    We also hope to experiment in the future with bulletin boards and the like—something Brian encouraged me to look into last year for the first OPC. Our reason for sticking with the blog format was two-fold: First, I already had a Typepad account—so setting up and running the conference was a snap. Second, we were worried that navigating the threaded comment sections of a bulletin board would be markedly more confusing for the technologically unsophisticated, and we wanted to encourage as many people to participate as possible.

    Perhaps the ideal would be to run the conference via a blog—while providing links to bulletin boards. If nothing else, by giving people the choice, you would quickly find out which format people preferred. Perhaps that is what we should try to do for future installments of OPC. As far as I can tell, each format has its respective strengths and weaknesses—so perhaps implementing both would indeed be best.

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