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Requirements for Online Conferencing


Introduction

Why bother with meetings? What are the advantages of a "tutorial" or in more general terms "meeting" over letters, memos, email and electronic conferencing? Why do people travel half way round the world for a few hours and believe it is an effective use of time and resources? The bottom line is that well organised meetings and tutorials work - they concentrate the mind and ensure that all the participants leave with some sense of ownership - even if someone is passive they leave with the knowledge that they could have been active, asked questions and influenced something. A meeting loses much of its value without preparation, effective chairing and recording of decisions and/or outcomes. Tutorials are much the same and need clear objectives and preparation. Leadership is essential to define and agree the purpose, ensure all present can (and do) contribute and gain consensus. Few would argue when significant numbers are present but even when Brainstorming in small groups it can be argued there has to be some sense of purpose.

Making meetings constructive: Many of us will have had experience of large meetings and know how a good chairperson almost imperceptibly ensures that progress is made, brings in all present and cuts off the verbose all with little more than a glance, a raised eyebrow or a look at the clock yet never imposing their own views overtly. Audio conferencing is more difficult - again we will all have been involved in telephone conferences and know how much more difficult it is without the visual cues and how easy it is for several people to start to talk simultaneously and the thread to be lost. Lyceum offers the possibility of various tools to get round the shortfalls of pure audio conferencing. The current framework and "tools" for B823 offer little potential for control by the tutor - arguably they are not needed as much as on an undergraduate course and there is little need for the tutor to be prescriptive or intervene - it can be also argued that the value can be greatly enhanced if intervention possible.

Realising the Benefits of Lyceum: I would argue that the Tutor must have the ability, when required, to exercise some control for the experience to be rewarding. He or she must be able to make the space so all the participants can take place in the discussion and often take active steps to ensure they all do participate. He or she must ensure that the discussion does not deviate down fascinating but unproductive rabbit holes. With good preparation intervention may hardly be noticeable but it must be timely - short periods of brainstorming are desirable but long trails into dead ends are counterproductive. We also lack the visual feedback - an experienced tutor can instantly tell if the pace is too fast or too slow at a tutorial and who does not understand and who is dying to ask an esoteric question for their own self gratification and the other way, the person can not tell if he has caught the tutors eye. The above implies that the Tutor, Chairperson, facilitator or whatever name you chose has a special role and needs additional facilities - that is entirely consistent with FirstClass conferences where there is a hierarchy including at least a moderator for the conference.

Additional Requirements placed on Lyceum

This brings me to consider what facilities are desirable to manage an audio conferencing or tutorial session and whether they are currently available in Lyceum. The fact that they are needed for some purposes does not mean they have to be used. Those that are considered to be mandatory for Lyceum to be useful are highlighted.

  1. Audio
    • The ability for several people to speak simultaneously is counterproductive and requests should be queued.
      • The default should be time order of request.
      • The tutor should be able to override the default order when required.
      • It is desirable that the tutor is always at the top in the default order
    • The tutor should also be able to alert the speaker that his time is up (the conference yellow light) and, in the limit, cut him off
    • The tutor should have the ability to alert people that their input is desired.
    • The tutor should be able to do such activities both privately and publicly.
    • The above also means that it to be very clear to everyone whose mike is Live by a big red light on their screen which can be seen even out of the corner of an eye.
    • It is desirable that a speaker knows when they are next in the queue.
    • The AVC needs to be more effective and/or a tool to set up microphone levels.
  2. Concept Map
    • One must be able to continue speaking whilst working in the concept map - currently one has to hold the spacebar or mouse button which prevents this.
    • It is essential that material can be prepared, viewed and distributed offline - possibly via a local server as in FirstClass personal.
    • There needs to be some form of Insert (or Merge) as well as Save and Load to enable concept maps developed in sub groups to be merged in the plenary or offline for the next meeting.
    • There needs to be a "zoom" - one needs get an overview of the interconnections and to navigate quickly.
      • The Zoom should be local for speed and to avoid interference to others - it could arguably be set to match the initiator of a change in "Home" position
    • An indicator or lock to prevent two people modifying a node simultaneously - currently one gets overwritten when they are "Sent"
    • A right click menu for Cut, Paste and Copy would be useful in addition to Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V.
  3. Presentation Tool
    • There is a need to be able to give a convention presentation - the equivalent of vugraphs - and step through them for
      • the tutor to set the scene
      • and for sub groups to present to the plenary.
    • The presenter needs to be able to speak continuously during the presentation.
    • It is essential that all material can be prepared, viewed and distributed offline
  4. Browser Tool
    • It is essential to have a Web browser "tool", in particular for B823 , so the tutor (or participant) can lead the others to and through a site.
      • This would be as fast as a normal Browsing experience unlike shared programs or screen grabs
      • It could be the implementation of the presentation tool above - presentation files could be "uploaded" to a normal web site or the Lyceum server.
  5. Feedback
    • Lack of visual feedback means that it desirable for there to be a mechanism for
      • requests to speak,
      • simple Yes/No votes
      • and some way of indicating that one is going too fast or too slow
    • The ability to make feedback public and/or specifically directed to the tutor are desirable.
  6. Preparation and group work
    • The tutor should be able to create additional rooms
    • The Tutor should be able to specify their life (hours to days)
    • The Tutor should be able to load prepared material ready for sub groups.
    • Multiple Concept maps should be supported to prevent "accidents" when work is returned from a group to the plenary
  7. Identity
    • FirstClass provides a resume - it or a copy should be available real time (right click) on all the Participants.
    • The provision of an image should be encouraged.
    • Video of the speaker (as per NetMeeting) could be advantageous but not at the expense of audio etc quality
  8. Replay
    • Not a good idea as many Students would prefer to lurk in a replay. Perhaps for revision?

Summary

Lyceum goes a long way towards providing the facilities we perceive are required. Some of the suggestions are minor "tuning" but important for practical use. Many of the more major suggestions above have, it would seem, been present in various development versions. All have come from our perspective of the practical needs of users rather than being interesting technically - there is a specific reason for every one.

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Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
Content revised: 4th August, 1999