Reflections on #virtualapsa2012 & using HangOut for academic events

Last week, a core group of participants of the original APSA panel 40-3 'Issues of and responses to Internet governance' decided to take advantage of modern technology and try out a virtual panel via Google Hangouts.
We also broadcasted and recorded the HangOut on YouTube:



Also, make sure to check out Luke Perez' blog for more presentations from #virtualapsa!


I just want to take the opportunity and share a few technological, practical and academic reflections on the event.

First, I am definitely not suggesting that virtual meetings are a panacea or ‘the future’ for academic conferences, but getting 6 people from 3 countries, 2 continents and 4 different States in the US online at the same time was pretty amazing.
Second, for core academic exchanges, i.e. presenting research, talking to colleagues about that research and getting feedback on your research virtual meetings like HangOuts are a great start and definitely worth considering if you are planning a smaller conference or workshop. Even if virtual meetings are unlikely to replace all in-person meetings the trade off between travel expenses, time spent on travelling (many academics use Economy class which simply speaking sucks in terms of convenience), environmental concerns and disruptions of always packed schedules, and organising a free online meeting are not that bad.

But let’s get into some of the details around the HangOut panel:

Technical reflections

  • Limit the number of participants on the screen. Although up to 10 people can participate in a Hangout simultaneously, the virtual panel felt a bit ‘crowded’ with 6 people already and one idea may be to add panellists during the session. The second presenter can follow on YouTube during the first presentation and vice-versa so you can focus on 1-3 people on the screen. I found it a bit tiring on the eyes to have 6 little screens on my screen and watch 6 people moving. Especially in a talk-based environment like academia, video presence may not always be necessary all the time 
  • Mute your microphones. Right now, it is not ideal on Hangout that the participant with the loudest voice or (background) noise automatically appears on the main screen. You either have to be diligent in muting your mic or hope that Google develops a technological fix for the problem 
  • Use headsets. To reduce background noise (see above) it may be worthwhile digging out that old headset even if it destroys your looks and you may be afraid that viewers could overlook your fancy Mac equipment ;)  
  • Use two screens/machines. As the virtual moderator of the panel I found it very useful to have two screens at my disposal: One for the Hangout, the other to monitor other activities like Email, the live YouTube stream and Twitter
  • Consider short breaks. Even if you are recording in front of a YouTube audience it may be worthwhile adding a little break here and there. We only enjoyed 2 presenters and the discussant, but in the end we spent almost 70 minutes glued to the screen
  • Prepare for some Google+ hiccups. The biggest technical hurdle was getting participants to join the Hangout. Email invitations didn’t work and participants had to sign-up to Google+, find and friend me first to access the Hangout that I set up. Not 'life or death' issue, but no ‘1-click’ set-up either. But I guess it will get easier the second or third time you set up a HangOut
Content reflections
  • Powerpoints seemed useful all of the sudden. Although every academic has her/his Powerpoint horror story my impression was that they worked quite well in the virtual environment. They are ‘stable’, i.e. you get less distracted by the presenter’s movements and they work well even if the audio or video is not crystal clear
  • Does the Hangout enable more focussed interactions? Although this needs more empirical research, my initial feeling was that participants and viewers tended to be more focussed. It seems easier to organise one hour of focussed time and then leave the office and do all the other important things than that feeling of being ‘stuck’ at a conference and desperately searching for a wireless hotspot to check emails. The Hangout seems to provide a more focussed space and even if viewers check their emails in the meantime you won’t see them anyway
  • Well prepared academics can make any situation work. This may sound a bit arrogant or self-explanatory, but basically the rules of good physical panels apply to virtual ones as well as: Read papers, listen to presentations, ask questions. It's not remote open heart surgery, but a ‘HangOut’ of a group of academics in the 21st century.
Conclusions
I know that many academics can give you dozens of good reasons why they attend a large conference other than ‘presenting research’ and ‘discussing research on a panel’. Fair enough. But these reflections are not necessarily reflections on the ritualisation of large events or the usefulness of the networking that takes place at them. Virtual meetings, panels and conferences can be useful in many ways and academia seems to have just started to explore their potential. Whether for interviewing purposes, pitching a proposal to a publisher, organising a virtual ‘writeshop’ for your latest book project or organising a physical panel – Google HangOuts seem to be a time- and money-efficient way to get a transnational group of people in one space – plus, you avoid TSA and immigration queues which seems a pretty good bonus for your mental well-being...

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