Last week I spent a few days in Northern Ireland. Or, to be accurate, I spent a whole day getting there, a whole day getting back, and a day at a conference in Fermanagh. Considering that my own presentation was 15 minutes long, it is highly questionable the value of my effort. There were no questions after any of the presentations, and though I got several comments and connections in the coffee-break, and over dinner, there was nothing that I couldn’t have answered equally easily by email. So why did I not do the presentation by videoconference? Or even via a pre-recorded DVD? To be honest, it would have been a lot easier, and just as useful – except that many/most organisations are not really geared up to handle vc. In the UHI we are spoiled by the ease and frequency of use, but this is the exception. There is still an unfamiliarity, both in terms of technical competence and etiquette, among organisations that network. They should know better. It is a traditional activity of academics to attend conference, to share ideas and to network, but unfortunately there is usually a better quality of networking in the bar, the cafe, and the meal-times than in most conference sessions. I like travel, in general, but I am getting MUCH more cynical about the value and efficiency of most academic conferences.
A day of floating around for me. I had forgotten that today is a local holiday and I had agreed to link with some colleagues for a videoconference to discuss some new degree provision. So I downloaded jabber onto my Mac at home and joined the meeting that way. A wonderful tool that lets me be in two places at once… but so much of the effectiveness of this media is due to the culture of use, as much as the affordances of the technology. We occasionally point out that the UHI accounts for around 52% of all the videoconferencing in Higher Education in the UK, and that we are the biggest single users of educational videoconferencing in Europe – but what real analysis of use do we make? There are good ways to use VC and bad ways, and either way, the etiquette of the medium is totally different from a face-to-face situation. The chairman needs to be more effective and inclusive, and participants need to be more succinct and more aware of other users than in f2f. The visual image is activated by the speaker, so if everyone tries to speak at once, or talk over another speaker, the effect is chaos. If the meeting drags on badly, the time slot will disappear and will cut off even the most important speaker in mid-flow. Yet the ability to conduct important business in your own time-space, without needing to spend hours traveling to and from a distant location, is excellent. The meeting can be recorded for the record (or archive) and the immediacy of the medium can be conveyed so much more powerfully than phone, or email, or even dare I say than face-to-face (because we are forced to actually listen and look at the speaker). So why do we not insist on adequate training for users of videoconferencing. I think regular UHI users are probably on average better than colleagues at other institutions who use VC infrequently, but why do we assume that participants can ‘pick up’ the techniques of use – the etiquette, the body language, the technical skills – without some training? We are committing a grave mistake if we think that what we do f2f can simply be translated directly across to VC, but I am convinced that with appropriate training and practice, the results, and the benefits, can be far greater than we currently recognise.