Professionals in all fields are looking to Internet technology to find communication methods that encourage greater collaboration and are an efficient way of dispersing helpful and relevant information in a cost-effective manner.
One method that has become increasingly popular is conferencing, whether it be on "electronic bulletin boards", listservs , in chat rooms or using web-based meeting protocols. Conferencing allows a large group to exchange ideas by reading and posting messages which are delivered to a central point and broadcast to the conference participants by special software. This is done in a synchronous or asynchronous mode, that is when all participants gather together at the same time or not! i.e. that conference participants can read and post messages at any time.
Conferencing has its advantages and disadvantages. By far, it is cheaper than using long-distance telephone or fax and the software and hardware needed to run it, a personal computer and an Internet connection, are becoming so readily available that it makes it possible for larger numbers of people to become participants. Conferencing keeps meeting costs down because the costs associated with face-to-face meetings such as travel and accommodations, don't exist. And in most modes of Internet conferencing, subscribers can participate at a time that is convenient for them, thus helping in the old "time management" dilemma.
Some people find it difficult to commit the amount of time it takes to make conferencing successful, and others don't like it because of the lack of personal contact. Participation is linked to a person's previous experience with technology and the Internet, his likes and dislikes or her preferred learning styles. Research suggests that auditory learners may feel distanced from discussions in asynchronous conferences and may prefer telephone or face-to-face meetings where they can be heard. Visual learners usually flourish in the on-line environment because they are used to processing large amounts of information in this manner. Kinesthetic learners miss the body language and immediate feedback of personal meetings. Electronic meetings will have about the same number of non-participating members (in this environment called lurkers) as do regular meetings.
I have been using computers since the mid-1980s and love the immediacy and speed of electronic communication and the sense of virtual equality it provides. Over the years I have participated in many on-line conferences and have even been invited to moderate a few! Through the process of trial and error some ideas on how to encourage more participation in electronic conferences have emerged. These suggestions from a committed amateur!
Electronic conferencing can be enjoyable as well as efficient and convenient. Giving some thought to how the conference will progress before it even starts will help to make it a valuable and enjoyable experience for all.
Charles Ramsey has been involved in adult education for more than 30 years and is the Executive Director of the National Adult Literacy Database, Canada's national literacy information network found at www.nald.ca. He can be reached at 1-800-720-6253 (toll free within Canada), (506) 457-6900 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.