Meeting in Cyberspace

The World & I, February, 1994, page 218.

Modern technological alternatives to conventional business and research conferences offer greater cost-effectiveness and expanded opportunities for group deliberation.

Thomas C. O'Haver
Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry
University of Maryland
College Park, MD 20742

First, you clear your calendar. Then you fill out and send in the registration forms and fees, book a flight, make hotel reservations, arrange for someone to cover your duties at work, and pack your luggage. Don't forget to get someone to feed the cat, pick up the mail and newspaper, and water the houseplants at home. When you get there, you have to locate ground transportation, register, find you way around an unfamiliar convention center, look for a decent place to eat. You'll have to manage your time carefully, because so much goes on at the same time. It's likely that you won't be able to hear all the talks you might be interested in or talk to everyone you'd like to meet. After each talk, in principle, there is supposed to be time for questions and discussion, but in practice there is usually not enough time. By the time you think of a really good question, the talk is over and the speaker is lost in the crowd. And finally, when it's all over, you - or your organization - will have to pay for it all.

Attending a conference can be complex, expensive, and time-consuming undertaking - sometimes even a little frustrating. Or you may not even get the chance to attend at all; often the people who are actually involved in the day-to-day operation of an organization can not afford either the time or the money to attend conferences. But conferences are one of the main ways that professionals and many businesspeople learn what is going on outside of their immediate organizations. They are an important way to get to know other people in the same field, to exchange ideas, describe ongoing projects, share experiences, present project results, and even reach decisions. But there is now a modern, high-tech alternative to a physical conference, called electronic conferencing, that can accomplish most of the important objectives while overcoming many of the difficulties.

Electronic conferencing
Electronic conferencing means the use of communication technology to allow people to "convene" electronically, without traveling to a common location. Technology now exists that allows hundreds of people to receive and send presentations and messages in written, spoken, or video form. Already in some corporations and research organizations, electronic conferencing has replaced some conventional meetings. The technology used may be a simple as plain text electronic mail (e-mail) or as sophisticated as real-time two-way audio/video. The education community is now also showing considerable interest in this idea; in recent years, reports of applications of electronic conferencing to distance learning, in-service training, rural school districts, business education, and medical consulting have begun to appear in the educational technology literature.

The essence of electronic conferencing, as any conference, is interactive discussion and exchange of ideas. An electronic conference can be either synchronous, where conferees participate at the same time but in different places, or asynchronous, where conferees participate at different times of the day over the conference period, relying upon electronic media to store messages and forward them to each participant. The synchronous format is closer to the format of a traditional physical meeting, and it allows for the possibility of real-time interaction via sound and video images, further heightening the similarity to familiar modes of communication. However, asynchronous conferencing allows people with different schedules or even different time zones to participate. Matthew Rapaport, a researcher who has studied many kinds of computer-mediated communications, reports that "All researchers and developers in the field agree that most real work is accomplished asynchronously, where the store-and-forward capabilities of the software increase the communication potential of the medium across time zones and personal schedules" (Matthew Rapaport, "Computer mediated communications: bulletin boards, computer conferencing, electronic mail, and information retrieval", Wiley, New York, 1991).

The most obvious advantage of electronic conferencing is that it can be very cost-effective: once the required hardware is in place, it is much less expensive and time-consuming to organize and to participate in a electronic conference than a traditional physical conference or meeting. Moreover, in a electronic conference all the presented material and all of the resulting discussion is potentially recordable, usually in digital form, and thus can be archived for future access. (At the current level of technology, text-based modes are more easily and compactly recorded and archived than audio or video modes). The asynchronous format presents the opportunity for the kind of extended public discussion that is usually not achieved in conventional meetings or in print publications. Electronic conferencing is especially attractive to people who are not able to attend conventional meetings on subjects they are interested in, whether by reason of cost or time or spoken language skills or physical disability. An interesting factor is that people who have been less effective and persuasive in face-to-face meetings may be more successful in electronic communication, which typically de-emphasizes the role of personal charisma, body language, and cultural factors. This could be a significant political factor in some organizations.

There are also clearly some disadvantages to electronic conferencing compared to traditional meetings: The pleasures of socializing at a physical meeting are absent. We are already familiar with the mechanics of physical meetings (traveling, making slides, public speaking, socializing), whereas electronic conferencing requires skills that are generally less familiar - although not necessarily more complex in an absolute sense. Perhaps most seriously, electronic conferencing does not yet have recognition in the scholarly community; one of the reasons that we go to meetings and publish papers is that it enhances our prestige and reputation. At the present time, the culture of electronic networks is more inclusive and egalitarian than exclusive and prestigious.

The Internet as an Electronic Conferencing Medium
Although there has been commercial computer hardware and software developed specifically for the purpose of on-line conferencing, most of those systems require a specific type of computer or network connection. Within one corporation or organization it may be possible to standardize on one commercial system. However, the greatest potential for a large-scale conference of people from widely different organizations is to capitalize on the widely used Internet services such as electronic mail and the World Wide Web. An obvious advantage of this approach is that many people already know

E-mail was designed originally for one-to-one messaging, not for conferencing. What makes conferencing possible is the availability of mainframe computer "mailing list" programs that maintain large e-mail address lists and automatically handle the subscription, distribution and archiving functions. The most popular and most widely used of these programs is listserv, developed by Eric Thomas of the Ecole Centrale in Paris. A listserv acts as an e-mail address which distributes all messages sent to it to all subscribers to the listserv. Hence, if 200 people are subscribed to a listserv, any one of those subscribers can send a message to the "list address" and it will be automatically sent to all 199 other subscribers. The result is a convenient mechanism for the exchange of views and data between large groups of people. Hundreds of topic-oriented discussion lists have been set up within the last few years and are accessible to anyone who has e-mail. A major difference between e-mail lists and postal mailing lists is that e-mail lists are strictly voluntary and they are not legally used for advertising purposes.

The World Wide Web has a natural role in the presentation of written material, graphics. There a lots of "how-to" tutorials and software aids that facilitate the conversion of conventional word processor materials to HTML format. With the appropriate client-side enhancements (helper applications and plug-ins), interactive and multimedia elements, such as audio, video, and animation, can be included on Web pages. Extensive use has been made of several of these multimedia enhancements in recent chemistry-related online conferences, including several chemistry-specific ones that allow chemical structures and even animated 3D models of molecules to be displayed on Web pages and interactively manipulated by the viewer.

Access to e-mail among academics is now so common that it has become practical to consider using on-line conferencing as alternative to some conventional physical conferences. During the summer of 1993, I organized and operated the first of a series of on-line electronic conferences for college chemistry teachers sponsored by the the American Chemical Society's Division of Chemical Education. A total of 450 chemistry educators from 33 countries participated that first year; later conferences attracted as many as 900 people from 51 countries, a truly international conference by any standard. These conferences operated in asynchronous text-based mode, using a listserv discussion group as the medium of discussion. However, the conference listserv differed from the standard listserv discussion groups in that they were structured much like a conventional research conference: that is, they were focused on a specific topic and it occurred over a particular time period. As in a conventional physical conference, the focal point was a set invited and contributed papers submitted by authors and distributed electronically to the participants. Initially the papers were made available in plain ASCII text form, but after 1993, the format was changed to HTML and it was assumed that all participants would have access of the WWW. Two or three days were allotted for discussion of each paper, according to a schedule distributed to conferees beforehand, allowing international participation across all time zones.

After each conference, the listserv discussions were archived and made available in plain text format, linked to the home page of the conference. I has become the practice to leave the Web pages for past conferences up for archival purposes. You can get an good idea of the organization of these conferences by viewing the 1995 and 1996 conference home pages: "Faculty Rewards: Can We Implement the Scholarship of Teaching?" and New Initiatives in Chemical Education.

After each of these conferences, participants filled out and returned detailed evaluation forms. (A summary of evaluation results for the first conference is available online). Participants were unanimously enthusiastic, many describing the experience as rewarding, productive, thought provoking, and stimulating. The obvious advantages of cost and time savings were commonly mentioned, but beyond that, some participants actually felt that the quality of the discussion was improved compared to conventional conferences and that the freer time frame and emphasis on author-listener interaction allowed a deeper and more detailed examination of topics. In fact, several participants expressed the opinion that the post-paper discussion was really more valuable than the papers themselves. Even without face-to-face contact, some participants reported that they had made many valuable contacts and felt that they had "gotten to know" some of the other participants. A few people found the relative anonymity to the network to be an advantage, helping them overcome the psychological barrier of "speaking out" in public. Significantly, the 1993 conference participants included three hearing-impaired professors from Gallaudet University and a quadriplegic organic chemist from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who find attending conventional conferences difficult.

Even more interesting that the positive evaluation comments were the things that participants did not like. Among the most common complaints is the "overflow of email" generated by an active listserv. One way around the problems of email is to use form-based Web pages for all discussion. A nice example of the advantages of this approach is the Global Schoolhouse, which runs a number of Forums based on this technology.

Media vs. reality
It is possible that in the future much of the business that is now conducted in conventional physical conferences will be done by some form of electronic conferencing, based on one of the developing video and/or audio conferencing systems. It's tempting to compare this possibility to other areas of our lives where media has competed with reality, for example: concerts vs. recorded music; stage plays vs. movies; art galleries vs. art books and prints. Almost everyone agrees that reality is "better" that media, and yet it's safe to say that most people have listened to more recorded music than live concerts and have seen more movies than stage plays. It's partly a matter of efficiency and partly that, in some cases, the newer technologies can do things better. But thankfully the old ways never die. Just think about stone engraving, calligraphy, horseback riding, and wood-burning fireplaces: these are no longer central technologies, but they have not and will never disappear completely. In fact, we now think of these things as special pleasures. In our business and professional dealings, we will always savor the pleasures of face-to-face meetings and social gatherings, even if economic efficiency eventually forces us to rely on technology for most of our routine business and communication.

Based on an article published by the author in The World & I, February, 1994, page 218.

Author's note: These on-line conferences have continued to this day. For a list of current and scheduled conferences, see

Thomas. C. O'Haver was a professor chemistry at the University of Maryland, College Park, where he taught and did research on analytical spectroscopy and instrumentation and the applications of computers in education and research. Prof. O'Haver resides in Naples, FL, and in Silver Spring, MD, with his wife, Mary, who was an elementary school teacher. At home he enjoys computer programming, traveling,  music, reading, and ornamental gardening. See