A Conference Wherever You Are

The virtual conference experience improves—but don’t write off the real thing just yet

The package from Amigos Library Services, Dallas, arrived in my mail one week before I was scheduled to deliver the closing keynote talk for the Amigos Member Conference 2011 last May. Why would I be getting a package for a virtual conference? What was in there? A whole bunch of junk food, peanuts, Skittles, a chocolate bar. At first, I had no idea what this meant. Then it hit me—these were for the conference snack breaks. Great idea! Digging into the box I also found a tip sheet for getting the most from the conference. Another great idea! Get me thinking about the conference shortly ahead of time so I can properly prepare to immerse myself.

The Amigos folks get it. The major weakness of virtual conferencing is the lack of personal connection with a community that one derives from a physical conference. The minor yet humanizing gesture of providing me with snack breaks goodies made me feel that I’d be part of a larger community experience—even if I’d only be sitting in my office staring at my computer screen. The Amigos Member Conference is totally online. Its mix of keynote talks, concurrent sessions, virtual vendor fair, discussion rooms, Twitter backchannel—and the bonus of archived recordings—goes a long way toward narrowing the gap. By blending hi-tech with hi-touch, library organizations like Amigos are getting closer to the ultimate hybrid conference: professional development with equal parts human connectedness and economical convenience.

Chances are you’ll soon join those librarians already sold on the virtues of virtual conferencing, if you haven’t already. In addition to the virtual options being offered by major associations such as SLA and the American Library Association (ALA) and its divisions and a host of specialized conferences from the likes of OPAL, WebJunction, and a growing number of library vendors, librarians may choose from dozens of free and fee-based webinars or webcasts. LJ, for instance, is offering its second virtual ebook summit, Ebooks: The New Normal (ow.ly/6ubp0), on October 12. All of them offer librarians short on money and time the chance to gain professional development and continuing education from the comfort of their home or office. The big question is whether virtual conferencing has the potential to replace the traditional, face-to-face (F2F) conference anytime soon. The technology is improving, the offerings are expanding, and the level of interactivity is better than ever, but, despite the gains, virtual conferencing may yet struggle to capture a dominant share of the conference ­marketplace.

An evolving industry

Little is known about the virtual conferencing market. No data exists on the number of individuals who attend them, how much revenue they generate, the number of conferences that take place annually, or the perceptions held about them. Without such basic data it is difficult to know at what rate they are growing. Owing to travel costs and concerns, the U.S. Travel Association reports that 31 percent of business travelers used teleconferencing or video­conferencing to replace at least one business trip in 2008. One indicator of the market growth is the number of companies offering virtual conferencing services and support. According to Tammy Blosil, VP of online learning for ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership, when ASAE sought a platform for its 2010 Virtual Annual Meeting, they chose from nearly 40 vendors. Even less is known about librarian experience with virtual conferencing. In July 2010, WebJunction reported that 41 percent of survey respondents used webinars or online conferences daily (eight percent), weekly (19 percent), or monthly (14 percent), but most reported that they attend only as needed or not at all.

While we lack data about the overall virtual conferencing market, librarians can get a sense of the trends from our own professional conferences. The Association of College & Research Libraries (ACRL), an early pioneer of virtual conferencing, has offered four virtual national conferences since 2005. That first virtual conference attracted only 11 paying registrants. Two years later, there were 100. In 2009, there were 203 registrations but with more groups registering, pushing the number of individual participants to 400. At ACRL’s most recent conference in 2011, the virtual conference registration grew only slightly to 206, but individual participants approached the 500 mark. The trend indicates that larger groups are attending the virtual conference. ACRL typically attracts between 3000 and 3500 onsite and virtual attendees combined. By the 2015 conference, there could be more than 1000 virtual attendees.

Embracing the virtual conference

LearningTimes Network is a leading provider of virtual conferencing platforms for the library community. Since 2004 it has produced dozens of conferences for ALA, ACRL, the Public Library Association (PLA), and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), as well as the Handheld Librarian conference, which focuses on mobile devices. LearningTimes CEO John Walber confirms that there is little formal data collected about the nascent but rapidly growing world of virtual conferencing. The earliest known completely virtual conference is TCC (Technology, Colleges and Community), which is now in its 16th year.

Walber sees two important trends. First, the number of virtual conferences with no F2F counterpart is on the increase. Handheld Librarian is a good example, and its attendance has grown year after year. Walber believes that the Smithsonian will encourage more librarians to attend virtual conferences—it’s held five since 2009, with a 12-conference series that started in late 2010. Second, Walber sees librarians embracing virtual conferencing. “Each event grows in subsequent years, and the old audience comes back as new people appear as participants and presenters,” he says.

Fueling interest in videoconferencing in the library community is the growing satisfaction with programming. According to Walber, 94 percent of attendees rated a 2009 ACRL videoconference as good to excellent. July 2010’s Handheld Librarian III had 96 percent ratings of very good to excellent. So what might present a barrier to virtual conferencing growth? Walber believes there are no big hurdles in the way of putting on a successful virtual conference now or in the years ahead. Putting together the right combination of marketing to constituents, explaining the benefits and building enthusiasm, delivering knowledgeable speakers and opportunities for collaboration and networking will result in a memorable online experience.

Moving up the ladder

The options for delivering a true virtual conference are expanding and can be likened to the rungs of a ladder. The lower rungs are the more simplistic experiences, such as e-learning or product demonstrations. There are multiple technology platforms for delivering a webinar, webcast, or any single e-learning event. This covers the spectrum from a one-hour, one-shot webcast to a day-long series of webcasted programs presented as a single- or multiday event; examples of the latter include Handheld Librarian and ACRL’s Entrepreneurial Conference. The more sophisticated features of the true conference platforms are designed to give the F2F image and conference feel.

Further up the ladder one finds the online conference. These are the most familiar virtual conferences for librarians, as they’ve grown in popularity over the last few years. Pioneered by ACRL, ALA and other divisions have discovered the virtues of the virtual conference. Using familiar e-learning software platforms such as Adobe Connect and Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate), the online conference offers both more feature-filled presentations and F2F-like elements of socialization. Attendees can engage with follow conference-goers in virtual access space. Postpresentation chats with keynote speakers allow for more connectedness. Attendees may also engage with each other in chat sessions or Twitter ­conversations.

At the top of the ladder sits the virtual meeting or hybrid online conference. In the past “hybrid” meant that the virtual and F2F programs took place at the same time. Speakers would present to a real audience and then go to a separate room and present again, online—creating two equal, but separate, conferences. Now, by taking advantage of the most sophisticated streaming technology, the hybrid model combines live, F2F programming with virtual participation—basically, it’s live television over the Internet. High-quality cameras beam the live presentation to the attendees’ desktop. ASAE’s Blosil describes it as “having the best seat at the Super Bowl right in your own living room.” But, as yet, no library organization offers it.

ASAE offered its first hybrid event in August 2010, says Blosil, delivering 24 live broadcast sessions. But the higher you climb up the ladder, the more costly are the technologies and infrastructure. It’s a significant challenge for the library profession, where association members expect virtual conferencing to be free or low-cost. Would ALA members pay $500 for a virtual conference when the F2F registration is $150? Not likely.

What about interactivity? Does the more sophisticated virtual conference provide added value for the higher registration fees? ASAE’s Virtual Annual Meeting offered virtual attendees real-time meetings with the keynote speakers, but even sophisticated technologies are challenged to virtualize “the hallway conversation” where librarians learn from one another. Blosil argues that’s changing, if the virtual attendee comments she sees are an indicator. One attendee commented, “I loved the chat sessions. [They] really made me feel much more connected...[A]fter one session…a bunch of us moved over to the [virtual] lounge and continued our chat.”

Pricing matters

If a live hybrid online conference offers such a high level of attendee engagement, why hasn’t it gained widespread acceptance, particularly by library associations? In a word: money. The hybrid event, owing to the high cost of television-quality cameras, technicians, and streaming rights, is by far the most expensive form of virtual conferencing. Perhaps the largest barrier to widespread acceptance is the willingness of attendees to pay.

When associations first began to offer fee-based e-learning, the immediate reaction for many library professionals was, “Why isn’t this free?” It’s a response conditioned by the availability of no-cost virtual programs. But as the technology and sophistication evolved, the cost increased, and it required associations to charge fees.

In the library community, the virtual conference can be a hard sell, according to Deirdre Ross, who recently left a position as ALA’s director of conference services. For ALA and its divisions, finding the right price is crucial to registering enough attendees to make the conferences financially viable. According to Ross, when ALA dropped the cost of attending ALA’s virtual conference from $99 to $69, attendance tripled in a single year to 600. That’s a small number compared to 20,000 F2F attendees but an impressive gain. Making the virtual conference an attractive option depends on finding the right pricing. According to ASAE’s Blosil, it requires a good mix of content at a considerably lower price than the F2F conference and figuring out what content to provide. Most attendees have little interest in attending every session. ASAE focuses on keynote presentations, with a limited number of general sessions. The group knows that professionals are becoming accustomed to free ­webinars, so it’s important to make virtual conferences ­different.

The hallway problem

Are there librarians who are ready to give up completely on F2F conferencing? Will virtual conferences, in time, replace physical ones altogether? I spoke to several librarians about their virtual conference experience, and while none of them is completely sold on virtual conferences, all see their benefits. There is near universal agreement that virtual conferences are great for the learning opportunities they offer at tremendous value. With lower registration fees and elimination of travel and lodging, the cost and time savings of virtual conferences are their greatest advantages. But nearly all I spoke to see room for improvement, and the one improvement they’d like to see may be one that virtual conferences may never deliver: personal contacts through networking.

Kenley Neufeld, library director at Santa Barbara City College, CA, is a veteran virtual conference attendee. “The [virtual conference] saves me time and money, but I do miss the social connections, casual conversations, and serendipity of meeting new people,” he says. He admits that virtual conferences can offer discussion rooms and chat opportunities, but it’s not the same. What’s really missing, says Neufeld, is the hallway. “I went to the [South by Southwest conference] this past year, and so much of the communication takes place in the hallways. You just can’t replicate that [virtually].” Neufeld also points out that it can be difficult, when at work, to stay focused on a virtual conference. Despite putting up “do not disturb” signs on his office door, he still finds himself being interrupted. Once he got so distracted by a situation in his library that he forgot to log in. “At an F2F conference, you are completely immersed in it,” he says.

Pros and cons

Lauren Pressley, a librarian-instruction technologist at Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, NC, is no stranger to the latest technologies. She believes that virtual conferences are “­really good for specific types of learning. I like them if I’m trying to learn a new skill, if they’re short—just an hour or so—and if the speaker is an effective virtual presenter.” An advantage for Pressley is that she can still “put out fires at work while it’s going on.” Indeed, most librarians dread returning to the library after several days at an F2F conference to find themselves buried by waiting tasks and unanswered emails.

Josh Kim, director of learning and technology in the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, is a veteran virtual conference attendee. He’s used his Learning Technology blog at Inside Higher Ed to rant about badly delivered virtual programs and praise ones that work well. For Kim, reliable technology, abundant features, and well-prepared presenters add up to a successful virtual conference. But even the best virtual conference is not “anywhere near as good as ‘physical’ conferences.” Though physical conferences are growing more and more costly, Kim says, “the physical conference experience is still better than anything that a virtual conference can offer.” But although we’re still in the early stages of virtual conferencing technology, Kim believes it will get better and may ultimately be a real substitute for physical conferencing.

Santa Barbara’s Neufeld offered a vision for a dream hybrid conference, in the meantime, that combines the best of both worlds. Local chapters of an organization he knows meet F2F regionally—but at a location offering access to the national virtual conference. That way, they can still meet colleagues F2F to get that “hallway” feeling, while taking advantage of what virtual conferences have to offer. It’s an idea that should attract more attention.

Green eggs and ham

Will you attend a virtual conference? Has your virtual conference experience been useful for learning and social connections? Or was it a complete bust, leaving you pining for your next F2F conference? For the majority of librarians, the virtual conference is like Dr. Seuss’s green eggs and ham: it’s something they won’t even try. Brett Bonfield, director of the Collingswood Public Library, NJ, has attended a few web-based training sessions and meetings, but he has yet to dive into the virtual pool. Why? “It just doesn’t appeal to me. Speakers whom I’ve seen give great presentations F2F always seem flat in the virtual world,” he says. And it’s not that Bonfield isn’t tech-savvy; he attends Code4Lib. For him it gets back to the social connections. “[W]hat I learn from [people] in person versus what I learn from them in email, Facebook, etc., could be measured in orders of magnitude.... I’d rather pay out of pocket for the in-person experience than miss out on it.”

What will it take to convince Bonfield and others that virtual conferences can provide a great experience? Better technology. It is improving, but it’s still nowhere where it needs to be to entice those who conference for the networking. And there are other areas where virtual conferences can improve, as well. Speakers must be well prepared to take advantage of the virtual conference platform tools for creating audience engagement; presenting virtually requires training and experience.

Certifications might help. Virtual conferences offer a far less expensive option for required continuing education credits.

There are still many unknowns. “Associations are infants when it comes to virtual conferencing,” ASAE’s Blosil says. Attendance and interest are growing, and acceptance in the library profession is rising, but there are still many librarians who have yet to experience the virtual conference. If the economic and technology trends are good indicators, more librarians are going to make the change.

Take it from me: try the green eggs and ham. When you do, I’ll see you there—virtually.

Virtual Committees?

Virtual conferences can work well for events like the Amigos Member Conference, where the program is mostly presentations. But with its heavy load of committee meetings, an American Library Association (ALA) conference is much more than programs.

Strict regulations regarding committee meetings, quorums, openness, public access, voting, and more were designed for an era of F2F conferencing. Adapting ALA’s meeting structure to a virtual setting would be a challenge. Virtual platforms are not well adapted for drop-in attendees, for example. More work is needed on sensible guidelines for virtual or hybrid meetings that could be based physically at the conference but also offer virtual participation.

ALA’s lack of readiness for virtual conferencing is perhaps best exemplified by the chaotic scene that broke out during the ALA Midwinter Meeting in San Diego in January 2011 at the LITA executive board meeting. One member, Jason Griffey of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, attempted to livestream the proceedings for those seeking to attend virtually. These meetings are understood to be open, but several board members protested that a consultant’s report was intended only for the eyes and ears of the board, not the public. The issue of openness is debatable in this situation—as is the way the livestreaming was handled.

The episode suggests that we still have uncertainties about the handling of meetings when some attendees are participating virtually. What are attendees’ rights, and how do we best leverage technology to facilitate their participation? In this period of transition, virtual meetings and virtual members are technologically possible and well accepted, but we have yet to learn how to conduct our virtual or hybrid meetings in a way that satisfies the requirements of ALA—and that may take a while.

Author Information
Steven J. Bell (stevenbell.info) is the Associate University Librarian at Temple University, Philadelphia, and the current Vice President/President-Elect of the Association of College & Research Libraries. He also writes the From the Bell Tower column for the LJ Academic Newswire
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