B  U  L  L  E  T  I  N


of the American Society for Information Science and Technology       Vol. 30, No. 2      December/January  2004

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ASIS&T Joint Chapter Virtual Program: A Learning Experience for the Geographically Dispersed
by Linda McCann, Jonah Jenkins, Katherine McNeill-Harman, Louisa Toot Verma, Bo-Gay Tong Salvador and Shahla Bahavar. Edited by Michael Jimenez

Michael Jimenez is reference librarian at the Harvard Law School Library, Areeda Hall 505, Cambridge, MA 02138; 617-496-2124; Jimenez@law.harvard.edu

In December 2002, 68 people from around the world participated in "Strategies for E-Learning and Distance Education Educators," a virtual conference sponsored by the Los Angeles (LACASIS) and New England (NEASIS&T) chapters of ASIS&T. The conference was the first virtual event jointly conducted by two chapters.

This article documents our two-year planning process, the lessons we learned and the benefits we gained from this unique collaboration. We hope it will assist those who may be contemplating a virtual program of a similar nature.

Conception and Planning

The idea for a joint program began as an informal email discussion in the fall of 2000 between Nicole Hennig, then NEASIS&T program chair, and Amy Wallace, LACASIS chair. Both chapters quickly realized the time was right to engage in a joint program. As luck would have it, Linda McCann, a long-time LACASIS member and past chapter chair, was temporarily living in Cambridge and volunteered to act as the LACASIS representative to NEASIS&T and coordinate planning efforts between the two chapters.

The two chapters' executive boards heartily endorsed the idea of a joint program. Both chapters had been struggling to come up with ways to serve geographically dispersed memberships. A virtual program, if accomplished, would be an ideal solution with the potential to reach ASIS&T members and non-members alike, in different time zones, in any area of the globe.

During the 2002 ASIS&T Annual Meeting in Chicago, members from both chapters met over lunch to discuss the program's structure, possible topics, speakers and technologies for delivery. At this seminal meeting, the deal was sealed and all present looked forward to the challenge of the experiment that lay ahead. A core group of individuals from both chapters volunteered to work on the project. Over the next two years, committee members conducted countless conference calls and email exchanges to plan the program.

Committee members decided on the general topic of distance learning and also decided upon using educational courseware as part of the program. Richard Larson and Howard Besser, faculty members at MIT and UCLA, respectively, with long-standing experience in distance learning, were contacted and agreed to provide lectures on current issues regarding distance education and e-learning. To allow participants the opportunity to gain personal experience in an online course environment and because it offered a free trial period, the conference was conducted within a Blackboard course site.

The stated objectives of the conference were to provide the following:

  • Expert overviews of technology-based learning
  • Practical advice on starting technology-based learning projects
  • A forum to express ideas and concerns regarding technology-based learning
  • An opportunity to experience and use the medium of distance education in conjunction with learning about it
  • A place to network with others interested in technology-based learning regardless of geographic location

Production

Almost a year and a half before the event, pre-production discussions with MIT's Center for Advanced Educational Services (CAES) resulted in initial cost estimates, totaling just under $2,000, covering the following services:

  • Video production for Richard Larson's presentation
  • Digitization of all video footage
  • HTML "wrapping" of Larson and Besser presentations, with time-synched PowerPoint slides
  • Indefinite file server access to the presentations and slides, including simultaneous streaming connectivity
  • Technical and planning support during and immediately after the project's delivery.

A previous online lecture by Richard Larson produced though CAES provided a model format. Each professor created his own PowerPoint presentation prior to taping. VHS recordings of Larson and Besser were made at MIT and University of California Los Angeles facilities, respectively.

MIT Academic Media Production Services (AMPS) digitized the VHS video and transferred it to AMPS hard drives where technicians compressed it for Web delivery, specifically QuickTime and RealPlayer streaming video (56k bit rate) and audio (16k). AMPS services also included time-synch encoding, PowerPoint slide conversion, HTML coding, and testing and migration of content.

HTML wrapping and presentation time-synching proved to be the most time-consuming part of the production process. A committee member spent many hours finalizing layout and color schemes to coordinate disparate sets of aesthetics. In hindsight, it would have been less time intensive to provide a common layout template to both presenters and the AMPS production team.

The most expensive aspect of the encoding process was the QuickTime encoding for time synched PowerPoint slides. Though RealPlayer requires only a few encoded linkages, QuickTime requires at least 15 linkages. A customized, contextual (HTML) navigation menu was created to enable access to each of the presentations from the other. The program committee tested the files, and an AMPS technician was consulted for subsequent troubleshooting. Although producing multiple formats was helpful for participants, QuickTime in particular proved very expensive.

 After AMPS finished, the wrapped video/PowerPoint presentation files were migrated onto the ASIS&T Web server. Since FTP is not an option with ASIS&T's Webspinner interface, the files had to be burned onto CD and mailed to ASIS&T for loading. Once the files were loaded, a Webpage was created that served as an access point for the presentations and also as the program registration page.

 Unfortunately, CAES underwent administrative restructuring just after the delivery of the first video and PowerPoint slides and during the middle of our production timeline. This resulted in unforeseen additional costs and the need for some logistical restructuring of our own. At this time, we learned that the hosting of the files would now have to be shared between AMPS and ASIS&T and that the costs incurred had increased from the original estimate of $2,000 to $5,136.

Archiving

Archiving began as soon as the event ended. HTML files were created from materials gleaned from within the Blackboard environment. These files were then reconstituted and made to resemble the initial Blackboard interface with care taken not to use any copyright protected images and text. The videos and corresponding PowerPoint presentations were archived on a CD. All of these objects may be combined on ASIS&T servers in the future, but as of this time reside at www.lib.uci.edu/ASIS&T/.

Blackboard Environment

The free version of Blackboard allows unlimited use of a course website for 60 days and 5 MB of storage space for course materials. By registering for a course and paying a $295 fee you get unlimited website use for one year, 25 MB storage and technical support (for the course instructor only).

You can create a course by accessing the Blackboard course Web page (http://coursesites.Blackboard.com) and filling in the registration form under the Courses tab. The only information that cannot be altered once a course is created is the Course ID. If you are uncertain of the exact focus of your course, it is better to have a more general Course ID rather than one specific to your course title. The Course ID will appear in the catalog and as a directional marker at the top of the course site. All other options are changeable from the control panel once inside the course site.

You can customize a few things at the time of creating a course, such as choosing the course button type, shape, style and color. To customize a course further, go into the course's control panel. The control panel lets you add course content, change button text, disable particular course functions, add users, create and grade quizzes and access the online manual. Those who have paid can also access course statistics and technical support.

There are some limitations with the button choices and text. The Announcements button is the only mandatory button; all other buttons can be either disabled or the text can be changed to a pre-designated list of text choices. Unfortunately, Blackboard does not allow course creators to type in their own button text to fully customize the buttons.

Our program was not so much an online course as it was a conference. For that reason we tried to customize the content areas for a conference-like atmosphere. We disabled the Virtual Classroom, Chat, Digital Drop Box and Check Grade features. Moderators posted questions for discussion as Forums in the Discussion Board section. Participants added their responses, questions and comments to each Forum forming a discussion thread for each topic. The Announcements section was used to post when new Forums had been added. Moderators used the email feature to send announcements directly to participants' inboxes and to encourage participants to post their thoughts on the lectures.

Time Costs

Aside from financial costs, one of the greatest factors in successfully planning and implementing this program was the volunteering of the speakers' and ASIS&T members' time. The speakers took time to create presentations and have their lectures videotaped. LACASIS and NEASIS&T members spent time meeting, planning, doing technical trouble shooting and implementing the virtual program. It also took time for each chapter to discuss various concerns such as costs, help on special projects, conference scheduling and advertising with respective Boards, to complete tasks and bring back information to the program committee.

The number of volunteers on the committee waxed and waned due to varying interest, expertise and time demands. Whether this factor lengthened the time taken to produce the conference is difficult to assess. From the start, this program was viewed first and foremost as a learning experience. Members were able to delve into areas they were interested in developing for the program and, hopefully, learn in the process of doing. Even if committee participants were unable to continue their commitment to the final program event, every member's participation encouraged the goal of experimentation, collaboration and learning about the virtual environment and helped to propel the project forward.

Program Advertising and Registration

The program was advertised through listserv postings almost two months prior to the start date. An initial announcement was sent to the LACASIS-L and NEASIS&T-L lists as well as to ASIS&T-L and the ASIS&T chapters' lists. A second tier of advertising was posted to each chapter's email lists for local program publicity. Through these joint publicity efforts the program attracted numerous applicants. Although the advertising text indicated the program was limited to the first 50 registrants, we closed registration at 68.

At the registration website (www.asis.org/Conference/DistanceEd) prospective registrants were able to view the lectures and review the program description to determine if the conference was of interest to them before filling out the registration form. The online registration form consisted of basic information, such as name, job title, institution, email address, ASIS&T membership and geographic location. Registrants received an automatic email confirmation, which provided information on the Blackboard login schedule and the program's technical requirements.

Participant Demographics

Participants came predominantly from the United States. Those outside the United States were from the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Singapore, Brazil and Croatia. Over 70% of the registrants were affiliated with academic/educational institutions. A majority of the participants (47) were members of associations other than ASIS&T. Twenty-one participants indicated membership in ASIS&T Chapters: 11 from LACASIS, six from NEASIS&T and four from other ASIS&T chapters. Participants held a diverse array of job titles: librarian, professor, director, department head, student, technical services staff, Web designer/specialist, technology/media consultant, multimedia designer and information specialist. The top two categories were librarian and teaching faculty.

Moderator's Role

An excellent guide for moderating online conferences has been written by Lyndsay Green for the Office of Learning Technologies, Canada. The guide, Playing Croquet with Flamingos: A Guide to Moderating Online Conferences, outlines the roles and responsibilities for online moderators. Rather than reiterate Green's guide here, the decisions made in moderating our online conference will be summarized and discussed.

The program committee decided that the conference would last two weeks (one lecture each week), be asynchronous and be limited to 50 registrants. Uncertain about how much participation we might have, we thought it best to have two moderators, one for each week's lecture, so that neither would be overwhelmed with moderating responsibilities. The moderators opted for a structured approach to the discussions and created questions for each week based on the lectures. Discussion Forums were created by the moderator and posted along with several discussion threads to which participants could post. Participants were encouraged to email the moderator if there was a particular topic or issue that they would like posted for discussion. Our aim was to give some structure to the conference but also allow for participant-determined discussions.

Perhaps the biggest unknown in online conferencing is the interactivity level of the participants. Green discusses how participants' interactivity is based on their motivation, with highly motivated participants interacting more (Green, 21). Motivation can come from a variety of sources: need for continuing education, high interest in the topic, high need for the information or sense of responsibility can all be motivating factors.

Drawing upon Green's experiences, the program committee believed the time span and the 50-registrant limit would help motivate participants. The two-week duration allowed time for watching and discussing the lectures but also added urgency so people would not postpone involvement. This coincides with what Green writes: "one or two weeks works best for most asynchronous conferences" and "time constraints encourage synergy" (Green, 8). Group size needed to be big enough so that participation was adequate but not overwhelming. From Green's experience, a typical face-to-face classroom size of 20 to 25 students is a good ballpark figure for the online environment (Green, 8). We decided on twice that size knowing how busy information professionals tend to be and hoped to have a core group of highly interactive individuals.

We used only the asynchronous features of Blackboard so that participants from different time zones could post whenever convenient. Furthermore, moderators were unable to be online for extended periods of time since both had to schedule conference-moderating tasks into full-time jobs. Had the two lecturers been available for a live Q&A session we would have incorporated chat into the conference.

Neither of the two moderators had any previous experience with online moderating nor were they experts in the conference topics. According to Green, "content knowledge does not seem to be a prerequisite for the moderator's job" (Green, 22). While our experience mirrors this conclusion, having at least one expert lecturer available during our conference might have compelled participants to interact more. Green mentions that the opportunity to discuss with an expert can be a "good draw"(Green, 9).

Nonetheless, moderator subject expertise may have influenced the conference design. Since the moderators wanted to avoid the impression of being experts, a more structured approach was selected to guide participants but at the same time encourage informal discussion. This approach was not as successful at generating discussions as we had hoped; however, lack of discussion may have been due to a combination of different factors, not just conference design.

Possibly the most important yet difficult aspect of moderating is creating a sense of community online. The moderators worked at creating a friendly atmosphere that would set the tone and establish trust in several ways. As part of the general information for the conference, information was posted on privacy and etiquette. Moderators used the home page feature in Blackboard to introduce themselves. The moderators encouraged participants to create home pages, too, and supplied participants with introductory questions for possible content.

Blackboard allows the uploading of URLs and photos and participants were encouraged to post their favorite URL and a picture of themselves. The home pages were a place where people could do "virtual networking" and contact people with whom they had similar interests. Twenty-nine percent of the participants created home pages.

Throughout the conference the moderators encouraged participants to post their thoughts to the discussion boards. To involve those who may not have had time to join every discussion forum, summaries were posted at the end of each week and participants were encouraged to continue posting to all forums for the duration of the conference. After week one, a feedback survey was sent out to gauge how well we were meeting participants' goals. Although only six participants responded, the feedback was encouraging and helped us on ways to promote interactivity.

In the end, 32% of participants posted at least once to the discussion forums. With the free version of Blackboard we were unable to capture statistics on the actual number of log-ins for each lecture, discussion or person. These numbers would have been useful to gain a sense of how many people might have been "participating" by lurking. The ability to capture statistics should be considered when choosing online conference software.

To give a sense of closure at the conference's conclusion we created a "Last Thoughts and Good-byes" forum to which six participants posted messages. Having this final forum helped solicit additional feedback about the conference, which was particularly important since we did not conduct an end-of- conference evaluation.

Lessons Learned

Through our experiences with this event, we have learned several strategies to improve future online programs. These include the use of proprietary software, archiving, moderating, timing and collaborating among and within chapters.

Proprietary Software. The use of Blackboard's proprietary software had several advantages. Volunteers did not have to create the software; however, customization and maintenance of course materials was necessary. Furthermore, as Blackboard is an established, stable system, we experienced few, if any, technical difficulties.

The following disadvantages might provide reasons for using alternative or non-proprietary software for future projects. Only institutions that officially subscribe to Blackboard can create permanent courses. Therefore, we opted to use Blackboard's trial version as an inexpensive alternative. After a delay in the programming schedule put us past the 60-day-trial period, a significant amount of time was spent recreating a "new" course by cutting and pasting our old content into a new trial course.

Archiving. The copyrighted nature of Blackboard was another concern, which deterred us from using screenshots for publicizing the course. Archiving the course also was a challenge. Blackboard's mechanism for archiving does not separate the course content from the Blackboard software (i.e., archived courses can be viewed only in Blackboard). To archive our content separately required creating a non-proprietary environment similar to Blackboard's in which the content could be stored and viewed.

Moderating. The group learned several lessons in the area of moderating. Retrospectively, we realized that the conference might have been too structured and the number of discussion topics relatively high for a two-week conference. In our enthusiasm, and based on our understanding of the need for frequent, substantive postings by moderators of successful online conferences, we decided to post a new discussion topic each day. However, not everyone was able to participate every day, thus many felt behind in the discussion. Moreover, our structured approach made it difficult to foster spontaneous discussion since participants tended to stick to the program outline. With less structure, participants might have felt freer to discuss topics of interest to them and we might have engaged more participants.

In communicating with the participants, we emailed several preliminary documents that explained both the course and the email notifications that they would receive. Later emails had simple subject lines and gave information about Blackboard updates. However, one participant, and perhaps others, had difficulty distinguishing our emails from ones she received from other conferences. We had not expected participants to be involved in more than one online conference simultaneously. Thus we realized it would have been helpful for emails to have more descriptive subject lines and headers that affiliated them with the ASIS&T program and we made this improvement in the remaining emails sent throughout.

Additionally, in the future it may be helpful for participants if a clear distinction is made between a course and a conference. While this project had some of both elements, generally it was designed to be an exchange of information among peers as is done in a conference, using course-oriented software. However, we suspected that the courseware environment might have complicated participants' abilities to switch from "class mode" into "conference mode," possibly reducing levels of interaction.

Timing. We also experienced challenges in the area of timing. Initial planning for the course began in 2000, yet it took considerable time to prepare the lectures, decide on the course environment and coordinate volunteers before we were able to schedule a date for the conference for July 2002. As July approached, however, we realized that we had not allocated enough time to properly test the system and publicize the conference. Therefore, rather than rush that process, we decided to reschedule the conference for five months later when schedules permitted. Due to the flexibility of the volunteers and the stability of the lectures, this transition was made smoothly.

Coordination. A notable aspect of this program was its inter-chapter coordination. LACASIS and NEASIS&T volunteers communicated using a variety of methods, including in-person meetings, conference calls and emails. For the most part, each phase of the project involved the contribution of both chapters. Yet we relied on division of labor for efficiency. One unforeseen difficulty, due to the length of this program's planning process, was the need for each chapter to manage this conference in parallel with local chapter programs. When the local project experienced a busy time, it was a challenge for volunteers to dedicate the necessary time to the joint project and vice versa. In the future, one might consider dedicating volunteers to work on specific projects to provide greater continuity.

Conclusion

For other ASIS&T members interested in conducting similar projects, we offer these observations.

The first important element for success is the program timeline. When a program is pioneering, there is no roadmap to follow and traditional project management models do not apply. The timeline in bringing this program to fruition expanded and contracted according to a number of factors, most importantly the schedules of committee members. Experimental programs such as this are likely to succeed if committee members are flexible and adventurous.

A second element for success with collaborative programs is shared goals. The chapters shared an interest in reaching out to geographically dispersed members. The virtual program format provided an opportunity to test some new technologies that could assist each chapter in delivery of programming to remote members.

A third factor that contributes to success of joint programs is a committee that enjoys challenges. Virtual program committee members had a unique opportunity to work with ASIS&T members from other geographic areas and to work on topics of interest that were not necessarily part of their job descriptions. Programs of this type represent a professional development opportunity for people who are creative and like to expand their horizons.

Additionally, each committee member contributed valuable expertise and the eagerness to learn new skills in areas of technology, e-conference discussions, the subject of distance education and coordination of communications. Some members were able to make important contributions throughout the planning period, even though schedules did not permit them to participate in the actual e-conference.

The exploratory nature of this joint program provided a forum for ASIS&T members in different chapters to work together and have fun while learning new skills. We agreed in the beginning that this type of program should be provided to ASIS&T members at no cost so that all members could benefit, if interested. In so doing, we depended on support from ASIS&T, the chapters and the institutions where we work for this to take place. We did not know when we started whether our rather grassroots efforts would actually produce a successful program that could utilize the advanced technologies within our work environments. We were pleased with the results and recommend the experience to others.

For Further Reading

Green, L. (1998). Online conferencing: Lessons learned. Human Resources Development Canada, Office of Learning Technologies. Available at www.emoderators.com/moderators/lessonse.pdf.

Green, L. (1998). Playing croquet with flamingos: A guide to moderating online conferences. Human Resources Development Canada, Office of Learning Technologies. Available at www.emoderators.com/moderators/flamingoe.pdf.

Collins, B., & Berge, Z.L. (n.d.). The moderators' home page: Resources for moderators and facilitators of online discussion. Available at www.emoderators.com/moderators.shtml.


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