Friday, September 17, 2010

Knowledge at a Distance: Skype Video - It Works!

We were very sad a few weeks ago when Joan Davis, one of our speakers, and a Switzerland-based founding member of the Balaton Group, let us know that she was not able to attend. She was to be an important part of our programme, focusing on organic agriculture, and scheduled for Day 3 of our annual Balaton Group Meeting on "Food Futures".

We are a group that focuses on sustainability, and very sensitive to travel and carbon emissions, so virtual contributions would be acceptable from a philosophical point of view. However, everything we have tried in the past to have virtual participation at our meetings has not really worked for many reasons. We thought we would try again this time, our of sheer necessity - and as I watch Joan on the big screen through skype video, we can see that it really works!

The quality of the connection, video and sound is excellent. We are just using a regular laptop with an integrated video, connected to a PPT projector, and a speaker connection (used for showing videos). The wifi is strong in this meeting room. So this is a good start - the technical support is great. However this is only part of our expectations.  One of our group's values is that speakers stay with us throughout the meeting. This means that they get to know the group and can connect with our conversations and help us move ahead in our thinking through their inputs and contribute substantively to generative dialogue. Too often speakers parachute in and give their usual talk and leave, especially easy for a web-based part of a programme, giving the feeling of disconnect and potentially taking a group off in another direction. Here are a few things that we did to get this depth of connection with a virtual speaker:
  • Skype connection previously in the meeting week: Joan has been monitoring the presentations and discussion all week, so she is able to make comments on the previous speakers points in her skype presentations.
  • Know the participants: She knows the participant group and can mention names of participants and their relevent backgrounds, and can mention them as people that the group can speak to for further engagement around some of her points.
  • Support the two-way conversation: As you can see in the photo above, the laptop on the desk of our Chair Kevin Noone is facing the group, so Joan can also see us. Conversely, seeing this small image of ourselves in the upper right hand of the screen helps us be aware of the 2-way nature of this conversation. The Chair is also actively moderating, repeating questions if the microphone doesn't pick them up, etc.
This was an excellent experience for the group, which has strong traditions and values around speakers contributions and social interaction during their events. However, in a time when travel restrictions (whether self-imposed or infrastructure/nature-imposed) and other things like health and finances increasingly keeping people home, this doesn't need to impede good quality knowledge exchange and dialogue that creates new ideas, new meaning and new initiatives. We believed this in theory, and now know this from experience.