|Learn how to organize a teleconference, a transmission by electronic means of audio and/or visual contact, and material – images, documents, music, etc.|
Imagine being able to attend a conference with other people from around the state, the country, or the world who do work similar to yours. Just think – community developers from South America, health workers who strive to eliminate disease and malnutrition in Africa and Asia, mediators who promote peaceful solutions of problems in the Middle East, street workers who try to prevent violence in cities around North America – discussing what they do, sharing strategies for successful community development, and helping one another to do the best work possible.
As we addressed in the last section on organizing a conference, the problem is finding a time and place where all those people could gather at a reasonable expense. They’d all have to fly in from different directions and probably spend several days. They’d have to be fed and housed, and many of them would probably need at least some financial help to attend.
Nonetheless, it can happen. Businesses, schools, and, more and more, health and human service workers and community builders hold meetings like that every day. They’re teleconferencing – communicating with one another over an electronic network. In this section, we’ll look at teleconferencing: what it is, how it works, and how you might be able to use it in your work.
What is a teleconference?
A teleconference is a meeting of three or more people who are separated by distance, using electronic communication. The participants might be in the same city, or could be thousands of miles apart, in different countries on different continents. They may interact with one another, or the conference might be one-way – a lecture or presentation that a number of people can attend at the same time from different places. Sometimes, there are only three or four people involved, sometimes 25 or 30, sometimes hundreds. Teleconferencing is a way of bringing a group of people together from different locations without having to travel long distances.
The three most common types of teleconference are conference calls (voice only), videoconferences (voice and video), and web-based conferences. The last of these can incorporate voice and/or video; can include viewing computer files, such as spreadsheets, documents, pictures, and PowerPoint presentations; and can use the resources of the Internet.
Conference calls. Depending on how many people are involved and the purpose of the conference, these may be conference calls like the ones that many Tool Box users have probably been involved in. The Community Tool Box team, for example, members of which are separated by over 1200 miles, meets regularly by conference call.
A conference call is simply a phone call with more than two participants. It usually requires no special equipment besides a telephone, although speaker phones can be used if there is more than one person at a site.
If the call involves a relatively small number of people – there are usually seven or eight participants in Community Tool Box calls, for instance – it is conducted just like a normal conversation or meeting, except that the speakers can’t see one another. If, however, as is sometimes the case, the call involves from perhaps 25 to hundreds of people, there has to be some control on who speaks when. Otherwise, with so many trying to break in when they had something to say, the result would be chaos.
Thus, a small conference call requires only the use of equipment to put all the callers together. A large one may require somewhat more complex and sophisticated equipment and services. We’ll discuss all of this in more detail later in the section.
Video conferences. A video conference is one in which two or more groups of people, each at a location equipped for videoconferencing, can see one another and interact, or view a presentation (which, in turn, may originate from yet another location) and, in some cases, respond to it. The equipment used here has, until recently, consisted of videocameras and microphones tied to a live TV feed, creating a need for satellite dishes and other transmission equipment, and for specialized technical assistance. As a further result, this technology meant that only particular places set up for transmission could be used as locations for conferences, thus requiring people either to travel to get to a site, or to go to some trouble and expense to set up a more local site.
As of this writing (2008), this technology, though not the format, has largely been replaced by…
Computer-based conferences. These are, or can be, similar to videoconferences in that groups of people – or a large number of widely separated individuals, for that matter – can have audio and visual contact. They are different in that video transmission takes place over high-speed Internet lines, and requires some basic – and largely programmable – equipment and appropriate software.
Because most conferences take place in “real time” – i.e., the images and sound are transmitted as they happen – dial-up Internet connections can be too slow to allow someone to follow the flow of presentation or discussion. This is an issue in some rural areas in North America, and in other parts of the world as well.
There are two ways to conduct a video conference of this type. One is to rely on computers for video and data transmission, while the audio comes through speaker phones via a conference call. The other is to use high-speed Internet lines for audio transmission as well, through VoIP technology (digitized telephone messages that are transmitted over the Internet).
In either case, computer-based conferencing allows the transmission of sound, pictures and files all at once, so that participants can see and hear one another, and can see and discuss documents, charts, and presentations as if they were all in the same room. (Most systems incorporate a split screen, on which you can see the other participants at a distant location, and a small monitor image of your own location.) It also makes it possible in some instances for participants to join the conference from anywhere, as long as they have computers, some inexpensive peripherals (webcams and microphones) and high-speed Internet connections.
Computer teleconference equipment is available in many forms. Some allow people to join a conference from a single PC, and require relatively little equipment and fairly simple software. Other possibilities range from equipment for small groups in small rooms (a monitor, camera, and microphone(s)), to systems for larger groups which may include built-in projectors and screens, multiple cameras and microphones, document readers, and sophisticated bridging devices to connect different types of transmissions. In addition, various types of add-on equipment (voice-activated cameras, for instance, that automatically focus on whoever’s speaking) can upgrade simpler systems. In other words, it’s possible to include almost any kind of information and use almost any format that you could in a face-to-face conference or meeting – as well as incorporating elements that wouldn’t be possible face-to-face – if the resources are available.
In either of the first two types of conference, the audio or video transmission can be accompanied by material on a website, or by electronic files of various sorts sent to participants’ computers. A relatively common method of videoconferencing, in fact, is to get the video over high-speed Internet lines, and the audio by conference call.
These are by no means the only ways that teleconferencing can be conducted. Instant messaging (IM) is used in many situations, for instance, and presentations, whether audio-, video-, or web-based, may be stored for later viewing or listening.
The amount of interaction that takes place during a teleconference depends on the format, the number of people or groups involved, and the purpose of the conference. A long-distance discussion or planning meeting would probably allow everyone to talk and listen in ways similar to an in-person session. A teleconference run for professional training, however, might consist only of a one-way transmission of a presentation, with discussion limited to members of a group of participants gathered in the same room or limited to an online chat. On the other hand, a teleconference might also include a question period, with participants from far-flung locations sharing their questions and thoughts with all.
A conference call with, say, 50 or more participants might be set up so that all participants could hear the principal speaker(s), but so that an operator would have to connect a specific line in order for the person on that line to be heard by the whole conference. There are numerous websites, many included in the Resources area of this section, that will tell you more about the technology possibilities.
As you can probably gather from the information above, there are really two levels to organizing many teleconferences, especially large ones. The first is the initiator level, organizing the conference as a whole – determining or suggesting the topic, requiring or inviting participation, arranging for the transmission from the source (which includes finding and using the right equipment and/or software), securing speakers or furnishing a facilitator, setting the format, etc. The second is the hosting level, setting up and hosting the secondary sites from which many conference participants will be taking part – finding a proper space (one that not only has enough room, but one that already is, or can be, equipped with the technology to handle the conference), publicizing the conference, registering participants, arranging logistics, and facilitation of your site’s part in discussion or questions. We’ll deal with this two-sided coin in more detail when we take on how to organize a teleconference.
Why would you organize a teleconference?
The obvious reason to organize a teleconference is to gather a group of people who might otherwise have to travel long distances and spend large amounts of time to meet in person. Businesses use teleconferencing for a variety of reasons, including to make meeting attendance easier for busy people; to introduce new policies, procedures, and products; to reduce global footprint; to conduct regular meetings and/or trainings of a staff whose members may be based in different states or countries, thus saving both the time and money that would otherwise be spent on travel; to bring geographically separated decision-makers into strategy sessions in crises or opportunities where quick decision-making is necessary; or to meet with and/or inform customers or suppliers in a variety of locations.
Health and community workers may organize teleconferences for somewhat similar reasons:
- Professional development. Often teleconferences can serve as vehicles for ongoing professional training. In this case, most of the teleconference may consist of a presentation. The conference format also allows for questions and comments from participants, which may lead the presenter to pursue fruitful topics that weren’t on the original agenda.
Many state agencies – library commissions, departments of education, departments of health, etc. – use teleconferences for the professional development of staff members of organizations that they fund, especially in situations where certification requirements demand a certain number of hours of ongoing training each year.
- Collaboration on countywide, statewide, or national programs or initiatives.
Teleconferences for this purpose may be organized by county, state, or national government agencies for funded programs, by foundations or other funders, or by the collaborating organizations or individuals themselves. The goal may be discussion of the work, a staff meeting over distance, planning, or any of the other activities that collaborators might engage in if they were physically able to meet in person. The teleconference can make collaboration over a large geographic area possible.
- Education and distance learning. In classrooms, teleconferencing can be used to connect students in different schools, or even different countries, can provide virtual field trips, and can make possible student projects that require the help of instructors with particular expertise. In sparsely populated rural areas, students can engage in distance learning, attending school classes by video or computer. They interact with the instructor and one another, and are thus able to ask and answer questions and engage in discussion.
While online universities are another form of distance learning, their courses usually don’t take place in real time. Individuals work on their own schedules, and interaction is by e-mail or online forum, so that these courses aren’t examples of teleconference use.
- Idea sharing. Organizations from around the state or country may use a teleconference to pass on practices that have worked for them and get new ideas for their work. The same might be true for specific groups of health and community workers – job developers, social workers, critical-care nurses, etc.
- The communication of rules, regulations, expectations, etc. Funding agencies might use teleconferencing to make sure that all funded programs know about particular regulations or procedures, or about potential or actual changes. Bidders’ conferences – where organizations interested in applying for funding can receive information and ask questions about a Request For Proposals (RFP) – might also be conducted wholly or partly by teleconference.
- Medical consultation. Increasingly, medical professionals and patients may consult with faraway specialists or interdisciplinary teams of physicians through video- or web-based teleconferencing. Rural health centers and developing-world clinics – often staffed only by a single physician or nurse practitioner – can thus have access to a level of diagnostic help usually found only in well-staffed hospitals in sophisticated urban centers.
- Establishment of connections among participants. Teleconferencing can allow participants in programs in different localities to share experience and ideas, collaborate on community-based participatory research (and widen the applicability of their research by including two or more communities), and take an active role in overseeing the services they get.
- Extension of the reach of an important speaker, awards ceremony, annual meeting, etc. An important event whose audience would otherwise be limited by time, expense, or the size of the available space can be transmitted to any number of people through electronic communication.
- Advocacy. In statewide and national advocacy efforts, teleconferencing may be a necessary alternative to face-to-face meetings, not only because of the reduction in travel expense and time, but also because of the necessity of making decisions quickly. If a vote is about to take place, or a policy decision about to be made, you may not have the luxury of waiting a day to decide what to do. A teleconference can make all the difference in a time-pressure situation.
When would you organize a teleconference?
Teleconferences in general are organized when participants are separated by distance or circumstance.
- When travel is not possible because of conditions, time, and/or expense. Working with colleagues internationally, for instance, might provide good reason for a teleconference, rather than trying to get people together for a meeting. Several social workers, counselors, and mediators might need to meet about a family they’re all working with, but might have other appointments that allow them only time for a conference call, rather than a trip across town.
- When you want to involve a very large number of people. Teleconferencing is perhaps the easiest way to get a large group of people together if they’re separated from one another by long distances.
- When regular, reasonably frequent, meetings must be held among people in widespread locations. The Community Tool Box team conference-call staff meetings, referred to above, are a good example of this situation.
- When computer files that need to be viewed and/or manipulated by a number of people as the conference goes on are integral to the purpose of the conference. In a case like this, it sometimes makes sense to employ teleconference methods even when participants are in the same city.
A conference like this may take place over a local area network (LAN), i.e., a set of networked computers within the same office, government agency, or organization. Organizing such a conference is much simpler than organizing one that involves large numbers of people in several different locations, but the intent is the same.
- When an immediate decision has to be made. You may not have time to travel. A conference call or something similar can give you the time you need.
Who should organize a teleconference?
There are really two ways to look at who organizes a teleconference. One is from the perspective of the group that initiates the conference; the other is from the perspective of a group that hosts a site for or participates in the conference. Both ends need to be organized, but the type and level of organizing may be different in each case, depending upon the nature of the conference and who the participants are.
In health and community work, the most likely initiators of a teleconference might be:
- State agencies
- Hospitals or other centers of training and practice
- Colleges and universities
- State or national professional associations
- Lead agencies in collaborations that span several communities
- Professional consultants or suppliers that have been hired by one of the above entities to provide training, evaluation, equipment or software and instruction in its use, or other services to organizations or individuals engaged in health and community work.
These are the groups and organizations that, in general, have the most interest in bringing together health and community organizations or individual workers from across a wide area to discuss issues, receive training, hear about and discuss new developments or efforts in the field, learn about the latest regulations and laws, etc.
The most likely site hosts or participants:
- Local community organizations
- Local branches of state agencies
- Clinics or hospitals
- Schools, colleges, and universities
- Local chapters of professional associations
A funder, such as a foundation, a state agency, a large training hospital, a college or university, or a professional association may have on staff, or regularly hire as a consultant, an event planner, part of whose job would be to organize teleconferences. If not, the task may fall to a particular administrative or support staff person – perhaps the one who coordinates relationships with the organizations and individuals being required or invited to participate.
At the host-site level, organizing is often taken on by an administrator at the host site – a local library director, for instance, or a school principal or assistant principal – or by the person who coordinates the program or activity that the teleconference relates to – the staff development coordinator, for instance, or the director of nursing. Larger institutions or organizations may have a technology coordinator, as many businesses do, who takes charge of teleconferences.
How do you organize a teleconference?
In some ways, organizing a teleconference is similar to organizing a conference (see the previous section of this chapter), but the inclusion of technology makes the process easier in some ways and harder in others. As we’ve already mentioned, organizing also varies depending on whether you’re doing it at the initiator level or the host-site level. We’ll take you through a step-by-step process for organizing a teleconference, taking into account the differences between being an initiator of a conference and hosting a site for one.
Determine the purpose and topic(s) of the teleconference. If the conference is one of a regular series – staff meetings, staff/professional development, ongoing training – you might want to ask participants what they want or need. Before a conference-call staff meeting, for instance, the facilitator might, by e-mail, ask for agenda items, or circulate a proposed agenda for additions or changes. Coordinators of training teleconferences might solicit – again, probably by e-mail – topics for upcoming sessions.
Even in situations where the teleconference is initiated and required by a funder or oversight agency, that body might get the best results by asking participants to set the topic. If the purpose, for instance, is to improve practice in the field, those doing the work will know what areas most need improvement.
In other circumstances – a bidders’ conference, an introduction to new regulations -- the initiator might be the obvious choice to decide on the agenda.
Identify your audience. While the first step is largely up to initiators, here there is a role for site coordinators as well.
Initiators have to decide the categories of people that will be required or invited to participate in the teleconference. A training conference for nurses might include:
- All RN’s in a given geographical area (county, state, Northeast Region, etc.)
- Nurses from a given specialty (psychiatric, critical care, ER)
- Nurses employed by a specific medical group (a large HMO or hospital group, for example)
- Nurses in any of the above categories with fewer than three years of experience
- Nurses working in particular cultural communities
- Nurses about to undertake work with a relief agency
As you can imagine, this list could go on for quite a while. Just as often, it’s not particular individuals, but particular organizations – those funded by one state agency, for instance – that are the targets of a teleconference. It’s up to the initiator to make the choice, depending upon the purpose and content of the conference.
Once the initiator has decided on the general characteristics of the audience, the host site may have to sort out exactly who from that group should get an invitation. Especially if space is limited, the host site may place restrictions on eligibility for the conference, accepting only people in certain positions in an organization, for instance, or only people with certain credentials.
This issue also relates to situations where people in certain jobs need a number of Continuing Education Units (CEU’s) each year in order to keep or qualify for a professional credential. If the teleconference will count toward that number, the host site might give first priority to people needing CEU’s.
Choose the technology for the teleconference. As the initiator, your choice of technology may be limited by what you know is available to host sites, or to the transmission equipment you have available. It’s more likely, for instance, that a government agency would have access to sophisticated teleconference equipment than that a small grassroots organization would. The grassroots organization might be limited to a no-frills conference call for a relatively small group, while the government agency might have the capacity to organize a web-based teleconference involving hundreds at numerous sites around the state or country.
The options here are many and varied.
Conference calls, except for the most complicated, can generally be conducted with equipment that’s inexpensive, available, and easily used everywhere in the developed world, i.e., standard telephones and/or speaker phones. These calls can be arranged through phone companies and teleconference providers, and their cost varies depending on the features you desire. As noted earlier, your provider can have the call administered by an operator, who controls which lines are open. There are generally limits on the size of a standard conference, but they can increase for higher fees. Other features can be added, such as conference-specific or free call-in phone numbers, audio feeds, or higher security. Some conference call equipment can be purchased and used in the buyer’s own phone system.
Teleconference equipment, as explained earlier, can be relatively simple and geared to individual PC’s, or much more sophisticated. The cost can range from a couple of hundred dollars for a single PC (and several hundred to a few thousand for software to run the whole system) to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even that high cost might be justified if teleconferencing is an integral part of a large organization’s functioning, and saves even more money on travel every year (more likely in business than in health and community work, but there may be exceptions in fields like international development.)
Teleconferencing equipment may also be rented on a one-time or by-the-month basis, or leased for the longer term. Whether to buy or rent is a matter of analyzing how necessary the equipment is, how much it will be used, repair costs, whether you’ll need to hire someone to maintain and operate it, etc.
The other issue to consider here is that of internal networks. Many organizations have all their computers networked in a LAN (Local Area Network), which, under certain circumstances, may extend its reach to as much as 200 kilometers (about 125 miles). There are also private WANs (Wide Area Networks) that operate over phone lines or by satellite, and whose reach is limited only by the capacity of the carrying medium. (The Internet is a WAN.) A teleconference can easily be held over a network – within a university, for instance, or in a state library system – if one is available to all necessary participants.
There is a wealth of information on the Internet about these issues (see Resources for a few sites), but probably the best way to decide what’s best for you is to talk with knowledgeable people. That may mean conversations with two or three providers, and/or discussion with colleagues who have had experience with a number of systems. If you decide to buy equipment or a software subscription, try it out first, in the space where you’re planning to use it, to make sure it’s appropriate for your purposes.
The teleconference initiator has to determine the best affordable medium for the conference taking in mind what is easily available to the intended audience. For many in health and community development work, considerations may stop at cost: the best medium may simply be the least expensive. For others, there may be decisions about equipment, such as whether to conduct a completely computer-based video conference, or to run the audio as a simple point-to-point phone call, using speaker phones (if there are only two or three sites).
For their part, the hosts have to make sure that they have the necessary equipment on site and properly installed, so that they can receive and send back whatever is necessary.
Organize host sites. Depending on the nature of the teleconference, you may need one or more host sites. (Host sites will be unnecessary in the case of a conference call where people can call in from anywhere, or a videoconference over individual PC’s.) These sites may need no special equipment beyond telephones or a speaker phone, or may need such things as multiple PC’s, large monitors, LCD projectors, cameras and microphones, or document readers. Host sites may also need comfortable chairs and writing surfaces for a group of people.
Some initiators may have “automatic” host sites available. The state Department of Education can use appropriately equipped schools, the state library system can use local libraries, and so on. If the initiator is a funder, funded organizations with the proper set-up may volunteer to host, or may collaborate with another local organization – a library, for instance – to provide a host site. If the teleconference is simply a meeting between or among two or more widely separated sites of the same organization or collaboration, the initiator may be the main office or lead agency, and the host sites will be the other offices or organizations involved.
It’s important for both the initiator and host sites to have some idea of the number of people that can participate, both in total and at each site, in order to have the necessary facilities and equipment available, and to understand what kind of interaction will be possible.
Choose a date and time for the conference. As in planning any meeting or gathering, timing is important – and often difficult – if you want to make sure that all the necessary individuals and groups are involved. The teleconference shouldn’t conflict with other events or important dates (legal holidays and school vacations, graduations, Election Day, religious holidays, cultural celebrations), or with other professional commitments. It should generally be scheduled during regular working hours. Conferring with intended participants beforehand is one way to pick a date and time that is likely to work for most people.
Arrange the teleconference with the appropriate service provider, if necessary. Unless you already own all the appropriate hardware and software and need no external technical assistance, you’ll have to rely on a provider to make the connections among sites, to sell or rent you the appropriate equipment, or to help you run it. Once you know the details of the conference – when it will be, what kind of transmission it will be, approximately how many people at how many sites it will involve, and what you want to transmit – it should be relatively easy to work out the logistics and price with a provider.
Arrange for technical coordination at both the initiation point and the host sites. In the case of a conference call, the on-site technology is simple, and the technical coordination will be the job of the provider. With videoconferencing involving individuals with PC’s in a number of different places, the technical coordination has to take place at the initiation point. In the case of multiple sites using more complex equipment – projectors, larger cameras, etc. – each site should have a technical coordinator. This person doesn’t have to be a technical professional, but should be someone who understands the technology and can trouble-shoot if there’s a problem.
Get the word out – publicize the teleconference. This may just be a matter of sending internal memos or e-mails to let people know when the conference is scheduled for, its purpose, and at whom it’s directed. If the teleconference is, for instance, a voluntary training workshop offered by a state oversight agency (Department of Public Health, Department of Education, Division of Employment and Training, etc.) to practitioners from all around the state, it should be advertised widely, so that as many people as possible will take advantage of it.
Posters, e-mails, personal communication to offices and community based organizations where potential participants work, and announcements and handouts at meetings of the field or of supervisors can all help to publicize a teleconference. A mass mailing to a targeted list is also a good method, especially if there’s a need for registration, either for the teleconference itself or for CEU credits. Postings on the initiator’s website are also
If the teleconference is mandatory or necessary for the intended participants, the participants should be contacted directly by the initiator. If the conference is mandatory or necessary for particular groups –organizations funded by the initiator, for instance – it should be announced through whatever channel the initiator normally communicates with those groups. A bidders’ teleconference, for example, can be announced in the RFP, with any inquiry about the RFP, and to all currently funded entities.
Sign ‘em up – recruit and register participants. In cases where this is necessary – trainings and other presentations offered to a large population, for example – it’s generally the responsibility of both the initiator and the host sites to recruit and register participants, and to cut off registration when a site has reached capacity (which may be determined either by the physical size of the site or the availability of equipment). Registration forms can be sent directly to potential participants, distributed to organizations, agencies, and institutions where those participants work, or posted on a website. You might also offer registration by phone or e-mail.
In cases like this, someone at the initiation point should have coordinating responsibilities for the teleconference, and will know when a particular host site can take no more participants, and where places are left. Coordination will make the whole process much smoother, and avoid most of the chaos that’s waiting to complicate almost any activity that involves a large number of people.
Part of the registration process should be to register participants who want them for available CEU’s. People should know how many CEU’s they’ll get for the teleconference, and if there are any other requirements in order to get them (returning another form, writing a short paper, etc.) In most cases, host sites should have CEU certificates to hand out to those who’ve registered for them and attended.
Prepare the sites. This step covers both technical and physical preparation. In the case of the former, it’s necessary to ensure that all the appropriate technical equipment is either already present and properly hooked up, or to arrange for its installation in time for the teleconference. In the latter case, you’ll need to consider both the number of people, and the nature of the conference.
In situations where the teleconference involves a number of individuals joining a conference call or participating in a conference on their laptops, the only preparation is on the initiator’s end, and that’s often only making sure that the appropriate hookups have been established. The information here assumes two or more sites, with a group at each.
Preparation applies to both the initiation point and host sites. If a presentation is originating from one site, that site will have to be set up so that the presenter and any presentation aids (whiteboard, charts and graphs, video or audio clips, etc.) are visible and audible. If the presentation is interactive, the presenter should easily be able to see and hear the audience at distant sites.
At host sites (including the initiation point), you’ll want to attend to typical hospitality, including room arrangements, materials, food and drinks, and restroom facilities.
Welcome participants and do the paperwork. Host sites should make sure that all participants know where and when it is, how to get there, where to park, and where to go in the building once they get there.
As people arrive, they should get any materials they need (as well as name tags, if appropriate), and either be checked off on a preregistration list or be recorded as attending, along with their affiliation. Anyone who wants CEU’s should be identified now, if they haven’t already been. If there are evaluation forms or other paperwork for participants to complete, they should receive it as they come in.
Hold the teleconference. Here’s where technical coordinators often earn their pay. There can be problems with equipment or transmission, especially in situations where originating or hosting a teleconference is a first-time or relatively rare occurrence. Having someone on hand who can troubleshoot on these occasions can mean the difference between success and disappointment. Even if you have to hire a technical coordinator for the day, it’s worth it for the security; if you need the help, it’s priceless.
During the teleconference:
- Depending on the number of participants, consider having each participant introduce him or herself.
- If interaction during the teleconference is desired, consider calling on people to elicit responses from quieter participants.
- If an online platform is being used, you may ask the participants to document their ideas or share thoughts using the “chat” function of the platform. Online chats can usually be saved to help document the conversation.
- If collaboration between participants is desired after the teleconference ends, it may be helpful to provide an online collaborative space such as a Wiki where participants can communicate and even collaborate on working documents.
Evaluate the teleconference. If the teleconference is a training or other presentation, you’ll want feedback on its content and quality – its clarity, usefulness, relevance to the reality of participants’ work, the presenter’s style, etc. Regardless of what kind of teleconference you conduct, however, it’s important to evaluate it in other ways as well. Some possible evaluation questions for participants:
- Did the teleconference accomplish its purpose?
- Was it as effective as a face-to face interaction? Were important elements or details lost or gained by the use of electronic communication?
- How comfortable were participants with the technology, and with using this method of communication?
- How well was it organized? What worked particularly well, and what could be changed?
- Did not being able to see people in a conference call meeting change the dynamic? For better, worse, or neither?
- Did the time and travel saved outweigh any negative aspects of the teleconference?
- Would people like to continue/participate again?
How you gather this information may vary, depending on the type of teleconference. If there are groups gathering at host sites, for instance, you might hand out forms with appropriate questions, in which case participants might have the option of choosing not to identify themselves on the form. Where a teleconference involves numerous individuals, each at his or her own site, forms can e-mailed or sent via an online survey.
Keep in mind that the point of anonymous evaluation is that people will often feel freer to be honest if they don’t have to identify themselves.
The teleconference initiators should also answer the above questions, as well as others related to the process, including:
- Did the teleconference go as planned, as far as time, participation, and results?
- Did the technology work as it was supposed to? What, if any, were the frustrations attached to technical matters?
- Were technical coordinators able to deal with any problems that came up? Do technical coordinators need specialized training to trouble-shoot this technology, or is a general knowledge of the working of computers and software enough?
- How difficult was it to arrange and schedule the conference?
- Was the provider’s service satisfactory? Did the provider make the process easy, or cause problems?
- Would you continue to conduct/conduct another teleconference?
Follow-up. Follow up on any assignments or activities that participants were to engage in. Make sure people have completed their assignments, received their CEU’s, sent in evaluation forms, etc. You should also be sure to return any borrowed or rented equipment on time.
Analyze the costs, benefits, usefulness, and effectiveness of this teleconference for your purposes. Make whatever changes you can afford in teleconference procedure, format, technology, or use based on evaluation results. And finally, schedule your next teleconference.
When a number of people who need to communicate with one another are separated by distance, one way for them to get together is by teleconference. A teleconference is the transmission by electronic means of audio and/or visual contact, as well as any other material – images, documents, music, PowerPoint presentations – that can be digitized and sent over phone or computer network lines.
Organizing a teleconference can be similar to organizing a conference, in that it may take planning, choosing and setting up sites, registering participants, and evaluating the process and content when you’re done. It adds the issue of technology, but eliminates the sometimes nightmarish logistics of getting large numbers of people to a single place at a given time, and managing them once they’re there.
Health and community workers can use teleconferencing for a number of purposes, particularly training, long-distance coordination and collaboration, and advocacy. You may find that teleconferencing is an efficient and reasonable way to accomplish your purposes, and that organizing a teleconference is a small price to pay for the savings in money, time, and global resources.
Suggestions on organizing a teleconference host site from the Alabama Library Association.
Allconferencing. conference call supplier. Information on how the process works.
Buyerzone. Information on how audio conferencing systems work, and how to choose one.
Glance. An easy-to-use screen sharing tool useful for web conferencing.
GotoMeeting. A web conferencing tool.
Telespan. Information on various systems and how they work.
Survey Monkey. A simple way to create online surveys.
An old guide to organizing a videoconference from the University of Missouri Extension. The technology assumptions are largely out of date, but there’s good information on organization of a presentation or training videoconference.
Web Conferencing: Information. Information on web conferencing.