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An Experiment in Social Computing

The NMC is an organization dedicated not only to engaging its 170 member institutions on timely topics of current interest and emergent thinking, but also one that strives to walk the walk in the ways it uses technology. As an approach to helping members stay on top of an ever-changing technology landscape and the never-ending flow of new ideas and information, the NMC wanted to find a high-tech, high-touch system that leveraged technology to bring a community of practitioners together.

In creating the NMC’s series of Online Conferences, the consortium partnered with iCohere and Macromedia to conduct a real-time experiment in social computing. they hoped to use common tools in new ways, and in the process bring people together in a way that encouraged substantive interaction, dialog, and knowledge sharing. They wanted to create an online conferencing experience that gave people the opportunity to engage with one another using real-time audio, real-time chat and real-time video—and at times and on terms defined by conference participants. At the same time, they wanted the experience to feel like a face-to-face conference in as many ways as possible. Helping attendees feel at ease and that they were part of a dynamic gathering of people were explicit goals of the experiment.

With this focus on a dynamic social computing experience, the inaugural NMC Online Conference applied many principles of successful conference planning to the online setting. Virtual keynotes set the tone for each day of the four-day event, and daily presentations on selected themes provided the same intellectual richness that one expects in a face-to-face conferencing environment. Event planners went so far as to provide virtual exhibit space for event sponsors and a daily virtual “happy hour” with presenter and attendees to discuss new ideas and future collaborative directions. The goal was to make the event feel as much like a real conference as possible.

The featured sessions provided in-depth information on a wide range of subjects; being available on a 24 X 7 basis gave participants the opportunity to review and revisit sessions whenever they desired. Key resources—articles, links, and related materials—were included in almost every room of the conference, and poster sessions and a gallery provided many examples of interesting learning objects. Session attendees had a variety of options each day. Some events were live, while others could be accessed at any time. Even live events, however, were carefully captured, and made available to participants as on-demand experiences. Asynchronous access to presentations and dialogs allowed attendees time to review materials, and to share them with colleagues.

Several attendees commented on how they appreciated having the opportunity to participate in a professional event without the requirements of travel or being away from the office for an extended time. They enjoyed having the ability to pause and refer to posted resources. Materials had been developed with an eye for both narrow-band and broadband participation, which increased the flexibility for people who would join session during the day on the university broadband network and at home on their personal dial-up service.

In retrospect, the secrets to success came in anticipating what it would take to keep participants engaged and interested. Among the most important lessons learned were that in spite of being a technology-mediated event, the true richness of the experience reflected the care that organizers took to maximize the interaction experiences among participants. The goal was to make it fun to participate, and to make that happen, the organizers paid a lot of attention to the little things.

A team of hosts personally welcomed attendees as they logged on. IM postings helped people see how to use the tools. Presenters were recruited at various times during the conference to add a spark to the online discussions and chats. Another team invited stragglers into live chat sessions as they started up. Online discussions underscored the focus on person-to-person communication that made attendees describe this conference as such a rich experience. Indeed, the most common comment was that people wished they had budgeted more time to attend the event, as it turned out to be far richer than they had anticipated.

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