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Using & Teaching Educational Technology


Chatcasting from a management perspective
By Terry Freedman
Created on Wed, 15 Aug 2007, 11:24

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Darren Kuropatwa recently asked me to chair a chat session in Skype whilst he was giving a presentation. Quite why he asked me, given my scepticism on the efficacy of things like this, I don't know. But I did my best, and the resultant recommendation will depend on who you are....

First, though, a definition. I'm sure there will be a purist or two who tell me this is incorrect, but in my view chatcasting and back-channelling are one and the same: the carrying out of a conversation using an instant messaging-type tool, during a presentation.

Now, the potential advantages and disadvantages of this are obvious. On the one hand, people can clarify points, throw the odd website address into the mix, and generally enrich the whole event. And, of course, there is a permanent record of the chat to which people can refer later.

On the other hand, it's easy to miss bits of the presentation, and easy to get side-tracked during the discussion.

I've said all this before, here and here. But until recently I had experience only of participating in a chatcast, not managing one. Now that I took Darren up on his flattering request, I'm in a position to view both sides.

Darren's idea was deceptively simple. Whilst giving a presentation to some teachers in Denver, he wanted a chatcast to be taking place. This would become part of the delegates' homework for Day 1. He asked me to "captain" (his term) the chatcast, by which he meant chair the conversation, throw out challenges and, crucially, to relay to anyone not present what Darren was saying. He also hoped that, following my example, one or two of the delegates would be able to captain the chatcast the following day.

From a user's point of view, the chatcast was an undoubted success, by and large. For example, Peggy George, whom I've mentioned before in these pages, said:

"That was some of the best professional  development I've had in a long time."

I thought the links and the clarification of bits I missed great as well, and Sharon Peters has also written about this, and chatcasting in general, in glowing terms. But what was it like managing it?

Well, first we need to outline the process involved. The idea was that I would call Darren via Skype at the appointed hour. That would enable me to hear what was being said. It would also open up a (blank) chat window, to which the delegates could be added. In order to be added, they would have to download and register on Skype, and then add me as a contact so I'd know who they were.

In order to evaluate this process after the event, I set up a Google spreadsheet, to which Sharon Peters contributed. Here are my conclusions.

Inviting people into chat was quite frenetic, with requests to exchange details popping up all over the place, and then attempting to add them to chat. There were several issues, in fact:

First, there were lots of people requesting to be added to my contact list at same time. I would suggest that the presenter ask organisers to include in the conference details a set of pre-course requirements to include joining skype, twitter etc. Alternatively, give people time at the start of the day as well, eg start 15 mins earlier. Sharon agrees:

"We always have our WOW2 guests give us their skype info ahead of time to avoid this issue.", she says.

Second, I couldn't see some people after we'd exchanged contact details, and so couldn't add them to chat straight away. This would have been avoided had their details been known in advance, but if that isn't possible then perhaps delegates should be asked to state their real name, if it isn't obvious, and why they are asking to be added to your contacts. For example:

"I'm Fred Bloggs and I'm in Joe Soap's presentation."

Third, as far as chairing the chat is concerned, it's a good idea to have more than one lined up. It's hard to answer everyone's questions and keep track of what's going on. In this case Bud the Teacher helped out and others chimed in. It was good, as it turned out, but it might easily have not been.

Sharon goes even further:

"Having one anchor is a good idea - perhaps a chair (captain) and an anchor whose job it is to keep folks on topic. Might be good idea to have a techie in the background for tech support too?"

Fourth, have a rota. I was "on" for three hours, and was pretty tired by the end of it. That's too much for one person, even if you're sharing the load.

Fifth, Skype has severe limitations. For example, I was able to invite only 9 people to join me in a conference call so that they could hear the presentation too. I wanted to do that because another "feature" of Skype is that it sometimes drops the connection, and I knew that if that happened to me it would be a disaster. A better solution, though, would be to investigate live streaming solution. 

Sixth, Skype has a webcam  facility, and with the benefits of hindsight I would say that Darren should have had a webcam pointing at the screen, so I could see what he was showing.

Finally, there are legalistic issues to sort out. You need, for example, to inform people that anything they say or type could end up in the public domain. I should think that, technically, one should ask people to sign something to say they agree. At the moment, all this stuff is in the experimental phase, so I doubt that anyone is too bothered about it at the moment. However, presenters might like to consider incorporating something in their "blurb" to the effect that the presentation might be podcast or chatcasted.

In conclusion, I would say that participating in a chatcast is one thing, but managing one effectively is a whole other level. It's not for the faint-hearted, and not something I would recommend doing off the cuff. This one worked well because Darren had thought through what he wanted and had people set up to undertake various tasks, the people he'd approached took their role seriously and there were people in the chatcast who were more than willing to lend a hand. But because of the technical and managerial  issues I've outlined here, more detailed planning would be advisable.


What do you think? Please leave a comment.