Sunday, April 28, 2019

Creating informal online meetings

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about the missing link in online conferences; the opportunity to network and discuss during mingle parties, coffee breaks and sightseeing tours. This week my Austrian colleague, David Röthler, and I arranged an experimental webinar to show a variety of tools and methods for creating such informal meeting spaces. The recorded webinar can be seen above. The idea was to showcase a few of the many platforms and tools for more effective virtual meetings and collaboration and discuss the opportunities they offer for more informal interaction.

We ran most of the session in the web-meeting platform Zoom, including a virtual coffee break where we randomly created groups of 4-5 participants who had all grabbed a cup of tea or coffee before the start of the meeting. This strategy could be used at many online events as an option before, during of after the session to let participants socialise and reflect together. Many new opportunities could arise from such chance meetings.

One of the platforms we highlighted was a virtual office solution called Remo. We were lucky to have the founder of the platform, Ho Yin Cheung, in our group and he invited our participants into Remo to continue discussing in a new environment. As a result our session ended in a slightly messy overlap where some of the group was already discussing in Remo, some were still in Zoom and some were in both spaces. The advantage of Remo (and similar solutions such as Sococo and Walkabout) is that participants can choose to sit in an office, a meeting room, a lobby or even an auditorium depending on what they want to do. When two or more sit in the same room they are able to have a video meeting with screensharing and chat. In this way people can easily change rooms, join different discussions and invite others to join. Or you can simply work alone in a room but indicate that your are available for consultation if needed. Maybe a good way to have a virtual mingle party for an online conference.

Our guided city tour had to be rather brief to fit in with our short time slot but David was able to go out on the roof and show us a fine view of Salzburg castle and the monastery where some scenes of the famous movie, Sound of Music, was filmed. A tour guide can be filmed with a mobile device mounted on a gimbal for stability and show participants around a city, allowing remote participants the chance to ask questions either by audio or in a chat. One of our participants made the exciting suggestion of offering a variety of city tours with conference participants offering to lead a tour around their own city for a small group. The evening programme could then include a number of optional tours around several famous cities. An alternative could be a series of short virtual study visits to different universities (interesting new buildings and facilities), places of natural beauty (virtual bird watching perhaps?) and so on.

The technology is already in place and is developing rapidly and the only thing missing is the willingness of educators to start experimenting with new forms of online meetings. Of course it's not the same as meeting people in a physical space but considering the present climate crisis it may soon be the only option for international collaboration.

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