JOHN HIBBS SESSIONS - some thoughts

For a description of John's sessions, and text of keynote see

Firstly, a big thank to you Martin Lack and Associates for trying to accommodate all our needs. Thanks must also go to Aaron the tech support guy, and Chris from Monash.

In terms of support and technical stuff working I thought the keynote session was successful. But most of my comments below are about the panel session, which I have to say was disappointing.

In this session John attempted to demonstrate that a blend of old technologies and new can be a very effective delivery strategy in distance education. As those present are aware, there were a number of technical hitches, all of which could have been remedied had we had a practice run.

In retrospect it is easy to say that this was absolutely imperative. But in a similar event at the WebCT conference in Adelaide last year things went much more smoothly because participants (remote and virtual) were able to iron out difficulties before the main event in a practice run.

John and I expected to be able to do a practice run on the Sunday morning before the conference. I thought this had all been agreed to in our email discussions leading up to the conference, but when we turned up on Sunday the conference space was still being built.

If we are to do this kind of thing again it is essential to have a practice run

  • in the space where the event is scheduled
  • with all the equipment (mikes, pc's, telephones, software, speakers, screens, etc) that will be used for the actual session
  • with the tech support staff who will be manning the desk present

Unless this is possible it is asking for trouble. I know it requires more advanced planning, but it goes a long way to guaranteeing the success of this type of event. I don't think the importance of this was appreciated, and having gone through this kind of event before I was actually quite stunned on that Sunday morning when I realised that a practice was impossible.

What problems could have been addressed (and subsequently avoided) in a practice run?

  • having access to an international phone line (John finally got access about 1 minute before his keynote)
  • testing the sound level of the outgoing phone line for remote users, and quality of incoming sound for conference delegates
  • all support players (me, Midi, Aaron) should have been sitting together to 'choreograph' what conference audience saw and heard
  • 2 pcs - one with slides and one with text chat - connected to large screen
  • pc with voice chat with option of being heard in the auditorium (I alone was able to hear this quite clearly throughout John's presentation and it would have been great for the conference audience.)
  • projection in the main room was slightly blurred throughout the conference and made viewing text chat virtually impossible for anyone further back than the first few rows (maybe we couldn't do anything about this but at least we would have been aware of the problem in advance).
  • a pre-recorded video tape was damaged and needed to be dismantled and rebuilt at the last minute
  • pre-recorded CD audio of several presenters caused problems because it was recorded as a single file instead of several separate files, and the version of the mp3 player on the sound desk was unable to pause and restart in the middle of the file. Aaron did not have time to dump the audio on to a hard drive and install a later version of an mp3 player
  • These are the main issues that come readily to mind. All of these potential problems came to light minutes before start time, or during the panel session. John consequently was left with no option but to keep talking (the opposite of what he intended), and the input of remote participants was severely limited.

Ideally, this session should have been a workshop with 20 - 30 participants. I actually thought that it was we agreed on, and was surprised to see that John's panel session was the only event scheduled in that timeslot. It was never intended for an audience of 100 plus. Although it was not discussed in the lead up to the conference, we know now that this panel session should have been in a computer suite where all participants had access to headphones and the accompanying text chat. Again, it's easy to be wise after the event.

I am sure that many present at this panel session would have gone away disappointed, and had any suspicions that it is 'all too hard' confirmed. I heard that comment from one person. Maybe having virtual components at physical conferences is all too hard. It is not easy. But it does absolutely require the type of practice run outlined above, and if the bugs can be ironed out in practice, such events can have a major positive impact on physical conference delegates. I know because I've experienced it from both the physical and virtual perspective several times.

John went to enormous efforts to prepare materials and line up a cast of eminent persons around the world, and I think the import of his message and the point of the media he was demonstrating was sadly lost on the physical audience. In that sense I feel we let him down, and we lost a golden opportunity to get the most of what John had to offer our conference.

So, anyone want to try and do it again better next time?? I'm game!

Michael Coghlan
14th April, 2002