Blog Post

Webinars, social presence, and the potential for virtual collaboration

In 2010, a contributor to Wikipedia defined innovation as ...a change in the thought process for doing something or "new stuff that is made useful".[1] It may refer to an incremental emergent or radical and revolutionary changes in thinking, products, processes, or organizations.

(That was an improvement on the earliest definition, contributed in 2005, which defined innovation as ...the introduction of new ideas, goods, services, and practices which are intended to be useful (though a number of unsuccessful innovations can be found throughout history).

Last Wednesday, when we wrapped a media strategy webinar with Andrea Fereshteh for the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning awardees (innovation central), the experience seemed different, but I could not articlate why. I revisited the first webinar we did with Andrea, and it hit me that, for the first time since working with HASTAC in 2008, we had done the same thing twice. Eureka!

Two webinars, two groups of digital media and learning from different years, and two times hosting the always fantastic Andrea Fereshteh. We're still interested in figuring out the secret sauce to create interactive webinars that promote collaboration, so any feedback the HASTAC community has to contribute, please do so.

We discovered, after experimenting with a variety of webinar formats, that it was best to have four people handling the logistical tasks: During the webinar, Nancy recorded the back-channel conversations, Mandy handled any access problems that inevitably come up, Ruby made sure Freeconferencecall.coms technology cooperated with Andreas Powerpoint presentation (shown online using SharePlus), and I monitored email and IM from winners who sent messages and resources that I posted on our DMLCamp wiki. These details seem run-of-the-mill ordinary until you consider the challenges of virtual collaborations. We were doing an interactive webinar to discuss media strategies, new and traditional, for the 2010 Digital Media and Learning awardees, but virtual opportunities are also the foundation for facilitating potential collaborations. What could we do to increase those opportunities?

All of the Digital Media and Learning projects are innovative, and the people driving those ideas and processes forward naturally gravitate to each other. We want to create as many opportunities for like-minded innovators to find each other, and given that we need to do this across multiple time zones, we work with both synchronous and asynchronous virtual possibilities with almost no chance for face-to-face interaction.

If anyone has interesting ideas about how best to do this, please comment freely. Especially if you have ideas about ways to increase social presence in support of serendipitous collaboration.

I see two challenges to virtual collaboration: aggregating the information and media about the event, as well as collecting information about the people, the projects, and the intent into one place. It is easy to get disconnected from the webinar, and from each other, when information is scattered throughout email and different websites -- which makes it less likely for people to participate or interact on their own.

For our most recent webinar, we added a wiki page so participants could contribute their own resources, and created a space to hold any related content. In the past, we emailed invitations, then convened for the webinar, and I would write a short blog afterward highlighting what we discussed. Not enough interactivity, not enough potential for discovery.

A great example of social presence and interactivity occurred during Virtual HASTAC 2010 (plus the aggregated blogs and comments about the conference) which raised similar questions for me. How can we create enough social presence among a virtual audience to support collaboration and innovation? How do we organize ourselves and our information online to facilitate the potential for collaboration? What digital tools are most useful? But is it the tools that matter most? Or is the problem having too limited resources? Not enough imagination? Lack of time? Or is it that people choke when they know the tape is rolling for posterity, making the webinar no more or less compelling than regular old performance anxiety?) What are some of the best examples of webinars or online interactive events that you have experienced -- and what part did technology play? I have to say, Andrea was a natural at speaking to a virtual audience, something I find difficult even without video involved.

Viola Lasmana, one of our HASTAC Scholars, captured some of Cathy Davidson and David Goldbergs Virtual HASTAC 2010 conversation on the Future of Thinking in which they comment on online collaboration. ...What is distinctive and new is how you do collaboration with people who you know coincidentally online, and whom you know by online interaction -- what is unique is also the sustained fashion of such interactions separated by thousands of miles, different ages, and whose identity you may not even know.

We know online collaboration takes place, we have the digital tools to do it, but what are the best practices when the goal is to facilitate the potential for collaboration among innovative thinkers? When I think about Dean Dads despair over webinars, I cant help but think the missing piece is the same self-reflexivity that David and Cathy talk about, (which Viola also captured in her blog post), be digitally literate means being able to be more self-reflexive about the assumptions one makes in the use and capacity of technology, and that self-reflexivity is what the humanities contributes to any conversation. Davidson argues that, without self-reflexivity, we can't really talk about technology: we need understandings of technology and of our place in the system.

How do we facilitate the potential for collaboration, and in particular, how do we create the necessary social presence so the technology supports instead of detracts from the process?


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