The Challenges of Delivering Remote Seminars

What is a remote Seminar?

A seminar is an event where the participants interact intensely with each other over several hours or days to improve their understanding of a particular topic, or maybe work together to find solutions.

It is much more than a video conference or webinar, even though the technology used may be the same as for video conferences, but the management of the interactions is far more varied and intense.

This challenge is topical because of the very significant change in attitude to remote seminars which has been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic.

I have often heard that in this or that particular country the people prefer to interact face-to-face and as a result it’s not possible to deliver at seminars remotely.

As recently as last week, I contributed to a seminar which was originally scheduled to take place in Malaysia. Because of the pandemic the client accepted that travel was not possible so the event was moved online.

The participants were from Bangladesh, China, Japan, UAE and Indonesia so the amount of travel, time, cost and carbon emissions which would have resulted from a traditional face-to-face project seminar was considerable.

It suited both the client company and the participants for different reasons to hold the seminar remotely.

During the Covid-19 pandemic millions of people in business, schools and universities have started working from home, so-called remote working, home office and so on. The result is that they are much more familiar with the remote conferencing which is an important enabler of remote seminars.

This is very similar to the situation years ago in the United States when Bell Telephones made a marketing decision that local calls would be free. Any of us who have watched American films or have been there will recognize that the telephone is used very extensively for long discussions, even between people who live next door to each other the marketing decision drove the familiarity.

The widespread acceptance and usage of teleconferencing has been different. It is only in the last decade or so that most business people have easy access both to smartphones and laptop computers as well as broadband internet connection, which is available nearly everywhere including shops, trams, airports, city centres etc.

Although the technology to support seminars remotely became available over the last decade or so, actually using it to deliver seminars remotely has had a lot of resistance.

I am going to talk briefly about three topics related to delivering seminars remotely successfully.

  • The Logistical Challenges
  • The Human Factor
  • “For and Against”.

The Logistical Challenges

The logistical challenge is the first thing, because if the tools don’t work
everybody gets frustrated and abandons the effort. The first priority is a standard interface using a selected app which everybody uses.

Everyone is familiar with Skype, Zoom, WebEx and so on but you cannot have a mixture of these on a call. Someone must decide which one to use.

Many familiar apps require a download which is not allowed in many corporate environments. Even if you are allowed to download the app, not everyone is an IT expert and knows how to configure it.

As well as the same app for everyone participating in the seminar remotely they all need microphones and cameras.

These are both on smartphones and laptop computers but casual use is often not so very satisfactory. For example the camera on a laptop usually points upwards to the speaker, looking from under their chin this and the shadows on their face from the lighting above do not look very good.

Getting the microphone to work is also a challenge because there are so many possible settings, some of which interfere with others. As with the camera, what works technically may not have high enough quality, so the microphone in the laptop computer is better replaced by a headset, both for sound quality and to reduce background noise. So the camera and microphone may work technically but not always very satisfactorily.

A third challenging logistic aspect is having a quiet location without visual distractions. If we’re working in an open plan office it can be very disturbing to others to hear us delivering or participating in a seminar remotely.

If we’re working from home or near an open window or in a café there can be a lot of background noise. I was on a remote seminar which had very pleasant Indian music in the background – lovely but not in the right place.

In another conference one of the participants was on a motorbike taxi in Paris which they use when traffic is very dense. Not surprisingly the background noise dominated the communications.

So to summarise the logistics, there are at least three challenges of delivering seminars remotely.

All participants must have the following: the same app installed on their computer or phone and know how to use it. Although I have no commercial connection with them, my tips are to use Demio for delivering seminars remotely and Whereby for conferences because access to all of the features: voice, video, shared screen, shared application etc are all accessed
simply through a browser without any download. This increases the reliability significantly.

They need good microphones and cameras and need to be familiar how to use them. Although not essential, it can detract from a seminar if their quality and user experience is limited.

And the third thing is a quiet location with broadband internet access that doesn’t have distracting background noise and where children don’t come running in and where no dog is barking in the background.

Of these three points only the first one can be managed directly by the seminar leader; the others depend on local support together with connectivity tools provided by the app. The challenge is making sure that you have someone on the receiving end who is actively managing these points.

The Human Factor

Now to the Human Factor, where the biggest challenge of delivering seminars remotely is a lack of acceptance that it can be done or that it works.

This is similar to the introduction of email. I remember that
the pharmaceutical industry was very slow because they were worried their secrets could be emailed out to competitors very easily. This meant the sector was maybe several years behind others in introducing email.

After the Covid-19 pandemic, certainly a lot of people are more
accepting of the technology that’s available, so that’s one less challenge
for delivering remote seminars.

The general opinion is that the acceptance among the millions who are now familiar with some of the tools has increased dramatically which means that there are opportunities for transferring seminars into a remote format. As recently as last month I was involved in negotiation with an organization which assumed that a seminar delivered remotely was the same as spending several hours passively in a webinar delivered by Zoom.

In a seminar the participants usually need some way of interacting in groups and a typical webinar format, where there are one or two presenters sharing their knowledge, answering questions which have been sent in by participants using the chat channel.

The basic difference between this and the seminar is the depth and time dedicated to directing interaction among the participants, so my big tip here is to put participants into teams so they interact with each other.

I recommend not specifying how they interact but leaving it to them to work out for themselves whether they use telephone, email, teleconference and so on. By putting them in teams and asking them to interact with each other and then to present their results or ideas on PowerPoint about a given topic which they can email back to you, the dynamic changes completely compared with a webinar or a lecture.

The same logistics challenges exist as mentioned already because the breakout teams can’t be guaranteed to have good leadership or familiarity with the tools. Delivering seminars remotely with this approach increases the acceptance because the tool, Zoom or whatever, is mostly used to coordinate participant action and is not used for contact 100% of the time.

The second challenge under the human factor heading is familiarity with the tools.

I’ve often had the experience of remote seminars where somebody’s
connection didn’t work. For some reason they always think it’s the fault of the person at the other end. I had one colleague in Australia who got really
annoyed with me because his connection didn’t work.

My tip in these situations is to tell them that it’s working for everybody else so the problem must be at their end. Unfortunately a lot of seminar participants don’t accept that and just wait until something happens.

The best solution is to tell everybody that both ends of the communication must seek to renew contact actively if the communication breaks down. Of course the technology is improving all the time.

Another example in Google Meet is the automatic generation and translation of subtitles when you talk. Maybe not perfect but certainly enough to help in a mixed language situation.

Another feature is the replacement of background in the video of the speaker. You may be sitting in front of a distracting background but that is
replaced dynamically by some other picture. This is really convenient
because you could be in a hotel or an airport or in the kitchen but you don’t
need to show this to the people at the other end. The tip is to make sure that
the background doesn’t distract and then nobody will notice it.

“For and Against”

In my experience people who have met each other once, even for a cup of coffee, have a very good chance of working well together remotely. It might be very pleasant to have face-to-face seminars but they can be certainly done very effectively online.

Another advantage is that each person can access the seminar from wherever they are and not necessarily from home. This simplifies the logistics and means that it’s easier and takes less time to participate.

Another advantage is that because each participant has their own log on, each person can see who else is involved, because the names are usually shown on the screen online. If you have several people sharing a microphone like they used to on telephone conferences, you don’t know who is online and you probably can’t hear them very well either.

Of course particularly if people are traveling from a distance to meet each other, avoiding flights saves time, money as well as carbon emissions and particularly for long-distance fights.

Of the disadvantages, delivering seminars remotely misses the equivalent of standing in a queue for coffee and chatting.

I once had a colleague in Spain who complained that the difficulty with our communication was that we drank our coffee in different countries.

Seminar participants also need to solve problems. When they work together physically, they can judge each other’s mood and interest by the body language which is missing when they work remotely. This makes it hard to negotiate so for a lot of people.

Another disadvantage is that a seminar at a corporate head office would be an occasion for them to meet various colleagues outside the seminar. Without travel, that doesn’t happen.

Summary

So to summarize the challenges of delivering seminars remotely, they fall into logistic and human areas.

In the logistics area, a lot has to do with the organization making sure people have the same app, they have microphones and simple things like that. It’s easy in principle but the challenge is to make it actually happen.

On the human side there has been a lot of resistance for a long time to delivering seminars remotely but the Covid-19 pandemic has made a lot of people familiar with the technology and this means that the main human issues are more to do with familiarity with the methods than they were before.

Author

Presented by Dr. Deasún Ó Conchúir, Principal of Scatterwork at Infotech ICT 2020, the international conference and exhibition in Belgrade

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