The Evolving Virtual Conference: Implications for Professional Networking

Go to original draft with reviews

The idea seems simple enough: Why not use the Internet to bring educators together for a professional conference? The technology is cost-effective and universally accessible: the Web can be used as a stage for keynotes and presentations; chat rooms and mailing lists, for presenter-audience dialogues. Various synchronous and asynchronous media could serve as platforms for roundtable discussions and panel-forums; the Web, as exhibit halls. The advantages are obvious: cost is not a factor since travel and hotel accommodations are unnecessary, and participants don't need to take off from work to attend.

Furthermore, the technology is readily available to the vast majority of educators: a computer at the office and at home with Internet access. For conference coordinators, the obvious advantage is the elimination of costs associated with convention centers, audio-visual equipment, and printing. However, they do retain other standard costs, such as compensation for staffing, and technology expenses that are difficult to calculate. Because the process seems so simple and inexpensive, many who attend a completely virtual event will entertain the idea of conducting a conference of their own. And some do, eventually. Before they get too far into their planning, however, they should consider the implications of two emerging trends for online professional networking. The first is the trend toward hybridity, or integrating face-to-face (F2F) and virtual events into a single conference. The second is the trend toward increased flexibility in terms of time.

Trend Toward Hybridity

Current Practice: Virtual within F2F. The overwhelming majority of planners view virtual events as add-ons to F2F conferences. That is, they build a real-time conference and tack on a few Internet activities. The bulk of their resources is devoted to F2F activities, and very little is earmarked for the virtual. The online features are treated as afterthoughts; thus, they are usually poorly planned and supported. Not surprisingly, most participants flock to the F2F offerings and either ignore or aren't aware of the virtual action. As a result, the online portions of the conference are poorly attended and ineffective. My guess is that this trend toward hybridity in which the virtual David is propped next to the F2F Goliath will continue as is—with the same unimpressive results. Even if the Internet portion is well planned and supported, it won't fare well. The virtual simply cannot compete in the shadow of its real, live counterpart. When people are at a hybrid conference in a major city such as London, New York, or Tokyo, they will devote most of their time to F2F activities. Online events would gain little if any of their attention. The simple truth is that few if any would settle for the virtual when they can have the real.

Probable Trend: F2F within Virtual. However, there is a form of hybridity that has tremendous potential, and I believe it will become a standard feature of all online conferences. In this model, F2F activities are integrated into a conference that is primarily virtual. The superstructure is electronic, the Internet, and built into it are pockets of F2F interaction. While virtual within F2F isn't viable, the reverse, F2F within virtual, is. In a possible scenario, participants in a virtual conference meet in person in specified geographical locations (e.g., a central college computer lab in London, Moscow, Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, Melbourne, Osaka, Manila, and Beijing). The intra-group sessions are F2F, but the inter-group meetings are virtual. The groups alternate between F2F and online sessions, sharing results of live sessions over the Internet in synchronous (e.g., WebChat) or asynchronous (e.g., WebBoard) media. In this configuration, the participant gets the best of both interactions: local F2F and global virtual.

As much as hybridity interests me, however, I have to admit that I am most intrigued by the problem of flexibility where time is concerned.

Trend Toward Increased Flexibility

Current Practice: Single Time Block. We have been using the single time block model for the Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference (Shimabukuro, 2000), and this is the form that is prevalent among nearly all virtual conferences. I won't go into detail about how conferences are organized; this information is readily available elsewhere (Wang, 1999; Mendels, 1998). In general, they are modeled after their F2F counterparts—right down to the time frame. They are squeezed into a single time span: they start and end on a specific date, and the days in between comprise the conference. Furthermore, to provide value, planners usually pack tons of activities into each day, creating a schedule so dense that only a few can actually accommodate all of it. Thus, despite their virtual connection, the majority is unable to attend all the events on the program.

This model is still evolving and growing in popularity, and I believe it will continue to develop, incorporating new and more dynamic, interactive technology. However, my instincts tell me that the constraint represented by a single block of time runs counter to the culture of the Internet, and, thus, the growth potential for this model is limited. In the emerging electronic culture, flexibility is the primary value: communication anytime, from nearly anywhere, is the motto. The online conference satisfies half the expectation: it can be accessed from anywhere. However, it is inflexible regarding dates. To attend, the participant must be free at the scheduled time.

Herein lies the crux of the problem: time takes on a different value in the virtual world. In the real, attending a conference means a physical departure from the office or campus, postponing meetings, and classes. In the virtual, however, it means business as usual with log-ons when time permits.

After five years, I've learned that participants expect to continue their everyday routines while attending a virtual conference. Administrators will log in to various activities during lulls in their schedule or in the evening; instructors will log in between classes and in the evening. Few if any will actually take off from work for the duration of the conference. The following statements from participants, in response to the question "What significant problems, if any, did you encounter?" are from the 1998 Conference Evaluation Summary:

Probable Trend: Distributed Increments. In virtual conferences, I don't believe we will ever attain complete flexibility. We define events in terms of time: we expect an official beginning and end. Thus, flexibility will always be relative: conferences will have more or less of it, but they will never have it completely. There are a number of reasons. Participants need a fixed schedule to reserve time for their involvement. Another reason is that authors expect to present their papers within a schedule highlighted by deadlines. To complete the composing process and to prepare for discussions with participants, they must know exactly when their papers will be posted. A third reason is that participants expect to interact with presenters and colleagues in real-time via livechat, and these require fixed time slots. Finally, for planning purposes, conference coordinators and staff need to view the event as a finite block of time that won't turn into an endless drain on their resources.

Despite limitations, however, greater flexibility is an attainable goal, and it will be achieved in ways that will surprise us. Since the end of our last conference, I have tried to imagine a format that will allow for increased flexibility. In the last few weeks, what has emerged is a rough outline for a model that seems workable. Let me share my preliminary thoughts with you.

In general, it would take the form of a periodical, and participants would, by registering, "subscribe" to it. The conference is presented in increments as a thematic series over a year. Like issues in a volume, the conference is distributed in two or more increments. For example, assume that, for 2001, the theme for the Annual Such-and-Such Conference is "Web-based Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning." The conference is presented as a four-part series on March 15-16, June 15-16, September 15-16, and December 15-16. The March focus is on synchronous media (e.g., WebChat); September, asynchronous (e.g., WebBoard). In both, emphasis is on presentations: case studies of actual practices and papers on trends and issues.

The June and December emphasis is hands-on practice. In June, participants have opportunities to use synchronous media and develop synchronous learning activities. In December, they have the same opportunities to work with asynchronous media. Participants have the option to register for the entire series or for individual segments.

Spread out over a number of dates throughout the year rather than concentrated in a single block of time, the conference is much more accessible. Educators may not be able to attend the entire series, but they should be able to make time for one or more sessions. Also, by distributing the conference over a series, the program for each increment can be lightened to accommodate the participants' work schedule. Flexibility, through distribution over separate dates and reduction in the density of each increment, translates into greater accessibility—and, hopefully, into broader participation. This vision is just one of many that are possible, and I am certain that others, much more imaginative and effective, await us down the road.


We have entered a new era that will be increasingly dominated by technology that allows us to network as never before. Gravitation to the Internet for professional development conferences is, I believe, a natural process that will soon be commonplace. The medium and our attitudes toward it will dictate the shape of these virtual events, and the demand for flexibility will favor a distributed scheme. The question isn't if but when these changes will occur, and I believe they will occur sooner than later.


Conference evaluation summary (1998). Retrieved 27 June 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Mendels, P. (1998, 4 January). Conventions without travel: Attending live conferences on the Web. The New York Times, sec. 4A, pp. 20-21.

Shimabukuro, J. (2000, January/February). What is an online conference? The Technology Source. Retrieved 20 June 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Wang, Y. (1999). Online conference: A participant's perspective. T.H.E. Journal 26(8), 70-76.