Monday, October 22, 2012

Giving a Teleseminar

The nice folks at Texas A&M asked me to give a teleseminar as part of their series.  So instead of flying all the way to Texas to give a talk, I did so from the comfort of my office, using Cisco's WebEx.  It was, I believe, the first formal teleseminar I've given.  I imagine that it's the future of talks, so I thought I'd share my thoughts on the experience.

Overall, technically, it went just fine.  Any slight hiccups were managed easily.  I was working in my office and not paying attention to the clock, so they had to e-mail me and remind me to get online for the talk.  (Oops.)  When I logged in at first the sound didn't work for some reason, but logging in again all was fine, and we started pretty much on time.  They could see the slides on my laptop, they had a camera image of me and I had an image of them, and after the initial bump the sound seemed to work the entire time (at least on my end, and I think I spoke loudly enough it was not a problem on their end).  At this point the technology is really there to do this sort of thing, so if anything I'm surprised there's not more of this type of seminar being done.

Pros:  Obviously, from my standpoint, not flying to give a talk.  I'm going to Cornell to give a talk in a couple of weeks, and while I'll undoubtedly enjoy the face time with the many great people at Cornell I'll get to see, I won't enjoy the multiple nights away from my family, or the multiple hours flying to get there.  (One could arrange the Web equivalent of face to face time with teleseminars quite easily -- set up Skype sessions or a Google hangout for the day.)

Another pro is that people online could log in, watch the talk, and ask questions as well.  That can also be done with standard talks, although it seemed to me the real-time asking of questions is a bit more awkward when the speaker is there live with the audience rather than online.

Cons:  You don't get that face to face time with the people at the home institution that can, sometimes, work out so well.  I've had someone giving a talk at Harvard come to my office for the standard chat-with-the-visitor session and had the solid beginning of a paper by the time they left.  I don't know if serendipity works the same online yet.

The biggest downside was the setup made it hard for me to gauge the audience reaction, which would have been really helpful for this talk.  I was talking about hashing data structures like Bloom filters to a primarily EE audience, so for all I knew I could have been going way over their head, boring them silly, or been pretty much on target.  I wasn't able to see how they were responding and adjust accordingly.  I think I needed a second (very big) screen in front of me -- one devoted to my slides, and one large, full screen instead of a little window big enough so I could watch the audience react, the way I do in a live lecture.  This might have been easy enough to set up had I knew how useful it would be ahead of time.  I tried to ask during the talk and it seemed like I was targeting the right level, but that type of on-the-fly correction would have been easier to make if I were actually there.    

Conclusion:  I would happily give a teleseminar like this again.  Until my kids are older and I feel like traveling more instead of less, this may become my preferred method of giving talks (except, possibly, for California;  I'm generally always happy to have an excuse to go to California, but even then, timing might make a teleseminar preferable sometimes).  I'm surprised there aren't more schools or organizations adopting and experimenting with this approach.  It seems both cost-effective and time-effective.    Thanks to Texas A&M for inviting me to try it.


Anonymous said...

One natural extension of this would be to skip the seminar entirely and have the audience watching from the comfort of their offices as well. In either case, I'd worry about losing the serendipity and conversations that come with meeting in-person, though maybe your Google hangouts idea or something similar would work.

Anonymous said...

There is a regular quantum information seminar on Google+ hangouts
I agree that the tiny screen makes it work badly.
Maybe you can give a good talk without knowing the audience's reactions, but most speakers can't.

Anonymous said...

I was at a workshop recently and a speaker presented remotely. The audio (audio-only) was good, the speaker's English was easy to understand, and the quality of the paper being presented was reasonable.

After the first 30 sec or so, nearly everyone was head down in their laptop, or went to coffee-break early.

Maybe video, or better still bidirectional video, would have helped. Certainly, having a distinguished and experienced speaker (rather than a student with an average paper) would have helped.

At some level though, I suspect humans are wired for face to face interaction. For myself, I can have effective concalls with people I know well, but it is much harder with people I know only slightly.

I'm sure a video seminar is better than no seminar and is a huge benefit for people with young children, travel/visa issues, etc. But I'd also hate to see seminars become too commoditized(?), with everyone competing to get the same few people to tele-present. Seminars are special partly because someone made the effort to host and to travel.

(Anonymous because I don't want to focus attention on the specific student speaker; it's not really central to the comment.)