Contents Proceedings Open Learning Conference 1998
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Virtual conferencing for teaching and professional development

Roger Atkinson
Teaching and Learning Centre
Murdoch University
Virtual conferencing in the forms of email listservers and web based discussion groups has become highly popular for teaching and professional development purposes. From the perspectives of open learning and distance education, virtual conferencing gives an attractive avenue for activities which are otherwise barely feasible in the Australian context: peer group discussions, seminars, group projects, and other techniques dependent upon interactive, two way and multi-party communications.

This article compares email listservers and web based discussion groups as environments for virtual conferencing. Whilst each has some features which provide advantages in particular contexts, the technical differences between email lists and web based discussion are generally less important than non technical matters. Successful use of virtual conferencing depends largely upon the use of conventional social and communications skills to create discussion activities which match the participants' interests and circumstances.

In the Australian context, a long standing dilemma has concerned practitioners and students in open learning and distance education for adults. Peer group interactions, as available in traditional classroom teaching, are a missing element in the teaching and learning environment. Providers of open and distance education use a variety of strategies to reduce the "isolation of the long distance student", for example residential or on campus sessions, audio and video conferencing, regional study centres, self help groups, local facilitators, and even voice mail and television and radio broadcasting. The dilemma is that typically these strategies impinge upon the positive aspects of open and distance education. Residential sessions, for example, may be difficult, expensive or even impossible for students with employment or domestic commitments, or long distances to travel. These strategies are usually expensive to develop and difficult to administer.

For these kinds of reasons, virtual conferencing using Internet services appeared to many practitioners and students in distance education to be something of an answer to a prayer. A new medium enabling a rich variety of interactive, two way and multi-party communications, whilst also being relatively inexpensive, suitable for the small class sizes and high geographic dispersion we encounter, and very amenable towards individual student preferences for time of day or night or week for their study activities.

In this context, email listservers and web based discussion groups rapidly attained high popularity for open and distance teaching, and for professional development purposes. There are other kinds of Internet based virtual conferencing available, including 'real time or 'synchronous' video, audio and audiographic teleconferencing, for example IRC (Internet Relay Chat), Net Meeting and virtual classroom software. However, real time conferencing depends upon the participants being active online at the same time. In the context of post compulsory education for adults, that is a limitation upon learner selection of study scheduling. 'Asynchronous' forms of conferencing, by email listservers and web based discussion groups, do not require participants to be online simultaneously. Thus these forms of virtual conferencing have emerged as the primary avenues for adult participants.

Which service, email list or web based discussion group, would be most suitable for a particular kind of conferencing purpose or context? The next two sections discuss definitions of virtual conferencing, and outline some advantages and disadvantages for these two kinds of service, mainly from a technical perspective.

What is virtual conferencing?

In a conference, each participant is able to present some message to all other participants. All participants are listeners and viewers, and potentially at least, are also speakers, commentators or questioners. In virtual conferencing, the messaging is 'virtual', in the form of computer communicated content displayed on a participant's screen. An alternative name, computer mediated communications, is often used also, and it is broadly equivalent, except that some of us prefer a name which encompasses a purpose (conferring) and de-emphasises the medium (computer networks).

To add to the problem of definition, a typical face to face conference has a discrete time period and no changes in the participating persons, whilst virtual conferencing has no comparable limitations. Depending on purposes, virtual conferences may have a limited time period or may extend indefinitely over many years, and the list of participants may be constant or forever changing. Virtual conferencing services may be used as equivalents for a range of face to face or 'contiguous' activities, such as tutorials or seminars in a formal courses for an educational award, and presentation sessions in a professional conference. Virtual conferencing may be used as an equivalent for traditional newsletters in a wide variety of contexts, for example professional development and continuing education.

With this kind of diversity and blurring of boundaries, it's not surprising that we lack precise and universally adopted definitions. Does that matter? Definitions in these kinds of activities will evolve as the medium and the purposes evolve, and in any event, typically we use labels which are subsets of whatever the generic label may be. This is reflected in the next section, which discusses services to enable virtual conferencing.

Some technical features of services

Table 1 outlines some features of a number of Internet based services which may be used for creating virtual conferencing environments. It lists some advantages and disadvantages or limitations for each kind of service, although these are subjective concepts dependent upon perceptions about users and the organisational environment. Some of these limitations are discussed further after the table, to illustrate "work arounds" and their impact upon staff who provide support and maintenance. For completeness, the table includes newsgroups. Though little used in open and distance teaching, because access is uncontrolled, newsgroups are a long established avenue for a very open, informal kind of continuous virtual conferencing. The table separates "standalone" web based discussion groups from similar capabilities in "virtual classroom" packages, because freeware is available for the former, which may be important for budget reasons.

Table 1: Services enabling asynchronous virtual conferencing


email list server - eg. majordomo, listserv [1]
  • users almost always check their email but do not always check a website
  • readily adaptable for offline reading and composition for those who encounter connect time constraints or connect time charges
  • public domain software readily available, especially in the case of Unix
  • a simple interface, determined by user's choice of email software
  • options for 'closed' or 'open' subscription to the list
  • options for moderated or unmoderated postings
  • options for automatic archives and digests
  • participation does not require a password

  • to achieve 'threading' users have to do their own sorting, manually, and thus it may be more difficult to obtain an overview of a discussion when many topics are overlapping in time
  • dependent upon the reliability of a users email server and users maintaining valid addresses
  • a list owner has to undertake continuous maintenance to delete or correct "bouncing" addresses, approve new subscribers, and help subscribers who wish to change their email address
  • interface may be perceived as dull and 'colourless' plain text only

newsgroups [2]
  • 'threading' is viewable if users choose a newsreader enabling this, eg Netscape or Internet Explorer
  • can accept emailed input, eg from list servers
  • usually readily open to any Internet user, may be international or regionally oriented
  • many thousands of existing, continuous discussion groups

  • is a public medium with no options for control of access - anyone may read and post
  • offline reading and composing is feasible but that requires more experience and skill compared with offline email work
  • users may rate newsgroups browsing as "low priority"

"standalone" web based threaded discussion groups - eg. NetForum, Discus, HyperNews, WebBoard, First Class and others [3]
  • 'built-in threading'
  • public domain and proprietary software available
  • can accept embedded image files
  • access can be under password control
  • creation of new topic threads can be restricted or open to any participant
  • some implementations enable an alert to be emailed to the topic owner if a contribution is posted

  • offline reading and composing is feasible but that requires more experience and skill compared with offline email work
  • integration with other elements of web based delivery of study resources and activities may require more care and skill in design
  • may require special procedures for issuing web page passwords

web based discussion groups in virtual classroom packages - eg TopClass, WebCT, Learning Space and others [4]
  • 'built-in threading'
  • discussion groups are readily integrated with other elements of web based delivery of study resources and activities
  • can accept embedded image files
  • procedures for password controlled access are integrated with other elements
  • most packages provide for internal messaging to individuals and groups, which is independent of problems due to email address changes or email server failures
  • offline reading and composing is feasible but that requires more experience and skill compared with offline email work
  • public domain packages fully comparable with commercial packages are not available
  • may require special procedures for issuing web page passwords

An understanding of "advantages and disadvantages" is important in the development of infrastructure and the according of a balanced allocation of resources to different kinds of work. A relatively small number of services for basic virtual conferencing, if developed and maintained by specialist staff, can provide a rich range of opportunities for other persons with no specialist expertise to develop specific applications for their target groups, in a wide variety of contexts. With a reasonable infrastructure of host computers, network connections and specialist staffing, it's not difficult to offer both listserver and web based discussion, thus giving users a choice, or even the scope to use both kinds of services. For example, on the host cleo the Teaching and Learning Centre provides a majordomo listserver, three "standalone" web discussion groups (HyperNews, NetForum and Discus) and pilot implementations of two virtual classroom packages (WebCT and TopClass).

Is it worthwhile to provide a range of capabilities? Software installations take time and effort, and in the case of proprietary software, funds have to be found for purchase or annual licences. Continuous ongoing work is required to cope with operating system upgrades, software upgrades, setting up new lists or groups, maintenance of lists or groups, help services for lecturers or conference convenors and for users, and documentation. However, if we consider in more detail some of the advantages and disadvantages of the various services, and how these relate to different kinds of virtual conferencing, the desirability of choices or combinations of services becomes more apparent.

Remembering to check the web site

If participants do not remember to read a discussion site's web pages, no discussions occur. By contrast, most users of the Internet develop the habit of always checking their personal email. Whilst the "remembering" factor is an obvious advantage for email lists, in practice its impact may be minimised in several ways. With professional society conferences, a combination of listserver email and web based discussion sites is often used, for example EdTech'98 Virtual Conference[5]. Some web conferencing software enables an alert message or reminder to be emailed to the discussion topic originator if an contribution is posted. In the case of formal courses, enrolled students will have a strong incentive to organise regular allocations of study time at the course's web site.

Offline reading and composing

In distance education, many or even most users of the Internet encounter connect time quotas, or connect time charges by their Internet Service Provider, or long distance telephone call charges. Usually it is important to facilitate offline reading and composing to minimise those constraints. That is quite readily done with email, for example in Eudora all one has to do is set "Immediate send" to "off". However, with web based discussion, users have to learn how to use a more complex set of actions in saving files as text or as html, and copying and pasting text from one window to another. This is not a problem for experienced users, but others may require a significant amount of user training and individual help desk assistance.

'Threading' of topics

Topic threading in web based discussion facilities presents the reader with an ordered list of topics, with contributions appended to each topic. This feature creates an orderly structure, in contrast to listserver email where different and often unrelated contributions are viewed by the reader's incoming email window by time of posting and are not arranged by topic or 'thread'. For this reason, web based threaded discussion is often preferred for online units of study, where structuring of topics is particularly significant for instructional design reasons. Figure 1, from EdTech'98[5] illustrates an example of threaded topics, using HyperNews with its icons for indicating type of posting (idea, question, agreement, disagreement, etc).

Figure 1

Email address changes or failures

Participation in web based discussion groups is independent of email addresses, although it is usually highly desirable that participants be active users of a personal email address, to give the option for individual, private communications. Thus web based discussion groups avoid to a large extent the maintenance problems which arise with emailing lists. Unfortunately, email addresses are often abandoned or cancelled or changed without notice, resulting in tasks for list owners or system administrators, who may have to exercise considerable skill and use a significant amount of time in frequent clean ups to delete failed addresses from lists.

Making the services function effectively

The outline given above indicates that from a technical perspective, list servers and web based discussion tend to co-exist as complementary services for virtual conferencing, to cover between them a range of contexts, and in some applications, both may be used. However, both require technical support, maintenance and user education, generally at similar levels of demand for attention by specialised staff. Therefore we have to be fully aware of needs for appropriate teamwork and allocations of resources to complement the other major requirement for effective virtual conferencing, the human input of discussion topics and content made by convenors, facilitators, unit coordinators and tutors, list owner, chairperson, etc, and by the participants themselves.

Facilitating or teaching techniques for online discussion groups have attracted considerable attention, for example in TCC'98 Proceedings (Burton, 1998; Klemm, 1998; Leslie, 1998; Sullivan, 1998), Foley and Schuck (1998), Ivanoff (1998) and Woolley (1998a, 1998b). Generally these studies report experiences based upon one specific environment, such as listservers (TCC'98 Proceedings) or TopClass (Foley and Schuck, 1998). They indicate the importance of conventional social and communications skills to create discussion activities which match the participants interests and circumstances. These and other authors give good advice on techniques to encourage and facilitate participation. However, they also draw attention to the negative impact of any shortcomings in infrastructure services. For example:

...This study found much negativity towards web based conferencing arising out of problems with the technology. It is essential that 'on the spot' technical assistance be available from technical staff familiar with the web based conferencing system (Foley and Schuck, 1998).
We have to aim for improved environments in which virtual conferencing, for teaching or for professional development purposes, can function effectively without barriers arising from "problems with the technology". Can we do this by looking for "improved technology"? My own feeling is that expectations about "improved technology", for example email lists replaced by web based discussion groups, are excessive and often are misplaced. Our principal areas for improvement in educational technology will not be in "better software" or "better interfaces" (screen displays), but in the areas of induction for new users, their education towards self reliance in "using the technology", increased investment in facilities to reduce the amount of queuing for access, increased investment in help desk services, and greater attention to the needs for infrastructure staff who install, maintain, document, teach, problem solve, trouble shoot, and "make it work".

If we do not adopt this kind of focus for the further development of virtual conferencing, and many other kinds of technologically mediated teaching and learning activities, we may find that all too frequently the vision of an "answer to a prayer" leads only to "This study found much negativity..."


[1]Some references for listservers, particularly majordomo for Unix, are given in:
[2]This page is an example of help for users of newsgroup reading:
[3]For examples of "standalone" web based threaded discussion groups, see:
[4]For an annotated bibliography on web based virtual classroom packages, see:
[5]EdTech'98 Virtual Conference.


Burton, W. (1998). Facilitating online learning: Charting the conversation. Third Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, Hawaii, 7-9 April.

Foley, G. and Schuck, S. Web-based conferencing: Pedagogical asset or constraint? Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 14(2), 122-140.

Ivanoff, G. (1998). Running a virtual conference: Lessons learned. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Planning for Progress, Partnership and Profit. Proceedings EdTech'98. Perth: Australian Society for Educational Technology.

Klemm, W. R. (1988). Eight ways to get students more engaged in on-line conferences. Third Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, Hawaii, 7-9 April.

Leslie, M. (1998). Using a listserv to facilitate discussion in a graduate course on race, class, gender and media. Third Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, Hawaii, 7-9 April.

Sullivan, P. (1998). Gender issues and the on-line classroom. Third Annual Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference, Hawaii, 7-9 April.

Woolley, D. R. (1998a). Conferencing on the World Wide Web: A guide to software that powers discussion forums on the Web. [verified 18 Jun 2002 at]

Woolley, D. R. (1998b). Hosting Online Conferences. [verified 18 Jun 2002 at]

Author: Dr Roger Atkinson is Senior Lecturer in Educational Technology and Manager, Murdoch Online, Teaching and Learning Centre, Murdoch University, Murdoch WA 6150. Phone +61 8 9360 6840 fax +61 8 9310 4929. Email: Web: [current July 2002: Email: Website: Tel +61 8 9367 1133]

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. (1998). Virtual conferencing for teaching and professional development. Open Learning '98: Proceedings Third International Open Learning Conference, 61-66. Brisbane, 2-4 December: Queensland Open Learning Network.

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