I had a chance to attend an interesting presentation yesterday at the Massachusetts Genealogical Council's annual meeting. Carol Smith, AG, an employee of the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, gave a presentation describing the latest news from FamilySearch. The full title was What's Happening at FamilySearch: Wiki, Indexing, and Playing in the Sandbox.
The presentation was interesting for several reasons. First, Carol did a great job of presenting the information. Second, the topic was one that I follow closely. Admittedly, I already knew about much of the material she presented, but she did offer several "nuggets" of information that were new to me. However, perhaps the most interesting fact of all was the locations involved: Carol was in Salt Lake City, Utah, while her audience was about 2,300 miles away in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Carol Smith delivered her lecture by remote teleconferencing. She was seated in front of a computer's webcam in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City. The audience of perhaps 80 genealogists was seated in a conference room at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. In that room in Massachusetts and a standard personal computer was connected to a projector which, in turn, projected its image on a screen.
NOTE: You can see the screen in the above photo taken during Carol Smith's presentation. Double-click on that photo to see a larger image.
Those of us in the audience in Massachusetts saw Carol's face as she talked all during the presentation. Admittedly, it was a small image on the screen, but she was always visible. Carol's slide presentation was also visible on the same screen although in a much larger "window." I'd estimate that the slides used about 80% of the available display space on the screen; about 10% of the space was used to display a live image of Carol's face, and the remaining 10% displayed supplementary information, such as the name of the presenter, status information of the connection, and similar details.
We all heard Carol's voice loud and clear over the conference room's public address system. Carol also heard our applause as well as our questions, if the person asking a question was anywhere near the local computer's microphone. She did have difficulty hearing people in the back of the room, but Massachusetts Genealogical Council Program Director Mike Brophy served as "moderator," repeating the questions and also making introductions at the beginning of the session.
I have watched several teleconference presentations in the past and have also participated in a few as the presenter. What impressed me the most was how well this weekend's teleconference worked, using standard personal computers and broadband Internet connections. The audience seemed to appreciate the presentation as Carol received an enthusiastic round of applause at the end of her talk.
In fact, this method of remote presentations strikes me as something other genealogy organizations should emulate. The scenario is very common: a group of 80 or 100 or so genealogists were gathered in one meeting room that was equipped with modern technology. There was nothing special about that technology; many of us even have similar equipment in our homes. The local society invited a genealogy expert to present to the group. However, due to distances and the travel involved, it was not practical for the presenter to travel in person to give the presentation. Not only are airfares, restaurants, and hotels expensive, but there is also a major impact on the presenter's life: a typical one-hour lecture requires a minimum of three days of the lecturer's life: one day to travel to the location, one day to attend the meeting and make the presentation, and a third day to travel home.
That's a huge investment of time and money for a small organization that wants to offer current information about genealogy topics to a group of 50 or perhaps 100 people. To be blunt, such travel by experts often is not cost-effective.
By the use of technology, the time and expenses were minimized. I am guessing that Carol spent a very few hours testing the connection a few days earlier, plus an hour or two to travel to the location in Salt Lake City where she made the presentation, plus an hour or so for the presentation itself at the scheduled date and time. The Massachusetts Genealogical Council's expenses were hopefully reduced to the point where such a presentation by a distant expert was practical.
I would suggest that your local society consider leveraging today's available technology in a similar fashion whenever possible. Want to present the latest information to your members? Teleconferencing makes it possible.
In this case, most of the equipment used was current hardware available at most any computer store. You may have everything you need already. Both ends of the teleconference need to have modern Windows or Macintosh computers. Most any mid-range Mac or Windows system built in the past three or four years should work well. You can even use a Windows system on one end and a Macintosh on the other. The choice of hardware is not all that important. I'd avoid the so-called "netbooks," however, as they are a bit too low-powered.
A projector and screen aren't as common among home computers, but they are very common in meeting rooms in colleges, churches, convention centers, and most anyplace else where meetings are held. Your local organization probably has access to a projector and screen already. If not, you can rent a projector for a lot less money than flying a presenter to your city. Even an in-person presentation often requires a projector and screen.
The software used this weekend in the Massachusetts Genealogical Council's conference was Adobe Connect, an expensive product, and it worked well. However, cheaper products are available and often work well. In the past I have even used Skype video, a free product, and it worked well for face-to-face video but did not transmit slides. I later used Yugma, a free product that allows users to "share" desktops. Anything displayed on my computer's screen, such as a PowerPoint slideshow, was also displayed to the remote audience. Yugma works well but does require a high-speed Internet connection. On one occasion, I attempted to use Skype and Yugma on an Internet connection that turned out to be of mediocre speed and the result was a disaster. The video was "broken" and jerky. In short, it was unusable. I later repeated the session with the same hardware and software except for using high-speed connections on both ends. It then worked perfectly.
The most critical item of all is the use of high-speed Internet connectivity on both ends of the connection. Just because it is labeled "broadband" doesn't mean it is fast enough for video. Test the connection well in advance! Typically, access to high-speed connections is not a problem today in convention centers, colleges, or other places that host a lot of meetings. However, high-speed, reliable Internet connections are not as common in church basements, Masonic halls, local libraries, or other meeting rooms favored by smaller genealogy societies.
Another consideration is that you need high-speed TWO-WAY connections. Many in-home broadband services will offer high-speed "download" connections (transferring data from the Internet to your home), but the connection in the reverse direction ("uploads") will be much slower. On some Internet services, the upload speed will only be one-tenth that of the download speed.
I have conducted video teleconferences using a wireless "3G" connection to a nearby cell tower. However, wireless connections depends on radio signals that are variable. In any particular location, signals may be weak and unreliable. One time I tried a wireless connection from a church basement and found the connection was so poor as to be unusable. I would hate to plan on using wireless for an important presentation to a group.
A final consideration is the presenter. Not all presenters are comfortable with the idea of presenting to a remote audience. If you are a genealogy presenter and already have problems hooking up your laptop to standard projectors, I'd suggest you not attempt a video presentation without technical assistance. However, once you become comfortable with the new software and procedures, you will find that video presentations are not much more difficult than the presentations you are making today.
I recently heard of one presenter who made no less than three different presentations in one day, to three different remote audiences in three different locations around the country!
In short, remote presentations look like a win-win-win situation: the society is able to offer presentations by experts in a cost-effective manner, the audience is able to learn from experts, and the presenter is able to make more presentations without all the hassles of travel.
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