Technological advances, especially email and listservs, have increased communication tools. In the last few years, web conferences have emerged as a new tool to build the sexual violence prevention movement. Since 2005, the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s PreventConnect has held web conferences to explore prevention of violence against women. At this time, many national organizations, state coalitions and local agencies are considering use of web conferences. PreventConnect uses web conferences to advance primary prevention of violence against women. PreventConnect wrote an article “Web Conferences: A Tool to Build Community on the Web” about how to select a web conference service for the Resource Sharing Project.
What Are Web Conferences? A web conference is an opportunity to attend a workshop by watching a presentation from a computer screen using only a regular internet connection and listening through a computer or a telephone line. Web conferences are also know as “Webinars,” “Web Meetings,” and “Webcasts.” Because a web conference has both audio and visual elements, it is more engaging than an audio-only teleconference. Eventually, web conferences are likely to replace teleconferences as more communication will take place online.
Web conferencing is an expanding industry. Hundreds of web conference providers vie for market share. Some web conference companies have merged with teleconferencing services to provide better integrated services. New developments in VOIP (voice over internet protocol) and IM (instant messaging) will likely create links between these services. Some internet and telecommunications brokers offer a variety of web conferencing services to their clients. Decisions about phone systems, teleconferencing, and business servers will increasingly include web conferencing as another potential component of a comprehensive communication system.
Advantages of Web Conference: Web conferences provide low cost online sources of training and improving meetings. A web conference can bring deliver a presentation to hundred and thousands of people throughout the world only requiring an internet connect. Meetings held by teleconferences can add visual and interactive elements. Online training/collaboration can be enhanced by sharing a common document or view a common application of a software.
In-person meetings remain crucial tools to build communities and strengthen professional, political and social networks. Web conferences can augment in-person meetings by reducing or avoiding the cost of frequent travel and meeting accommodations.
Common Web Conference Features Web conference features vary provider by provider, and each provider uses different language as a standard vocabulary has yet to be set. Here are the most common elements of a web conference:
- Audio: The sound for a web conference can be online (using VOIP [voice over internet protocol]) or provided through a simultaneous teleconference.
- Attendee List: The names of people attending can be displayed for the leader(s) or all participants. Some web conference services include a picture of the presenter and participants.
- PowerPoint: A powerpoint presentation can be shared with all participants.
- White Board: An electronic system shares drawing and writing.
- Polling Questions: Presenters can ask multiple choice questions to the audience and collect answers shared in graphic format. PreventConnect uses this feature to identify audience demographics.
- Text Chat: Participants can send private messages to each other or share messages for the entire audience. PreventConnect uses this feature for brainstorming.
- Questions and Answers: Participants can pose written questions to the presenters. The questions typically are seen only by the presenter.
- Application Sharing: Any program from a presenter or an audience member can be shared with all participants. This feature can be used for writing a common document or observing someone’s use of software.
- Stream Video: Many web conferences allow streaming of video and can have participants see each other through webcams on each participant’s computer.
- Recording (Archives): A web conference session can be recorded to be viewed in the future. However, recording formats and the cost of storing sessions vary greatly among web conference providers.
- Manage Registration and Users: Many web conference providers have systems for event registration and collect user information.
Factors to Select Web Conference Services The web conference business is expanding and includes seemingly countless providers. These are some key factors in determining the appropriate web conference service.
- Identify Purpose of Web Conferences: Web conferences can be used for a variety of types of settings. The size and type of communication are important factors in determining which web conference provider to use.
- Presentations: A “one-to-many” presentation, similar to a lecture, generally has one-way communication from presenter to audience and limited interaction.
- Meetings: A session with limited number of participants with considerable interaction between participants is similar to a seminar or a meeting.
- Training/Collaboration: Web conferences allow sharing a common document or permit an instructor to observe a participant’s desktop.
- Assess the Audience’s Capacity. Match the web conference features and requirements with the audience’s technological capacity.
- Internet Connection / Bandwidth: Most web conferences work best with high speed connections, while others are adequate with dial-up connections. Web conferences do not work if the intended audience does not have internet connections.
- Audio Capacity: Web conference audio can be delivered in two ways: (1) VOIP (voice over internet protocol) where audience members listen through the computer, or (2) telephone bridge where participants listen through a simultaneous teleconference. Determine if the audience has sound cards and speakers or headphones on their computers to use VOIP. However, VOIP can be used only for one-way audio unless the audience also has microphones on their computers.
- Operating System: Most web conference program are Windows-based programs. Mac users often need to operate their machine in Windows or use emulator software.
- Browser: Some web conference software work with any Java enabled browser while others are designed for use with Internet Explorer only.
- Ease of Use. Web conference users vary in their ability and confidence to use advanced technology. Some web conference software is easier to use and teach than others. Examine several factors, including:
- Download web conference software: Most web conference programs require some software to be downloaded onto participant’s computers. Web conference software varies when it comes to how long it takes to download onto a computer. For some software, typical users cannot download because in some workplaces the network administrator is the only one permitted to download new software.
- Session production: Running a web conference session involves gaining new skills and requires attention to both content and technology. Some web conference programs are more intuitive to use than others. Many web conferencing services attempt to sell session production services to their clients.
- Technical support and training: Technical support should be easily available to both web conference participants and web conference leaders. The usefulness of materials and training classes vary among web conference providers.
- Cost. Web conferences vary in pricing. Generally there are two pricing models:
- Per Minute Use: Costs are charged per minute per user – rates vary from $0.10 – $0.40/minute. In addition there are audio costs for telephone bridges – VOIP does not have added audio costs. For a limited number of minutes this is an appropriate model.
- License Agreement: When organization purchases a “license” to use a predetermined number of “seats” for a period of time, the organization has unlimited use of those seats. The web conference provider hosts the web conference on its own server. As regular use of web conferences expands, this pricing plan can be more cost-efficient than per minute use.
Selecting a web conference provider is an important decision. To understand the range of services, observe as many different types of web conferences to understand what features are most important.