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How global virtual conferences can build learning networks


David Wortley looks at the role of conferencing technologies and virtual worlds like Second Life in hosting major international learning conferences and building collaborative networks.

The recent Virtual Worlds 2010 Conference organised by the Open University and Serious Games Institute was the latest example of how conferencing technologies can support highly cost effective and environmentally friendly international conferences.

Historical perspective

24hr Global Virtual Conferences for learning and education arguably began with the Global Learn Day initiative launched over a decade ago by the legendary John Hibbs, founder of the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Learning.
Global Learn Day's mission is:
  • To cause, worldwide, a celebration of learning - The 'Earth Day' of education
  • To increase and accelerate affordable access to education, worldwide
  • To promote the importance of learning
  • To foster the notion that this is one planet and we are one people
Global Learn Day is a social enterprise with a mission to make learning accessible to as many people across the globe as possible. This has meant that these conferences have always tried to use mix of technologies from very basic telephony to internet-based web conferences. Participation as a delegate at Global Learn Day has always been free and in some parts of the world where there is no telecommunications or electricity provision, local people can listen to international education experts via community radio.
"The use of 3D virtual auditoriums and meeting rooms creates a greater sense of involvement and presence for the user which begins to replicate the experience of physical conferences."
Global Learn Day, from its origins in 1998, has set the benchmark for bringing together education and learning experts from across the globe to share knowledge, demonstrate the power of collaborative technologies and build new learning networks. John Hibbs and his key partners have clearly demonstrated how cost effective and accessible education can be made through the use of appropriate and accessible technologies.

The role of virtual worlds

Virtual worlds such as Second Life add a potential new dimension to virtual conferences by providing a richer experience in which each delegate is represented by an avatar 'alter-ego'. The use of 3D virtual auditoriums and meeting rooms creates a greater sense of involvement and presence for the user which begins to replicate the experience of physical conferences.
Unlike video conferencing which has suffered over the years because of bandwidth limitations and the poverty of experience compared to meeting face to face or even viewing a broadcast quality video, the use of virtual worlds to host conferences can not only provide a richer experience but also reach a larger number of simultaneous delegates than video conferencing, although still less than what is possible through platforms such as Webex or plain teleconferencing.

Benefits and limitations

As network bandwidth and conferencing technologies have improved, organisations challenged by growing travel and environmental costs (especially in the corporate sector) have begun to implement conferencing technologies to replace physical meetings.
The principal benefits of virtual conferences can be summarised as :-
  • Improved cost effectiveness
  • Extended reach of subject matter experts
  • Savings in travel time of and risk to key personnel and conference delegates
  • Better tools to capture and disseminate knowledge and experience
Whilst newer web conferencing technologies have the ability to host hundreds of simultaneous users sharing presentation slides, text chat and text and audio questions, each participant is identified only as a named person and although most platforms allow private one-to-one communications, there are some limitations :-
  • Limited sense of presence and commitment for the delegate
  • Requirement for access to and ability to use the technology
  • Inferior experience to face to face meetings
  • Reduced commitment to participation compared to physical conferences

Looking to the Future

Virtual Worlds 2010 was an important stepping stone in understanding how virtual worlds can provide a rich learning experience to a global audience in a rich, very cost effective and environmentally friendly way. Global Learn Day continues to extend that global reach in a highly accessible way, and the forthcoming Association of Virtual Worlds 3-D Conference will bring together international experts across industry and education to push the boundaries of global virtual conferencing technology still deeper.
There is no doubt that developments in the technologies required for the holy grail of rich browser-based virtual conference platforms capable of hosting hundreds of users with the tools for synchronous audio, video and presentation content are well down the track. The next two to five years should see virtual conferences overtake physical conferences in number and popularity but the principles of accessibility and inclusion will require integration with more low-tech solutions such as physical meetings, community radio and telephony.

David Wortley is director of the Serious Games Institute and a regular keynote speaker at national and international conferences on elearning and immersive technologies

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