Telephony and teleconferencing tools

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... part of the technology for communities project,
started off by the authors of [Digital Habitats], Etienne Wenger, Nancy White, and John D. Smith.

Definition / description

One-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many synchronous voice conversations on a telephone can involve a range of technologies today, including Plain old Telephe Systems (POTS) and voice over Internet protocol (VOIP). This tool includes individual one-to-one phone calls, bridge lines and conference call services as well as web based voice interaction tools.

Uses for Communities of Practice

Synchronous converstion and collaboration over the phone can be a mainstay of a community's "thinking together". Voice over IP (VOIP) reduces costs significantly and adds a number of additional features. The nuance in a human conversation can manage a lot of different levels of conversation that are difficult in text-based enviornments. The informality and immediacy of a telephone call can be very productive. Often combined with other synchronous tools.

Challenges include scalability, synchronization, persistence, producing a record for later use, locations where VOIP is blocked or where there are no conference calling options, and language.

Tool Polarities

  • Together/apart: Telephones and telephone conferences are inherently synchronous unless recordings are used to include people who could not participate at the time of the call.
  • Participation/reification: Small group calls emphasize participation but as calls get larger, reification becomes a significant element through call recordings.
  • Individual/group: Minimum group size is two. When teleconference groups get large the technology becomes a broadcast medium rather than one for interaction.


Individual user issues

  • Physical features of handsets. The physical characteristics of a telephone vary a lot. Some are hand-held devices that are attached to a telephone that are attached to the wall. Headphones make a big difference as far as ambient noise or ability to use a computer while on the phone. And cordless or mobile phones change the way phones can be used significantly.
    • When extended community collaboration happens on a phone, the freedom to combine a telephone conversation with note-taking at a computer or being able to wave your hands while walking around can make a big difference.
  • One-to-one calls. A plain old telephone number or VOIP user-name is an address for reaching an individual anywhere in the world. For VOIP, a Skype- or Groove-specific id-name is the equivalent. Most VOIP systems can reach a plain old telephone number. A VOIP session may have the other person's photo or a link to the profile page.
    • A short phone call is a quick and easy way of solving a problem with another community member. As the cost of phone calls fall, reaching a colleague becomes a matter of knowing how (and when) to reach them (see Community Directories ). Community membership may be a way of signaling permission to be contacted by phone. Working across time zones can be a challenge, although extended collaborations lead to identification of "good times to call". Recording the conversation can produce a shareable, usable artifact by using an audio recorder, chat or IM tool for taking notes simultaneously. (Many VOIP tools will have an IM chat associated with a phone call.)
  • Voice messaging. Leaving a voice message for an individual or a group extends the utility of an ordinary phone. Groove, for example, allows a voice message to be attached to a message, sent to a group and listened to when the message is opened.
    • The warmth of a voice message has to be balanced with the difficulty of scanning it for relevant information, the cost of bandwidth and storage, etc. Attaching a voice message to an electronic message (such as a Groove message) that is sent to a distribution list creates an inexpensive and informal kind of audio broadcast.

Group calls

  • 3 Way Calling. Many conventional telephone systems allow an individual to suspend a phone call temporarily, call another person, and then add them person to the existing call.
    • Small group meetings can be used for quick problem-solving sessions, extended collaborations, scheduling, etc. If each person conferences another person in, it's possible to have an impromptu conference call with more than three people.
  • Group Teleconference. Conference call for many people where everyone calls one number and they are connected together.
    • Some phone bridges are free, with additional features available for a fee.
    • Association with other resources such as web-casting.
    • Connection with broadcast & community directory features.
  • Noise cancellation. As the number of participants on a call goes up, so does the likelihood of having echoes and other noises diminish the sense of togetherness.
    • Noise cancellation features make a phone bridge more useful
    • People calling in via VOIP add to the potential for noise.
    • A web interface that allows an individual to be muted can improve the experience of the group
  • Forming temporary subgroups in a conference call. Conference calling service allows the facilitator to group callers in small groups for an arbitrary period of time.
    • A community occasionally needs to balance the need for the whole group to be together with the need for small groups that permit everyone to speak. Being able to report back from small group discussions in a telephone conference call setting is important.

Recording interactions and outcomes

  • Easy recording of conferences or meetings. Recording audio conferences for later use, use by members who could not attend the call or for transcription.
    • Publishing an audio recording or a transcript can be especially useful if a community includes members with different mother tongues.
  • Automatic phone meeting records (who called, how long connected)
  • Presence indicator on a website (e.g., who's currently talking during a phone call, etc.)
  • Linking audio to other events (such as "next slide" in a presentation).

Telephony in combination

  • Instant messaging tools and Chatting tools are useful adjuncts to Telephony and teleconferencing tools whether one-to-one or in groups. The differences between these tools can be useful: for example, several people can talk "at once" on IM or Chat, while turn-taking is essential on the phone. Chat transcripts provide a useful first-draft of minutes, action check-lists, or just jottings for memory jogging.
  • Podcasting is a good way to make phone calls available to people who couldn't attend a meeting.

Other resources

see also Member directory tools

Resources and Citations

Tool providers or instances

  • provides one-to-one telephony as well as for small groups conferencing
  • WAS a teleconferencing service that combines regular phone calls as well as direct Skype calls but it has been closed down.