Teleconferencing and Chat practices

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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.

Practice Summary

Teleconferences are a fact of life in business and in the life of many communities. Instant messaging tools like AIM, MSN, or Skype or a chat tool or even Twitter together with a regular phone connection provide the equivalent of a "web meetings" tool. Combining the audio channel of a teleconference with the text of an online chat enhances the learning experience for everyone involved. The technology, along with attention to the collaborative spirit can make this form a powerful knowledge-generating process. A community of practice framework helps us bring out the value of this simple practice, whether it’s used by a large group or just two people at a time.

This note describes how to take notes collaboratively while having a conversation on the phone. This collaborative note-taking approach is useful for several reasons:

  • Teleconferences support synchronous “thinking together,” negotiation of meaning and turn-taking in familiar ways but have certain limitations like one-speaker at a time, ambiguities in the spoken word, etc.
  • A chat is much more precise for sharing things like a URL, which is time-consuming and error-prone when shared orally.
  • Synchronous note-taking allows people to share what they heard (it's especially helpful for non-native speakers or in a group with diverse spoken accents, since the written language is more uniform)
  • More people can write at the same time in a chat but really only one person can speak at a time on a conference call. When a majority of the group is on a chat, it provides a silent way of raising hands in agreement or to request permission to speak.
  • As an artifact, a chat transcript is an informal record of what was said that’s portable, easy to scan, a reliable memory jogger, and is a helpful first draft for more polished writing.
  • An audio recording can be evocative of the original conversation if it’s portable and documented so that prospective listeners know what the recording contains.
  • There are advantages of having an integrated chat and audio recording (e.g., so that they are played as a synchronous thing), but it’s most economical to have them separate.
  • Chat is closer to "always on" than other channels (people's Skype calls get interrupted but the chat does not).

Audience and relevance

This method will interest you if you lead or participate in conversations in distributed groups that:

  • generate new insights or knowledge,
  • mix people with different perspectives so the outcomes may be uncertain,
  • bring together people with different linguistic backgrounds (e.g., different mother tongues or different professional vocabularies),
  • want both collective focus (say, on what one speaker is presenting) and fringe awareness (say, on what diverse reactions might bring to the conversation),
  • have the possibility of referencing web or other resources to augment the voice conversation,
  • need the exchange to be self-documenting because people can’t afford to take on much “follow-on” work.

“Before the call” methods

A good teleconference requires some preparation to prepare for the social side as well as the technology side. Here are several methods related to setting up a call.

Technical alternatives for meeting:

  • Impromptu conference call by adding a caller for a very small group
  • Small groups can work with Skype conferencing alone - currently there is a limit of 9 users
    • Skype can mix people on Skype with people a regular phone (but Skype-out charges apply)
  • A telephone bridge is most common / best for large groups
  • Webinar platforms can be used for audio and chat together
  • Each technology seems to enable some people and exclude others:
    • be sure to test
    • be sure to check-back to see who wants to participate

point of control

  • using a phone bridge
    • Moderator can see who’s participating
    • Moderator can mute people suspected of causing noise
    • The phone bridge can record the call
    • The phone bridge can serve up recordings
  • Webinar software like Elluminate, WebEx, GotoMeeting, etc. can serve this purpose

Access considerations

  • Skype is sometimes unstable for people connecting with wi-fi, particularly if wi-fi suffers from bandwidth constraints
  • Communities and groups typically are ‘unstable’ in terms of where people are calling from, what access issues they face, etc.
  • Low bandwidth users can use the chat facility of Skype or Twitter while calling in on a standard phone with the bridge

Recording the audio conversation (requires planning before the call)

  • Recordings extend the utility of a call
    • Need to ask for permission beforehand
    • People may be more sensitive to having their words recorded than to having chat notes quote them
  • There are several different strategies for producing audio recording
    • the phone bridge
    • software like Callrecorder or Powergrammo for Skype (Callrecorder may link audio & text time stamps)
    • a recorder attached to the telephone
  • Because text is much smaller, it can serve as an introduction to the audio recording which is richer in nuance

Agenda planning

  • Provide a familiar “launch-pad” page with phone number and related technical information and
    • an agenda and other resources
    • information about a featured speaker
    • nice to have pictures and profiles
  • How to resolve time zone differences?
    • Always meet at the same date for consistency
    • Take turns to share the discomfort of off-hours
    • Make an effort to support absentees

"During the Call" methods

Ensemble production

  • Audio
    • Audio interaction on a phone bridge takes some skill
    • usually need a designated leader
  • Text
    • text interaction is also a skill
    • Everyone who’s at a computer can participate in collective note taking in a Skype or other chat room:
      • All can write “at the same time”
      • All can refer to previously entered text (20 seconds, 20 minutes or even 20 days later), such as agenda items previously proposed or ideas mentioned
      • going for “the meaning” (which is different for different people)
      • quoting the “actual words”
      • take notes when you are not talking
      • adding URLs for discussion — clickable
  • Blend audio & text — that’s a further skill (”listen” to the chatroom)
    • who takes the lead in audio & text?
    • will someone “read into the record” — bring up the silent comments mentioned in the chat?
  • How to create the desired ensemble production atmosphere?
    • Providing a “how to” guide?
    • Setting aside a moment to discuss protocol
    • Produce a summary of the call afterwards — an index and invitation to listen

"After the call" methods

Reuse the chat notes

  • Clean up the chat notes (e.g., remove time stamps, standardize or clean up names, correct spelling)
  • Put in chronological order

Reuse the audio

  • Share the audio recording as soon as possible
  • Let people who missed the call where to find the recording

Share the whole thing

  • Web Meeting tools will save a recording that combines audio, chat, and visuals (slides, etc.)
    • Not easily scannable
    • Makes viewer a captive audience

Start the next cycle

  • Produce a very short summary (quote the verbal summary of to-do’s at the end of the call at a minimum)
  • Send the chat notes to everyone who was present by email
  • Post the chat notes where they can be referred to in the future
  • Pull out key lines and put them in an editable place such as a Google doc or a wiki
  • Have handy for “quoting” from the text during the next call

Variants and applicability

  • Capturing and publishing the chat-room notes from WebEx or Elluminate sessions can serve a similar purpose
  • This practice works from simple one-to-one calls to larger group events.
  • Notice that Skype is not just one tool, but is a platform that collects several tools together:
    • One-to-one telephony (Skype-to-Skype and Skype-out)
    • Telephone conferencing
    • Video conferencing
    • One-to-one chat
    • Many-to-many chat
    • “Friends” directory
    • Global subscriber directory & member profiling system
    • Activity history (calls, chats, etc.)
    • Presence awareness
  • High speed conferencing feature list (incomplete)
    • Connects Skype and plain old telephone calls
    • Controls muting
    • Makes recordings
    • Serves them up
    • Send out email announcements (email list capability)

Health-check questions

  • Is the group sharing the work of note-taking?
  • Does knowledge migrate from the raw notes into other group artifacts?
  • Does someone make an effort to weave written statements back into the phone conversation?
  • How can you provide multiple pathways to participation?
    • Jumping in because you know you want to participate:
      • Get an email invitation
      • Call into the phone bridge
      • Join in the talking and note-taking
      • Follow-up on the notes
    • More tentative because you don't know whether it's worth the time
      • Provide clues about the value of previous calls
        • Look at other call summaries
        • Find the next call
        • Jump in as above
  • Establish social norms that say that passive, peripheral, lurking is OK
  • Permit listening with no obligation to inspect previous calls, as above
This page was originally written by John Smith and Shawn Callahan
and published here.  It uses a template originally developed
Nancy Dixon and Kate Pugh.