Skype-based seminar series?

My department has a weekly EEB seminar series. But we’re strapped for cash to bring in visiting speakers. One of my colleagues had a good idea: remote speakers who’d speak and answer questions via skype or videoconference.

Anyone have any experience with this, whether as a host/organizer, speaker, or attendee? Any tips to offer?

My first question is what tech you need to do this well. A few years ago I gave a talk as an invited speaker that was simulcast to other sites. All the sites involved had slick videoconference equipment, which allowed me to see and hear everyone at every site. And the audience members could see me and my slides, not just hear me talk while only being able to see my slides. We have a videoconference-equipped seminar room in the building, though I’m not sure exactly what kit it has. Is there a more low tech way to do it that will still be a good experience for the speaker and the audience?

16 thoughts on “Skype-based seminar series?

  1. I think there are other sources of motivation for going virtual. From a speaker’s point of view, the virtual option would sometimes be a very attractive one. I really love being on seminar visits, but the travel can be a major hassle, and also a major cost, both environmental and personal (being away from home). I’ve participated in several remote group discussions of my book, which went quite well, I think, and a couple more are on the horizon. Speaking or meeting people face-to-face is a richer experience for all, in my opinion, but after weighing the full costs and benefits of traveling across the continent for 2-3 day visits, I am increasingly offering virtual meetings in place of traveling. Roughly, I estimate less than half the time commitment for me, zero financial cost for the hosts, and more than half the benefits for all.

    • I’m tentatively set to do a completely virtual seminar for the first time this spring. (Previously, I’ve given a visiting seminar that was simulcast to some other locations).

      Can you talk about how your virtual seminars have gone? Any tips for newbies?

      Also, re: the cost-benefit analysis, do you think the cost-benefit analysis for conference travel differs?

      • I haven’t given a virtual seminar yet, but rather joined discussion groups based on my book. So, it was mostly fielding questions, asking some of my own, throwing ideas around – “normal” stimulating discussions, with all the usual benefits. I Skyped in, so nothing profound to share. I did also once agree – in place of traveling for a seminar visit – to read a manuscript by an especially interested student, and then to give feedback and chat online about it. I suppose the theme is trying to stay connected and to meet people who want to meet as much as possible without the travel cost. I feel optimistic about it so far.

        Margaret Kosmala also organized a fun virtual book Q&A with people from anywhere all at once, to which she applied her considerable tech savvy. This is a link to the first of three:

        To me, all scientific travel involves similar cost-benefit issues. Personally, I simply don’t want to work-travel more than a handful of times per year. Conferences usually involve a larger ratio of time-at-event : time-en-route, compared to seminar visits, and both can be unpredictable in terms of how much benefit you feel you got out of it. Working groups I find more reliably high in benefits. For whatever the event, if I can drive there in half a day (I’m that distance from quite a few places), the time cost is way, way smaller than if I need to get connecting flights starting in the airport which is already 2 hours away. There are many different cost/benefit combinations…

  2. You asked the question about equipment.

    There are tons of opinions out there about fancy software (GoMeeting, Citrix, etc, etc) and cheap software (Skype, Google Hangouts, appear.in, etc). In my experience once you have the ability to split screen (mostly only in the fancy software) or at least share screen (most software) there is not a lot of difference in features. Nor is there a lot of difference in reliability (that will be a controversial statement). I’ve seen failures from the most expensive software.

    In my experience the three keys are:
    1) Hardware – very good speakers on both ends – insist that the solo guest speaker use a headset on their end (minimizes echo and background noise) and get a good ominidirectional room mike for your end. And internet connection. Make sure it is high bandwidth on both ends. Make the guest go into the office with university connections, not from home where the connection could be degraded by 3 family members watching Netflix.
    2) Advanced testing – most reliability issues boil down to configuration problems of telling the software which microphones and speakers and cameras to use. Allow 30 minutes in advance to get these configured and tested.
    3) Backup – rather than going all in on one software package, having a backup ready (mostly in case of configuration problems) makes a lot of sense.

  3. I recently defended and one of my committee members attended virtually. When I was looking for a room that would meet our tech needs, I found that other departments/people/the library were doing remote meetings and presentations better than us, and were all too willing to help! Our building is one of the oldest on campus, and just by default, a little behind in the tech department. I was sort of awed to find all these resources after 4 years there, which probably speaks to how strong my grad school blinders were. Anyway, just a reminder to shop around on campus first!

    Also, check out Zoom. I like it better than Skype, and as it turns out (unknown to me) our university/department had an account we could use.

  4. Years ago I was a speaker at a seminar for veterinarians. A part of them was remote and attended via Skype. It worked fine (10 years ago!). However, I would use zoom today, which has more tools for web meetings. Use this regularly with my clients and attended a workshop the other day. Flawless.

  5. A few thoughts based on my experiences attending weekly BEACON Center talks (which are simulcast to 4-6 sites) and running an entirely remote journal club:

    – I second what everyone has said about building in set-up time. No matter how many times everyone has set up a connection, invariably someone’s microphone will decide to throw a fit.

    – If the speaker is doing a talk with slides, you need to decide whether it’s worth the effort to have a video feed of them person talking in addition to a feed of their slides. Being able to see them is nice – it lets them use hand gestures, and means that people who went to the talk have a better chance of recognizing them at a conference. But it’s a substantial additional layer of complication. Related point: remind the speaker to point with the mouse rather than their hand or a laser a pointer.

    – Giving virtual presentations can also give attendees the option to attend remotely (depending on the technology used). For the most part, this is a really good thing for increasing access. However, seminars are sometimes also intended to serve the function of bringing people attendees together. If there isn’t some incentive for people to be physically present, virtual seminars can be less effective at achieving this goal (why trek across campus when you can watch it on your laptop?). Of course, the incentive could be as simple as good snacks :).

    – On the related topic of virtual discussion groups: if you’re just having a conversation, it’s worth considering whether you need video at all. If there are just two rooms being linked and they both have good internet connections (e.g. a person skypeing into a class), I’ve found that it’s usually worth it. But if you’re trying to connect a lot of rooms that don’t necessarily have the best technology, just doing audio can be simpler. The journal club I’m in connects students from around the world, and we’ve found Discord (https://discordapp.com/) to be the best solution. It doesn’t have video, but that means that we don’t waste time waiting for everyone to get their video feeds working (especially when, in reality, many people don’t have a good enough internet connection to support video). Plus, it lets us all use our phones, which generally have the best audio equipment that any of us personally own.

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