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Using Videoconferencing for professional development and meetings.

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Videoconferencing is a vital tool for professional development and professional practice. During the past few years, the New South Wales (NSW; in Australia) State Library's (sl.nsw.gov.au) Reference and Information Services Working Group (1) (RISG) has explored a number of options for connecting members across the state to meetings, workshops, and seminars. As early as May 2014, the annual Reference at the Metcalfe seminar made use of Google Hangouts to connect presenters from the U.S. and Queensland (Australia) to the seminar, as well as to connect working group team members, whose locations included those around the Sydney area (Fairfield, Manly, Randwick, and Sutherland) and Coffs Harbour in the north.

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The library's use of Hangouts has continued, with sessions archived via the RISG YouTube account, (2) ensuring that everyone can access and share the presentations whether they attended the seminars or not. NSW libraries are not the only ones using Hangouts and videoconferences to connect. For example, Sacramento Public Library is using Google Hangouts (3) to connect for library programs, and Colorado State Library is using it for professional development with its Super Happy Maker Fun Hour. (4) The Library OnConference (5) also runs using Hangouts.

This paper will focus on how to make videoconferencing tools, including Google Hangouts and Blue Jeans, work well for your library's public as well as private meetings.

Videoconferencing for Seminars

Each year, the NSW RISG--which consists of public library staffers from all over NSW--has a seminar featuring a wide range of ideas of relevance to this service area. (6) The planning is done by a steering group of four to six people. Planning for the 2014 and 2015 Reference at the Metcalfe seminars was undertaken using Hangouts as the key tool for connecting working group team members. Planning for the 2016 seminar was done using BlueJeans (because of restrictions on accessing Hangouts in some workplaces of the participants). Both these methods of videoconferencing were supported by the use of email and shared documents on Google Docs. There were no meetings in which people were all in one place other than online. The steering committee for the NSW RISG has not been in one place at the same time for more than 4 years. So these online meetings are crucial for keeping the group connected and for building connections with the newer steering group members. They also enable planning for the statewide group, with no travel time and no impact on travel budgets. Doodle (7) is used to plan the time that suits the participants.

Using Hangouts, BlueJeans, or other videoconference software for meetings saves teleconference costs and enables people to see each other, which adds visual cues to the effectiveness of the communications. The NSW Readers' Advisory Working Group also uses Hangouts for planning seminars and for presenting some speakers at its annual seminar or at meetings.

Screening Live Presentations

Prior to using Hangouts for presentations in 2014, there was other technology RISG used to enable real-time discussions with presenters in other countries. The Working group heard from David Lee King (2011) and Lee Rainie (2013), both via Skype. The Readers' Advisory Working Group heard from Diana Tixier Herald (2010) and Brent Weeks (2011) also via Skype. Brian Mayer and Christopher Harris (2012) presented at a NSW public library seminar on games via Skype. These presenters are all from North America and are experts in their areas. (We relied on experts from North America because the time zone factors to connect with European experts would have had them speaking very late at night or very early in the morning.)

The content from these Skype and other online presentations was so good, it would have been very useful to be able to share it with NSW public library staffers (and other people) who could not be at the seminars or talks. However, with Skype, it's not an option. A major strength of Hangouts is that the content can be made publicly available after the presentation via YouTube. Hangouts may not look quite as slick as professional videoing, but for conveying content, it is very effective. The Storyboard series (8) by Patrick Rothfuss and other authors illustrates the way Hangouts (or any other kind of videoconference) can work to bring different ideas together.

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With Hangouts, you can watch live from anywhere that has a robust internet connection. Questions can be asked directly to the presenters, even if you are not at the seminar. This is particularly important as there are some library staffers who would require 2 days to travel to and from Sydney for the professional development. This really restricts their ability to be there in person, but they can readily participate online.

The 2016 Readers' advisory seminar tried a different approach. In addition to streaming a presenter in (Joyce Saricks), the presentations for the rest of the seminar were streamed out via Hangouts. This was the first time one of these seminars could be watched live across NSW. These are not slick productions, but they provide the information from the seminars in a way that was not previously possible. Presenters provided written permission to be streamed and recorded.

Preparing for Each Presentation

Before each presentation, there is one test of the Hangouts connection with the presenters. This ensures the software is installed and that any peripherals are tested. This does not guarantee that it will work smoothly on the day, but it reduces the problems. When speakers are approached to present via Hangouts, it is confirmed that they are happy for the video to be made available and agree to a practice session. For most of the speakers, it is their first presentation via Hangouts, although often not their first presentation online.

Watching Live or Watching Later

Public Hangouts, such as the ones previously described, can be watched live by anyone with the URL of the meeting or if he or she has been invited to the Hangout to participate within it. This is still proving a challenge for many public libraries.

For the presentations, it is important that they are live and not simply recorded at some other event. This gives people, whether in the Hangout or watching via streaming, the option of asking a question to the presenters. This is a learning experience too. At the seminars, people are encouraged to walk up to the computer and ask a question. This way, the presenters can see who the question is from, and it is more interactive for the presenters, as well as the audience. In one instance, a questioner walked away and was (nicely) called back by the person answering the question. It meant that everyone else who asked a question waited on camera until it had been answered. All of this reinforced the live experience.

What Causes a Poor-Quality Connection?

The biggest contributor to poor-quality connections is the speed of the internet. It depends on each of the participant's internet speed. Slower connections will distort sound and video, even leading to connections dropping off. You might have a very fast internet connection, but if someone else has a slower one, he or she still may have trouble hearing you. This is not simply a problem for Hangouts; it's an issue in other types of videoconferencing as well. Internet speed is critical. Inadequate microphones or webcams are less influential than poor connections. These are less of an issue, as even basic tools can be quite effective.

Holding Meetings in via Hangouts

The author of this paper has been holding meetings in Hangouts since 2012. Using Hangouts for the meetings came after a history of using teleconferences, which were no longer cost-effective. Moving to Hangouts not only saved money, but it received positive reviews, as participants enjoyed being able to see each other and have visual clues. This mostly avoided the problem that teleconferences can have: people talking at the same time or extended silences as people wait for others to speak. It is really clear who is speaking, so that people do not have to keep identifying themselves.

Before the first meetings, there were tests of Hangouts done with each person. (At this time, each of the steering groups had six to seven people.) The aim of this was to isolate and sort out a small number of problems, rather than having to sort out several at once. This was very fast with some people and slower with others. It depended on the technology that was being used, the user's confidence level with technology, and any workplace software blocks. This testing meant that when the first meeting was held with each group, people had already tried Hangouts once and knew their way around the screen, at least a little. The advance meetings also included a few discussions around protocols to make the meetings work better.

Even with the advance testing, not everything worked for everyone in the meeting. In the NSW RISG, one person consistently (no matter how much work was done with the council IT) did not have a functioning microphone. The person could hear and see, but the member could not be heard. This meant the person used chat to participate. This mixed mode of meeting worked well, as being able to see the body language of the other participants--and mostly hear each other--enabled effective meetings without having to use travel time.

As new people join the steering committees, they also are connected to a Hangout prior to attending their first live meeting. The continuing of this training has meant that new people can easily participate in the meetings, without feeling at a disadvantage.

The agendas for the meetings are maintained in a Google doc--which is open during the meeting--and each person annotates during the meeting, which makes recording the minutes easy. It also allows people to add late agenda items during the meeting and make extra notes about ideas and actions.

Holding Meetings in BlueJeans

In 2015, there was a local studies project requiring the input of around 25 staffers in different public libraries. From the beginning, it was planned to mostly use videoconferencing. It was decided to use BlueJeans (bluejeans.com), which is also used by the State Library of NSW, as it was thought there might be fewer barriers within our councils for this system than for Hangouts. There still were barriers. Some councils did not permit any videoconferencing. This affected two participants. Prior to doing more than 20 BlueJeans tests in a short time frame, I had thought that this may be simpler than a Hangout test, but I was wrong. As the variables are still around the hardware being used, the permission of staffers to install software, and individual comfort with technology, there was no difference.

The important thing is that both Blue Jeans and Hangouts technically worked, saving time and money for all participants. Since all the meetings did not require travel to Sydney, or even within Sydney, there were participants from a greater range of libraries. And when face-to-face meetings were subsequently needed, people already were more comfortable with each other; so those meetings were very productive too or could be conducted using video conferencing, if the participants so chose.

Other Videoconference Options

While BlueJeans and Hangouts are the main videoconference tools discussed in this paper, there are many other options to use. The Multicultural Working Group is using Skype for Business9 for meetings. The author has also used Adobe Connect for meetings with the Read for all group (a collaboration between library staffers in four countries). For another perspective on Hangouts, there is an article from the Australian National Maritime Museum.10

A Few Helpful Videoconference Meeting Conventions

The following points of advice for opening the conference will help your videoconference be more effective. They are really simple, but incredibly important.

* When everyone is in Hangouts or other videoconference space, go around asking each person to speak and making sure everyone can hear each other. Ask people to either wave when they can hear someone or to respond in chat.

* If you use chat at this early point, it reminds people to have it on their screen during the conference.

* The initial sound check helps decide if someone has to speak more loudly. Additionally, the adjustment of any settings can be done early in the meeting.

* Since some participants may be connecting from an open work room, where other staffers may be heard in the background, remind people to mute their microphones when not speaking.

* Have the agenda as a shared document--using your platform of choice. This makes it easy for people to add agenda items and notes.

Conclusion

Despite some minor technical issues, videoconferences can work really well and--after the initial work of testing people's connections--deliver effective outcomes for meetings. No matter what kind of videoconference method is used, it takes a little time for people to warm to it, but that is similar to people who don't know each other coming together in a face-to-face situation.

Videoconferencing can be a very effective way to connect people over distances for meetings and for specialist information. There are still blocks for some workplaces in using it--some about technology and some pertaining to policy. There is a lot of potential for its use in connecting library staffers across the world, a state, or a city.

WHEN THINGS GET TRICKY

When Becky Spratford used her PC for a Hangout in 2014, she had a fast connection, excellent sound, and great video quality. But for some reason the screen share did not work, even though it had been tested in rehearsal. As a workaround, we had to push her slides forward, when Spratford asked.

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A Hangout in 2014 featuring Queensland University of Technology's touchscreen learning space--The Cube--required the presenters to use mobile devices instead of a PC. While it took some experimentation to get a tablet to connect with a phone, we ended up having excellent sound and good video for the Hangout.

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The best rule of thumb is to test everything in advance--but be ready to improvise.

Thanks to Martin Boyce, Sean Findlay, Cathy Johnston, John Taggart, and Jennifer Wilson, who participate in many Hangouts and who have been invaluable for their comments during the preparation of this paper.

Ellen Forsyth (ellen.forsyth@sl.nsw .gov.au) is a consultant for Public Library Services at the State Library of New South Wales in Australia. Some of Forsyth's work involves facilitating public library collaboration, as well as assisting public library staff with capacity building.

Endnotes

(1.) New South Wales Reference and Information Services Working Group, referenceandinformationservices.wikifoundry.com, accessed 4 May 2016

(2.) New South Wales Reference and Information Services Working Group's YouTube channel, youtube.com/user/NSWRISG, accessed 4 May 2016

(3.) Sacramento Public Library's YouTube channel--showing its Hangouts, youtube.com/channel/UCJckQfURUjkiCullUWmRzHQ, accessed 4 May 2016

(4.) State Library of Colorado Super Happy Maker Fun Hour, plus.google .com/events/cggllj596rcvppvov2bhntsrgfk, accessed 4 May 2016

(5.) Library OnConference, youtube.com/channel/UCdeAY4lm7hxZvdjldc OikAA, accessed 4 May 2016

(6.) Reference at the Metcalfe, referenceandinformationservices.wiki foundry.com/page/reference+%40+the+Metcalfe, accessed 4 May 2016

(7.) Doodle, doodle.com, accessed 5 May 2016

(8.) Rothfuss, Patrick et al, Storyboard, Geek & Sundry, geekandsundry .com/shows/storyboard, accessed 21 July 2015

(9.) Skype for Business, products.office.com/en-us/skype-for-business/ download-app?tab=tabs-3, accessed 5 May 2016

(10.) "Hangin' Out With Google Hangouts in National Science Week," anmm.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/hangin-out-with-google-hangoutsin-national-science-week, 15 Aug. 2015 (accessed 7 Jan. 2016)
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Author:Forsyth, Ellen
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 1, 2016
Words:2590
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