Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remotely There

How much has Skype/teleconferencing etc. reduced the need for professional academic travel? For me, not at all. These things have reduced the number of traditional phone calls to a very low number, but there has been no decrease in conference travel or travel to other universities to give talks, just to mention two common reasons for professional travel.

For some committees involving geographically dispersed people, we can do some or all of our committee business by email instead of meeting in person, but when we used to meet in person, it was before or during a conference. We still go to the conference, we just don't do committee meetings there.

Technology has not affected my need to travel a lot, but it has increased the level and style of participation of geographically remote colleagues in some of my research group's activities. At some research group meetings, we have had the face and voice of a colleague (typically an international colleague) transmitted via a laptop sitting on a table. It is great fun to rotate the laptop around so that the colleague's head can be facing the person who is speaking.

I can't imagine anything reducing the need to be at a conference in person or to travel to another university to give a talk and meet people. I can, however, imagine having less money for these things, thus reducing the opportunities for travel, but the benefits of in-person interactions in different professional settings is much greater than what can be accomplished via technological methods for transmitting voices and images.


Charl P. Botha said...

I agree that at this moment the benefits of being in physical proximity at conferences is far greater than that which can be achieved via technological means.

However, judging by recent and expected developments (more bandwidth, display technology both volumetric and large) as well as diminishing financial freedom, that difference in benefit is being slowly but surely whittled down.

I coincidentally made a bet with some colleagues at a conference in the USA recently (most of us work in Europe) that in 20 years time, teleconferencing would be mainstream. I did write it up in a slightly humorous tone, but the gist is definitely serious. If you're interested, see the post here (also for two other futuristic bets):

Average Professor said...

I have several times used something like Adobe Connect to give presentations or Q&A - situations where the return on a 30-minute investment would be high, but the return on a multiple day investment of travel time etc. would not be. But those are things that before the technology existed, I would have just said no.

I have also been in several committee meetings where it's been used. A faculty member is on sabbatical in a foreign country, or one of the committee members is so external that it's not possible or practical for them to come to meetings in person, etc.

Janice said...

I've spoken at one conference remotely -- it was overseas and my family's schedule couldn't accommodate a five or six-day absence which the travel would entail.

Fortunately, the organizers were great: they had a teleconference set-up so I could see the conference room (and other speakers!) while everyone could also see me. It wasn't as great as being there in person, but that simply wasn't an option.

another junior FSP said...

I've been on thesis and/or candidacy committees where one of the committee members is teleconferencing in. This saves a back-trip for that person, and can work very well. The committee member was fully engaged in the discussion.

I've also used Skype for a 3-way conference call with a collaborator who was in China for a trip.

It won't replace conferences - getting everyone into the same place is kinda the point of those. It won't replace bringing in a speaker - the teleconferenced speakers I've seen have not worked well because they need more give-and-take in the discussion. But it does a good job bringing in an extra person to a small meeting.

chemcat said...

one thing that could go virtual with minimum impact to outcome is faculty meetings...
Actually it might even increase attendance. I can stomach many of my senior colleagues much better if i'm not physically in the same room as them ;-)

Eilat said...

In my field (astronomy) remote telescope observing has made it possible for me to do my work without having to travel far from my small babies. This has been a great career equalizer. A few telescope facilities allow for remote observing over any VNC connection, so one can observe from one's own home. Usually, though, an institution will set up a "remote observing" room where observations are done, again, over the network. While I miss my frequent trips to the Big Island of Hawaii, I am happy that at the end of my observing run I can go sleep off the night in my own bed with my family nearby.

I also evaluated proposals for a Time Allocation Committee (TAC, where we decide how to allocate telescope time for a particular facility) over the phone. My daughter was just a few months old and I didn't want to leave her for three days. It worked very well.

Anonymous said...

Of course the cost to the environment of air travel should be factored in. The carbon footprint of air travel is grossly underestimated. Academic conferences may need to go the way of the dodo (or the hummer). David MacKay has a nice discussion here.

Anonymous said...

My research is done in collaboration with a group at another university. We use videoconferencing extensively to conduct meetings, give group presentations on our work and occasionally to conduct experiments. I've also listened in on seminars that took place at another university.

I don't know if teleconferencing has reduced the need for travel, but it has certainly introduced a lot more flexibility. Because of teleconferencing, I am currently able write my dissertation off-site and still participate in group meetings and get regular feedback on my results. I use xmeeting and it's able to distinguish who is talking when and pull their video feed to the front of the screen.

I was also able to conduct experiments remotely over the telephone when I was on maternity leave. Again, it wasn't ideal, but it was a nice compromise. There's a lot of talk in my field about remote control rooms for international collaborations and I think it has some potential to eliminate some but not all international travel.

Anonymous said...

Technology seems to work better for some types of internal meetings than others. I work with several departments who have "off-campus" faculty who can teleconference into the regular faculty meeting.

The only problem we really had was one we set up a meeting, some 20 people traveled to the far side of campus to use the hi-tech room--only to find out that all of the "off-campus" faculty were physically at another meeting--in our building! Oops!

Anonymous said...

In Australia where classes sizes for high level classes are very small and some universities don't have enough staff to cover a full range this kind of technology has been a godsend.

Now we can run entire semester long classes with the lecture in one university and the class spread out over several. This has greatly increased the number of graduate classes available particularly at small or remote universities.

Anonymous said...

Email, wikis and other technical aids do really help get international committee work done remotely, but face-to-face meetings are needed for many intangibles. New members need to get to know everyone and get comfortable before any off-line work can get done. I don't see Skype or videoconferencing replacing conferences, nor removing the need for occasional committee meetings. What may be happening is that the pace of work between meetings is potentially higher. One of the aspects of videoconferencing is that the person only participates in the formal agenda, missing out on the informal aspects of the interaction. depending on the circumstances that can range from a minor inconvenience to essentially removing the whole point of the interaction.

And let's not even mention Webinars!


Alex said...

Well, I've read the post and all the comments with great interest. I'm surprised to see that so many people don't appreciate all the opportunities of videoconferencing. Personally I made up a conclusion that it is really a "godsend"(as it was called here) for business meetings. So instead of flying overseas I can show my reports and discuss it remotely. Modern technologies give us so much and we should use all the advantages!