September/October 2000 // Vision
The Evolving Virtual Conference:
Implications for Professional Networking
by James Shimabukuro
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James Shimabukuro "The Evolving Virtual Conference:
Implications for Professional Networking" The Technology Source, September/October 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The idea seems simple enough: Why not use the Internet to bring educators together for a professional conference? The technology is cost-effective and universally accessible; the Web can be used as a stage for keynotes and presentations, chat rooms and mailing lists, and presenter-audience dialogues. Various synchronous and asynchronous media could serve as platforms for roundtable discussions and panel-forums, and the Web could serve as the locale for exhibit halls. For participants, the advantages are obvious: cost is not a factor since travel and hotel accommodations are unnecessary, and there is no need to take off from work to attend. For conference coordinators, the obvious advantage is the elimination of costs associated with convention centers, audio-visual equipment, and printing, though they retain other costs, such as compensation for staff and technology expenses that are difficult to calculate. Furthermore, technology is readily available to the vast majority of educators in the form of computers with Internet access at the office and at home.

As a result of the convenience and availability of the technology that enables virtual conferencing, the number of virtual conferences is increasing. The purpose of this paper is to alert virtual conference organizers of the implications of two potential trends for online professional networking, trends that will affect the success of their conferences. The first is the trend toward hybridity, or integrating face-to-face (F2F) and virtual events into a single conference. The second is the trend toward increased time flexibility.

Trend Toward Hybridity

Current Practice: Virtual within F2F. The overwhelming majority of planners view virtual events as add-ons to F2F conferences. That is, they build a real-time conference and tack on a few Internet activities. The bulk of their resources is devoted to F2F activities, and very little is earmarked for virtual ones. Online features are treated as afterthoughts; thus, they are usually poorly planned and supported. Not surprisingly, most participants flock to the F2F offerings and either ignore or aren't aware of the virtual offerings. As a result, the online portions of the conference are poorly attended and ineffective. My guess is that this trend toward hybridity, in which the virtual David is propped next to the F2F Goliath, will continue as is—with the same unimpressive results. Even if the Internet portion is well planned and supported, it won't fare well. The virtual simply cannot compete in the shadow of its real, live counterpart. When people are at a hybrid conference in a major city such as London, New York, or Tokyo, they will devote most of their time to F2F activities; online events will gain little if any of their attention. The simple truth is that few if any would settle for the virtual when they can have the real.

Probable Trend: F2F within Virtual. While the virtual conference within F2F conference isn't viable, the reverse, F2F within virtual, is. This form of hybridity has tremendous potential, and I believe it will become a standard feature of all online conferences. In this model, F2F activities are integrated into a conference that is primarily virtual. The superstructure is based in the Internet, and built into it are pockets of F2F interaction. Consider this scenario: participants in a virtual conference meet in person in specified geographical locations (e.g., a central college computer lab in London, Moscow, Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, Melbourne, Osaka, Manila, and Beijing). The intra-group sessions are F2F, but the inter-group meetings are virtual. The groups alternate between F2F and online sessions, sharing results of live sessions over the Internet in synchronous (e.g., WebChat) or asynchronous (e.g., WebBoard) media. In this configuration, the participant gets the best of both interactions: local F2F and global virtual.

As much as hybridity interests me, however, I have to admit that I am most intrigued by the problem of time flexibility.

Trend Toward Increased Time Flexibility

Current Practice: Single Time Block. We have been using the single time block model for the Teaching in the Community Colleges Online Conference (Shimabukuro, 2000; see also International Online Conference, 1999), and this is the form that is prevalent among nearly all virtual conferences. (Information about conference organization is available in Wang, 1999 and Mendel, 1998). In general, these virtual conferences are modeled after their F2F counterparts—right down to the time frame. They are squeezed into a limited time span: they start and end on a specific date, and the days in between comprise the conference. To maximize the value of the conference, planners usually pack tons of activities into each day, creating a schedule so dense that, despite their virtual connection, few participants can attend all of the events on the program.

This single time block model is still evolving and growing in popularity, and I believe it will continue to develop, incorporating new and more dynamic, interactive technology. However, my instincts tell me that the constraint represented by a single block of time runs counter to the culture of the Internet. Thus, the growth potential for this model is limited. In our emerging electronic culture, flexibility is the primary value; communication anytime, from nearly anywhere, is the motto. The online conference satisfies half of the expectation: it can be accessed from anywhere. However, it is inflexible regarding dates. To attend, participants must be available at the scheduled time.

Herein lies the crux of the problem: time takes on a different value in the virtual world. In the real world, attending a conference means a physical departure from the office or campus and postponed meetings and classes. In the virtual world, however, it means business as usual with log-ons when time permits. In the past five years, I've learned that participants expect to continue their everyday routines while attending a virtual conference. Administrators log in to various activities during lulls in their schedules or in the evening; instructors log in between classes and in the evening. Few if any actually take off from work for the duration of the conference.

The following statements from the evaluation summary of the 1998 Teaching in the Community Colleges Conference are participants' responses to the question, "What significant problems, if any, did you encounter?":

  • "Time to commit. There is a perception that the conference is not real and as such it is difficult to allocate sufficient time to the conference in particular discussion groups."
  • "This conference needs to be treated like a 'real' conference, where everything else is set aside for a time. I didn't do that. I tried to 'fit it in' in the small chinks of time I had between my regular duties. That doesn't work."
  • "Time management on my part. Need to block off time to participate in conference as I would do when attending in person. Online conference activities got lowest priority thus I did not take advantage of all of the people and resources available."
  • "When we go to conferences, we get out of our work environments and move to a different headspace which allows for reflection and energetic participation. How could I fully enjoy your hard work when I was up to my eyeballs in grading papers in the second to the last week of the semester? All I could really do was print up a few papers of interest and hope that I will be able to get to them. It was quite unrealistic for me to expect participation with you while life carried on here. I also experienced difficulty because the conference came the week before Passover. This is an impossible scheduling dilemma that will preclude my future participation."
  • "Finding time to participate. Life goes on when you are at home. When attending a F2F conference, the wife can not remind me to mow the lawn; in a virtual conference she can and does."
  • "There just wasn't enough time. As someone said, when he normally goes to a conference his wife can't ask him to mow the lawn, but at a virtual conference she does. A virtual conference really needs to run at a slower pace. That way we can fit it in around a normal life."
  • "Probably the fact that I didn't schedule it like other conferences in which I cancel all my classes, live in a hotel where my children can't reach me, and devote all my time for three days to the activities."
  • "My problems mostly involved timing. I was teaching a full load during the time that the conference was being held and also had several committee duties that I needed to fulfill. So, I didn't get to spend as much time at the conference as I would have liked."

Similar comments can be found on the evaluation pages of the November 1999 International Online Conference on Teaching Online in Higher Education, which was sponsored by the School of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne. I can only guess at the reasons for these responses. Perhaps participants feel that the value of virtual conferences is the ability to attend and maintain their work schedules. Or perhaps administrators reject leave requests for online conferences, arguing that because they're virtual, the participant can attend before and after the work day. In any case, from the standpoint of conference planners, the virtue of the virtual, its flexibility, is at once an asset and a liability.

Probable Trend: Distributed Increments. In virtual conferences, I don't believe we will ever attain complete flexibility. We define events in terms of time. We expect an official beginning and end. There are a number of reasons for this expectation of time constraint. First, participants need a fixed schedule so that they may reserve time for their involvement. Second, authors expect to present their papers within a schedule highlighted by deadlines. To complete the composing process and to prepare for discussions with participants, they must know exactly when their papers will be posted. Third, participants expect to interact with presenters and colleagues in real-time via livechat, and these require fixed time slots. Finally, for planning purposes, conference coordinators and staff must view the event as a finite block of time that won't turn into an endless drain on their resources. Thus, flexibility will always be relative: conferences will have more or less of it, but they will never have it completely.

Despite limitations, however, greater flexibility is an attainable goal, and it will be achieved in ways that will surprise us. Since the end of our last Teaching in the Community Colleges Conference, I have tried to imagine a format that will allow for increased flexibility. What has emerged is a rough outline for a model that seems workable. My preliminary thoughts follow.

The conference takes the form of a periodical, and participants "subscribe" to it by registering. The conference takes place in increments over a year as a thematic series. Like issues in a volume, the conference is distributed in two or more increments. For example, assume that the theme for the 2001 Annual Such-and-Such Conference is "Web-based Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning." The conference is a four-part series occurring March 15-16, June 15-16, September 15-16, and December 15-16. The March focus is on synchronous media (e.g., WebChat), and September's focus is on asynchronous media (e.g., WebBoard). In both parts, the emphasis is on presentations, case studies of actual practices, and papers on trends and issues.

The June and December sessions emphasize hands-on practice. In June, participants have opportunities to use synchronous media and develop synchronous learning activities. In December, they do the same with asynchronous media. Participants have the option to register for the entire series or for individual segments.

Flexibility, achieved by distributing a conference over various dates and reducing the density of each increment, translates into greater accessibility—and, hopefully, into broader participation. Educators may not be able to attend the entire series, but they should be able to make time for one or more sessions. Since the conference occurs in a series, the program for each increment can be lightened to accommodate participants' work schedules. This vision is just one of many that are possible, and I am certain that others, much more imaginative and effective, await us down the road.


We have entered a new era, one increasingly dominated by technology that allows us to network as never before. Gravitation to the Internet for professional development conferences is, I believe, a natural process that soon will be commonplace. The medium and our attitudes toward it will dictate the shape of these virtual events, and the demand for flexibility will favor a distributed scheme. The question isn't if, but when these changes will occur. I believe that they will occur sooner rather than later.


Conference evaluation summary (1998, April 9). Retrieved 27 June 2000 from the World Wide Web:

International Online Conference on Teaching Online in Higher Education (1999, November 8-9). Retrieved 11 July 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Mendels, P. (1998, January 4). Conventions without travel: Attending live conferences on the Web. The New York Times, sec. 4A, pp. 20-21.

Shimabukuro, J. (2000, January/February). What is an online conference? The Technology Source. Retrieved 20 June 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Wang, Y. (1999). Online conference: A participant's perspective. T.H.E. Journal 26(8), 70-76.

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