In the last few years, I’ve become a late adopter and zealous convert to video teleconferencing software.
It’s only surprising that it took me this long.
For most of my adult life, I’ve been ahead of the curve when it comes to the use of technology. I learned to program in Fortran in my first calculus class in 1965. The next year, physics and political science professors both introduced me to systems theory and cybernetics. One classmate still reminds me of how I taught him to use a statistical technique — one that I’d never use any more. Today, I’m rarely the first person to buy a new device or piece of software, but I’m not far behind.
For most of my adult life, I’ve also hated the telephone. Conference calls in particular. My mind tends to wander. When it does, I start doing other things, like answering email or, if I’m really distracted, working on whatever I was writing at the time.
So, you might think I would have been an early adopter of video teleconferencing. For reasons I can’t explain, I was years behind the curve.
Once I tried it, though, I was hooked. The then head of Oberlin College’s incubator program asked me to a meeting using some software called Zoom. I was skeptical, but once the meeting started. All of a sudden, I was hooked not to Zoom, per se, but to the very idea of using video in everything I do.
The main reasons start with the visual and are easy to see (pun intended). I often have meetings with people I don’t know, and actually seeing as well as hearing them makes a huge difference. That’s particularly important when the discussion is intense as they often are when you are talking about divisive social and political issues — even among conflict resolution and peacebuilding professionals.
And there’s a less charitable reason. Frankly, it keeps me focused on the meeting and away from my email and that chapter that I should have finished last week.
Why Dedicated Software
If that were all that mattered, I’d be happy using Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime (at least with my Apple friends), and other free services. For good or ill, those packages don’t have some features I’ve come to use on an almost daily basis.
What I’ve discovered is that relatively inexpensive VTC services are well worth the cost, because even the free or entry level packages let me do lots of things.
- Have a relatively large group. Most packages allow you to have at least 25 participants which is the most I like to have for a live discussion
- Record and edit a conversation for future use, including adding to a webe site
- Easily let everyone share their screens and, therefore, almost any kind of document
- Include a whiteboard for brainstorming
- Incorporate chat
I use it in lots of different ways in my work as a peacebuilder and teacher, and I’ve seen my colleagues use it in still others.
- I rarely pick up the phone. I prefer using Zoom because I prefer seeing the people I’m talking to. Too often, people on the phone (especially in conference calls) are doing other things, like checking their email, which keeps them from being fully focused on the discussion. I know that’s the case, because I do it.
- Many of the NGOs I work with have staffs scattered all over the world. They have virtual staff meetings.
- In one project I’m working on, we will use video conferencing to hold virtual focus groups whose participants are scattered all over the country;
- The peace and conflict studies textbook that I’m writing will have readers all over the world. My publisher and I are planning to offer virtual office hours in which students can talk to me on line in much the same way that they can drop in to see their professors on campus.
- My colleague Doug Irvin-Erickson and I experimented with those kinds of office hours in an online course he taught last summer. It’s not the same as getting to know your professor, but there’s a lot more human interaction than you get in a typical online course.
- Len and Libby Traubman actually have done facilitations on line. There are even people who will do some parts of a mediation on line. There is obvious potential here, but we also have a lot to learn about how best to do this kind of more delicate and nuanced work on line.
- Soliya and other such organizations hold online discussion groups for existing courses that bring people from different “sides” of a conflict together for what they call virtual exchanges. It should be noted that those groups usually use purpose-build software rather than the kind of off the shelf platform that I use.
- I use whatever platform colleagues have to give guest lectures or other presentations. The screen sharing and other features make the Q and A part of the presentation particularly effective — in my case, it led to a new working relationship that has lasted for five years.
You now have a number of packages to choose from. I happen to have an account with Zoom.us because I find it easy to use, it has a free version, and I like the company’s values. I have used GoToMeeting, WebEx, and others all of which work fine. If you are willing to pay more, you can have access to features that let you do Webinars, have breakout groups, and more. I’ve never found the need.
My point is not to push any one package. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Rather, I simply want to encourage you to try using video and find the package that best suits your needs.
Video conferencing is no panacea. I know there are people who have used these platforms to conduct actual mediations, just as there are people who use similar platforms in health care. I’m not sure how effective these use cases are or even could be as the software incorporates elements of virtual reality. At this point, being physically in a room when tough issues of an ideological or emotional nature are raised is still infinitely better than having screens mediating between you and the people you are working with.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.
Originally published at Chip Hauss.