Mala species recovery planning – moving online

Conservation scientists are trying to ensure mala or the rufous hare-wallaby as it is known to it’s friends, does not become extinct (pictured right). The small mammal, whose habitat once included the desert of Australia’s dry centre, is the focus of a recovery effort by the Australasia Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG).

Focusing on the mala is the latest in a series of conservation planning efforts by the CBSG. Typically planning is completed in a concentrated spell. Week long workshops are run using a tried and tested formula. A key part of the conversation is bringing together experts at population modelling and the people who work in the field implementing conservation plans.

I’ve been supporting Caroline Lees from the CBSG to transfer the process from a face-to-face to an online environment. She told me that reducing the carbon footprint was a strong driver behind the idea of shifting online. There will also be cost savings, plus any lessons learnt will be shared with others within other scientists who facilitate these types of workshops.

This first online workshop is about testing the virtual environment so it’s being called a pilot. Key questions being asked include: what works, what doesn’t and can a virtual workshop really replace face-to-face workshops?

So far Caroline has set up a private Google site for the scientists to share background documents, upload graphs and other data, and record asyncrhonous discussion. This repository is being used alongside access to a CBSG member site on the International Species Information System portal.

Google sites are almost infinitely flexible and make it very easy to incoporate rich multi-media and link to other Google products, such as chat and Google docs. With customisation of both look and feel, and structure it can be readily shaped to meet new needs as they arise. Invitations to co-create the space area due out soon.

Creating an environment where people can talk with each other at the same time is also being planned. This won’t be quite as straightforward. The aim is to simultaneously share presentations and diagrams with input from everyone attending the workshop. With people in a range of institutions – each with their own IT systems and rules – and the likelihood broadband access will be constrained in some sites, there will be technical obstacles to overcome. And then there is the practice of meeting online: it’s a steep learning curve to move from starting out to being productive.

Fortunately, there is some very good guidance on running online meetings, and planning for smooth adoption. Just last month Andy Goodman, trainer and author of Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes, provided a one hour diagnosis of the problems with tele-conferencing, video-conferencing and webinars. Results from a survey of virtual conferencing participants emphasised the importance of both leadership and good planning. (See presentation notes and audio from a Network for Good session on “Dialing In, Logging On and Nodding Off: The True Costs of Teleconferences, Videoconferences and Webinars”

Talking about his experience of running online meetings in the NTEN Discussion Group, Kevin Martone from the Grinspoon Institute for Jewish Philanthropy says he non-techies defintely can run online meetings. Top lessons he mentions are:

  • It takes practice to get really good at running a smooth meeting/Webinar. Practice transitions between applications and transitions between presenters.
  • Taking questions and changing presenters during a session really keeps your participants engaged. We try as much as possible to break up the sessions to keep them from being a lecture.
  • If you take questions from the group, having a 2nd person to help organize this process is crucial. It is very difficult to present a topic and also coordinate the Q&A process. 

When deciding what online meeting tool to use you are faced with a big array of choices. There has been an explosion of screen-sharing and web-conferencing services on offer. I’ve compiled a list of options available (see my webmeeting bookmarks at delicious.com) and have started to narrow things down.

At this stage the big, established commercial providers like Webex, Adobe Connect and Cisco’s GoToMeeting have been ruled out. The cost of these products is prohibitive at this stage. Of the free or cheaper alternatives I’m looking into YuuGuu, DimDim, Vyew and Elluminate.

My starting point, as it often is when evaluating any software, is the Idealware website. Candid advice points to the need to think about audio quality and installation problems (see A Few Good Online Conferencing Tools, July 2008).

I’m going to write another post weighing up the different options for online tools. As well as reading reviews I’m road-testing the software.

However, when it comes down to it, pre-testing will only mean so much. It’ll be up to the folk working on the CBSG mala pilot to learn there way through what-ever challenges arise. Using technology in novel ways, there are bound to be a few hiccups. But with good planning and leadership by Caroline and her team these can undoubtedly be overcome.

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