Lorna Ryan is a Research Manager at the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys at City University London. She also teaches on various modules in the Department of Sociology. I met her in the Social Sciences café to discuss her use of Adobe Connect. Here’s the full text of the interview.
MP: First of all, what is Adobe Connect?
LR: Adobe Connect is an online tool for virtually connecting with someone face-to-face. You have to have a webcam to use it and you also have to connect to the Internet. Through it you can have meetings, which are effectively face-to-face mediated meetings, or you can have a meeting in which you don’t see (but do hear) the other person when you show them what’s on your desktop. Most usefully, I think, you can go through PowerPoint slides and they can hear your voice over them.
How long have you been using it, and can you describe a situation in which you used it?
I’ve been using it for the last year and a half, and I’ve successfully used it in the development of a research collaboration with a colleague in Norway, who I had never met, who contacted me. We had an email exchange and then we went into the virtual meeting. That turned out to be extraordinarily successful in terms of being able to build a relationship with somebody, to be able to physically see them, and talk through the issues, as well as having the back up of a more formal email communication. I’ve also used it as part of the co-ordination activities of the European Social Survey, in particular with colleagues in institutions across Europe.
And why would you use Connect in these situations rather than meet face-to-face?
Cost! First of all, first and foremost it’s cheaper than travelling to meet the people, so that’s an enormous consideration. To go to, for example, Mannheim for a two-hour meeting you have to take two days out of your schedule. In terms of other platforms, this is the University’s supported platform, so you have an online help crew available, which is really helpful. And I have done the TEAP [Technology-Enabled Academic Practice] course and the TEAP use Presenter and Connect.
What about the other way round; when you’re working with someone you know and who you work with face-to-face, and then meet with them on Connect – is there anything you have to do differently?
No, I think that works brilliantly. I think that once you know people, it’s that surprise that you can see them – this is if you’re not very technically involved – but I think that it’s particularly successful when you know the people. You can have great detailed conversations.
So there’s nothing that you have to change about the way that you talk or discuss when you’re online?
You do… with more than one person you have to implement – for want of a better term – and agree ways of communication. So people have to learn to stop, to ask questions, or to allow questions to be answered, and I think one way of trying to develop that now, is that I use the toolbar on the side to raise my hand when I want to ask a question. But you’re reliant then on the person looking at the screen. But I do think people have to learn the cues to know when to be silent and when to allow people to talk. My preferred way of behaving is to allow everyone Presenter status so that you don’t block out their microphone. So you can then agree to speak, but we say that if you’re speaking you give your name.
But that occurs in initial meetings, [later on] you can relax. It’s more the initial meetings when people are not familiar with the technology, or with interacting in a virtual space.
You’ve obviously become adept with Connect; is there anything you do to coach colleagues or give any support to people who haven’t used the system before?
Yes, the big thing is turning your camera on and turning your microphone off when you’re in a group situation, and not using the hands-free. That’s the biggest problem, that people just haven’t turned on their camera or haven’t turned on their mic – and that’s why you can’t hear them. Generally the problem has been with the institutions we’re working with, not on our side. So I keep on saying to people, “Just leave and come back”. That’s the best advice actually, when it doesn’t work just leave and come back, and try again!
You could be talking and working with people on the other side of the planet, or it could be much closer. You mentioned that you’ve had meetings with people who are all in the same building.
We’ve had meetings with our colleagues in Norway, and we have sat each at our own desks. It means that all of our pictures are up, rather than having one small webcam trying to capture our faces.
And then you’ve got access to all of the things in your office, all of your papers and files and things.
I find it really useful when I want to present my ideas using PowerPoint, very quickly, to bring people through the presentation, and then click back onto the faces. I’m sold on it – I’m a convert.
Is there anything that you’d like to be able to do with Connect, that you can’t do?
I think I accept the limitations. It’s really useful, as I say, for the purposes of saving time, and saving money, and being able to quickly have informal discussions. Perhaps if they’re sensitive discussions you do have to have face-to-face contact, but more generally, it hasn’t been a problem.
In terms of limitations, you’re not in the same room as someone, so is it possible to miss body language or miss visual clues that you get when you’re talking face to face with someone?
I think again this depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about lack of understanding, then you’ve got to develop things like “does everyone understand this?” So maybe it’s more of a teaching issue [i.e. this could be more of an issue when using Connect for teaching]. In terms of developing research, for decisions that need to be made, well presumably people are able to express [their thoughts].
But it goes back to what you were saying about developing a chairing role. Rather than relying on body language, everything becomes much more explicit.
Yes, and you say to somebody, “Would you like to speak?” or they raise their hand and say, “I would like to speak.” I think the fact that you can have a chat function, as well, is really handy, so that you’ve got ongoing communication between the participants, and you can signal if you’re concerned about some issue.