Enabling remote participation at Cochrane meetings: some reflections
Lucie Jones is Project Support and Business Communications Officer at the Collaboration’s Secretariat, and is based at the German Cochrane Centre in Freiburg, Germany
Over the past couple of years, as part of my business communications role, I have been asked to provide and run remote conferencing, and in particular, web-based audio-visual conferencing, at various Cochrane meetings and Colloquia. I’ve also arranged for the recording of many of these sessions, which are subsequently posted on cochrane.org.
The idea has been to enable participation in real time at meetings and sessions that are of interest to contributors Collaboration-wide who are not attending in person. In the long term, it is hoped remote conferencing might lessen the environmental impact of our meetings by reducing the need for some participants to travel to them in person.
I was running these remote sessions as experiments at first – on my own, with one laptop, microphone and webcam, with either WIFI Internet access or a hard-wired connection if I could arrange it. As you can imagine, the quality was variable (!), but I have a few loyal participants who have continued to attend sessions and provide positive feedback (incidentally, particularly those participating from lower income countries and those whose first language is not English).
As demand has grown and I have become more aware of the requirements and challenges of providing remote conferencing at meetings, the ‘team’ and workload for providing these facilities have grown too.
At the meetings of the Collaboration’s management committees this year in Split, Croatia, in addition to the independent technical consultant who had been engaged to conduct the remote conferencing, there was a team of ten Cochrane contributors and venue staff helping run the sessions, some located far from the venue itself and giving up their free time to help. During one of the sessions, a remote participant in Canada even started to provide simultaneous Spanish translation of proceedings to a colleague in Argentina. It’s this kind of enthusiasm and commitment that is so indicative of the Cochrane spirit – we just make things happen.
Whilst the nature of our organisation, our contributors and our meetings make remote conferencing very suitable for us, they also bring a specific set of technical and process-based challenges:
1) Our meetings are always in different places:
This means there are always different local organisers and different facilities, which makes things more difficult to plan in advance. We can’t be sure what the internet connection, telephone facilities, acoustics or the size of the rooms will be like.
2) Our remote participants are in different places too:
This means we’re dealing with many different internet connections, computer speeds, web know-how, etc. Even though one participant might be hearing and seeing everything very well, another might not – we cannot control this from the presenter’s end.
3) We run lots of different kinds of meetings and presentations:
It’s always easiest to broadcast presentations where you have one speaker and everyone else is listening. However, the sessions that we run range from meetings of five to ten people, to strategic sessions of more than 50 participants, all discussing and contributing. From a technical perspective this makes things more difficult (think lots of microphones, cameras and a really stable internet connection!). It also means there needs to be someone constantly monitoring the broadcast, answering remote participants’ questions, etc.
So, is this a message of doom? No, I don’t think so. The Collaboration’s Operations and Finance Committee recently made a statement of its support for remote conferencing. In response, the Secretariat and Cochrane Editorial Unit will be working together to address the challenges and plan how best we can work with local organisers to provide cost-effective, simple and reliable remote conferencing at key Cochrane meetings throughout the year for the Collaboration's dedicated contributors.
The Cochrane Collaboration Secretariat