Moderators for the first ISAD online conference were Judith Kuster and Michael Sugarman. The organization and technical component to put it online rested with Judith Kuster along with support from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
The response to invitations to write papers for the conference was very positive. There were 50 "presenters" for the 30 full-length, papers (25 by single authors, 5 co-authored) and 3 "panel discussions," consisting of 15 individuals. Presenters came from 15 countries on six continents including1 from Asia, 2 from South America, 1 from Australia, 1 from Africa, 3 from a non-US North American country, and 13 from Europe.
There were 29 male and 21 female presenters. Thirty consider themselves people who stutter. The other twenty (which included three who were closely related to a person who stutters) do not stutter. Twenty-five were professionally trained in speech-language pathology or a related field. Four (3 of whom stutter) were students in training programs and 21 had other training and were considered strictly "consumers" for this conference.
Getting the word out
Amy Johnson, Sugarman and Kuster found several ways to advertise the conference. Email was sent to members of the International Stuttering Association, several mailing lists and individuals. Announcements/articles were placed in the ASHA DIV#4 newsletter (August 1998), ISA (Spring 1998), ADVANCE (September 14, 1998), NSA's Letting Go (July/August 1998), ASHA Leader (September 22, 1998), IFA-GRAM (September 1998), Speak Easy's Speaking Out (Canada) (October 1998); and Minnesota Speech-Language-Hearing NEWS (September/October 1998). Links to the conference were placed on several websites.
Challenges posed by technology
One challenge created by technology was that the conference would only be available with Internet access. However, the conference was created to be accessible from any computer with access to the Internet. Participants did not need an email account, a fast modem, or even their own computer. Several participants used computers at their school or local library.
This potential negative was balanced by the fact that the technology provided opportunity to include people from around the world. The format of the conference also fostered discussion between professionals and consumers, academics and clinicians, students and researchers, and demonstrated the positive implications for international co-operation and research. One individual commented that such "great diversity in topics and presenters would not happen unless you go to an international conference." Another added, "It was a good way to bring information that I think is important to a large number of people at relatively low cost (no airfare, no lost income)."
Challenges from limitations of technical knowledge in coordinator and presenters
There were challenges in receiving some of the papers and putting them online. A template was prepared so papers would be uniform in format. It was requested that the papers be a prescribed length, text-only with no pictures, graphs or tables and sent in ASCII format as regular email, not as an attachment, unless the presenter had html skills and was able to send a finished product that would not require much time to format. When these instructions were followed, it was easy to insert the simple html tags, typically taking about five minutes to get a paper online after running it through a spell checker and proof-reading for content.
Most of the presenters accepted those constraints. But there were some instances of misunderstanding and several papers presented technical challenges. Some presenters wanted graphs, tables, and other special formatting. With my relatively low-end technical knowledge this created several problems that needed solving. For example, one individual attempted to send a table formatted as three huge jpeg files, thinking I could open and fuse them into one jpeg. One would not open. I ended up retyping tables, taking a screen dump to make a pict file, using a gif converter application to make the pict into a gif file, adjusting the gif with Adobe Photoshop and finally adding it to the paper. That process prompted me to learn four new skills, but took a lot of time. Other individuals from overseas sent papers using computer encryption systems not readily available to me. I spent hours in our university computer lab with a tech specialist searching the internet, downloading many different unencryption methods before finding one that worked. One of the files came with a virus.
Another challenge involved proof-reading and being diplomatic about information, grammar and spelling in negotiating what the writer actually intended to say. A few of the papers submitted by persons that didn't use English as their first language required extensive correspondence to determine the writer's intent.
An initially unanticipated problem was the need to learn how to read and translate for html code the various characters used in non-English languages. A related problem was that in transferring email from one computer to another sometimes strange characters appear such as =20's, =f45's, =F3's etc. These all had to be found, deciphered and changed.
One insightful presenter noted that changes in an article could be made fairly easily after it was submitted. This in fact did happen when several presenters re-read papers they had submitted and wrote asking me to change wording or content. I was able to do that, but it required time.
Another technology challenge involved developing a short video of Sugarman. It took hours to learn how to convert the video and place it online. It also required the end-user to have fairly sophisticated Internet access. Since the quality of the video clip was poor, it was probably not worth the effort required to put it online.
Working on an October 1 deadline was stressful. Two weeks before the conference opened all of the thirty-seven threaded discussion pages I had created disappeared from the university server after someone made a mistake in our computer lab. It took several days to retrieve them.
Several people asked for extensions on their submission deadline. On September 25, seven papers had not been received. One individual cancelled the day before the conference was to open.
The conference was placed online Wednesday September 30 at 18:15 CST. A quick look at the statistics reveals there were participants from at least 31 different countries represented by the following flags:
Most non-US requests were from South Africa (3933), the Czech Rebublic (1244), Brazil (865), the United Kingdom (771), Australia (533) and Portugal (392). Most active in terms of different computers making requests were Germany (60), Canada (27) and Australia (19). There were 29 different K-12 computers in eleven US states. The largest single provider access was from AOL users (1357). The busiest days, on average were the three Sundays and the busiest single day was Monday, October 19. There were 124 different people who posted a question/response, including people from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Israel, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela.
The front page of the conference was opened 3313 times during the 3-week conference period (that does not count hits with the non-graphical browser Lynx).
Each paper was read by an average of 175 people with a range from 95 to 306.
From October 1 - October 22, the entire conference site had 23,585 requests for information with an average of 1025 requests daily.
183,417,872 bytes of information were transmitted during the summary period with an average of 7,974,690 bytes transmitted daily. Since the conference ended, the papers are permanently online on the Stuttering Home Page and all continue to be accessed, several more than 100 times/month.
Challenges During The Conference
limited technical knowledge in some of the participants
I received telephone calls and email requests from several participants requesting help in accessing the online conference. Although written instructions were available online, some still needed additional instructions on how to use the threaded discussions.
getting people to participate actively
Many who were reading the papers were reluctant to post questions. In fact, presenters reported getting personal emails from persons who chose not to post in the public threaded discussions. This reluctance was anticipated and thirteen individuals who were participating in the online conference for credit or CEUs were required to post at least three questions/comments. Students in my graduate seminar in stuttering were also required to read at least three of the papers and in teams were required to post a question/comment. In the end, all of the papers were responded to and although some papers had more response than others, none appeared to be burdensome for the presenters.
problems with the threaded discussions
Several of the presenters had not practiced how to use the threaded discussion and made mistakes in posting, or wrote and asked for re-instructions in how to post. There were instances where I emailed the questions posted by participants to the presenter who would email the answers back to me to put online.
getting some presenters to answer in a timely manner
I asked the presenters to estimate how often each of them checked the threaded discussions attached to their papers and how much time they spent answering the questions there. For the 21 days the conference was online, the range of times the presenters checked in was 5 to 44 and the range of time spent responding was from 30 minutes to 12 hours. The range reflected some presenters who had much to respond to and the fact that several were responding in a second language for them.
dealing with censorship issues
The threaded discussions attached to each conference paper were an entirely open format. As cconference moderator I felt a responsibility to presenters that questions remained cordial and in good taste. I put a disclaimer on the front page which included these words: "Also please ask questions that are relevant to the papers and refrain from developing a personal topic. It is expected that participants will remain cordial." The only recourse I had if anyone posted inappropriate comments was to delete their messages. During the conference I deleted two posts I considered inappropriate. While deleting these posts, I also took the opportunity to "clean up" double and triple posts that appeared on other threaded discussions, blank messages, and a message that one presenter asked me to replace because of typos. In doing this I unintentionally made it impossible for anyone to post further questions/comments on four different pages.
Three days later, a participant contacted me saying she was unable to post her comment. It was then I discovered that four threaded discussions were not working. I spent about six hours re-doing these threaded discussions, adding several posts which were still in the cache, but not visible on the pages. It was a glitch in the system that I was unaware of.
The deleting of what I considered two inappropriate posts escalated to the point that the person whose posts were deleted wrote to the chair of my department and posted to mailing lists questioning my censorship. It was decided, with the consent of the presenter, to reinsert posts from this person which the presenter could choose to ignore. In an open threaded discussion, there is no way to prevent such disruptions.
At the conclusion of the conference, I put an announcement at the end of each threaded discussion page instructing people not to post any more questions. Two weeks later, after all of the presenters had had an opportunity to finish their responses, I broke the threaded discussions.
I asked for feedback from those taking CEUs or credit and sent a questionnaire to all presenters. 75 percent of the presenters who actively participated responded.
The response from presenters was very favorable
When asked if given the opportunity, would they present at a future online conference, of the 29 who responded to that question, 28 said "yes" and one answered "it depends."
Comments were made about the "excellent blend of professional and consumer ideas and knowledge," and how the online conference "strengthened the concept that consumers and professionals can work better together than apart toward the mutual goal of helping persons who stutter." Others added that "a lot of folks learned a LOT about stuttering" and that "conferences like this one can go a long way in continuing to change public perceptions."
Several commented on the opportunity to share ideas and liked the ability to interact with others through the threaded discussions as well as a format where participants could "read and re-read the papers and spend some time thinking about them before formulating a questions or comment - something that is not possible during a traditional oral presentation "
Professionals discovered the new forum had implications for how they shared the information. "It was great to see what questions came up from our paper. I wouldn't have guessed some of the questions I got. That was really informative. Also, it will prepare me to address some of these issues when I present the paper at ASHA this year." Another commented, "Writing the paper was a very different experience than preparing a slide presentation - in writing out each word I had to put a lot more thought in the logic and justification of the statements made. As such, it helped tremendously to clarify what I was trying to say and it pointed to the weak links in the arguments."
Some of the presenters also shared how the online conference was significant to them in their personal/professional lives. One said, "My father went in and actually read my . . paper (which has become) a turning point in his understanding of me!" 18 of the professionals responded they intend to count their paper on their professional vita and two said they would not.
The response from participants was very favorable
Many participants shared enthusiastic responses, calling it "a groundbreaking effort," an " historic event," that has "added to the development of the international self-help network" and has "allowed the experts, the laymen, the fluent and the non-fluent to reach out and touch one another in a way that has probably never been done before." Another participant wrote that the conference was "the best learning experience on stuttering I have had."
New connections were made. More than one individual commented that the internet "has also given the layman stutterer a chance to communicate with names they have so long heard about but otherwise would never have approached to ask questions." When the presenters were asked if they made any new contacts they expected to continue, 12 responded yes.
Five people took the conference for 1.0 CEU and 8 for 1 semester credit. Their response was overwhelmingly favorable. Their feedback reported that the format worked extremely well and that the content was excellent. They also liked being able to participate on their own time line and that the conference did not require out of town travel expense.
Could it have been done better?
The presenters were asked, "What do you consider the problems/negatives of this format for a conference?" and "How could it be improved in the future." Their suggestions as well as some personal feelings and a few comments from participants provided several suggestions for future improvements. The two major "complaints" centered around the limitations of the technology and the time commitment.
There were a few problems with the threaded discussion software used. The text box provided for responses was seen as too small, making it difficult to edit. Several also had to retype their responses because the system for "posting" is not particularly intuitive. There is a "post" link at the top of the page and a "post article" link at the bottom of the page. If you type your message and hit the "post" at the top of the page, the article disappears and must be re-typed. This difficulty is inherent in the design of the software available. Once it is understood, it is no longer a problem. In the future, the presenters need to be more consistent about practicing prior to the conference, and clear instructions need to be provided (and read!!) by participants. Responding to questions should be first typed off line and then pasted into the response box so that a print copy is available in case a mistake is made and the answer needs to be re-posted.
Two individuals commented that they would like to have some visual indication to show that they had already visited a paper. This feature was a part of the conference, but the colors chosen did not provide enough contrast.
Some presenters felt the time involved for the conference was a potential negative for them. When asked how long they spent writing their paper, the presenters reported from one to eighty hours.
For the conference coordinator, the conference was like having a baby - with a lengthy labor and a three week delivery (probably over 250 hours of work). Having one person basically "in charge" with most of the decision-making ability was important, given a short time-line, particularly when this person has access to server space and technical support. But this may present problems in the future. Who will volunteer all the hours to do this? Where will the conference be placed online? There is usually cost involved in server space and the software necessary to do what Minnesota State University provided at no cost to the conference. One person having the primary responsibility of doing the inviting and deciding provides a faster timeline in getting things done, but that person cannot know all the people who could provide valuable papers.
Internet technology has opened doors to an international community of persons interested in any topic area, including stuttering. The ISAD98 online conference was a pioneering effort in making new connections and delivering important information. The future will only improve on these first efforts.