-- AN  ONLINE  PUBLICATION --



                        Donald P. Corriveau 


This story begins at 2:56 PM, January 31, 1998, when I received 
an email from Sunkyo Kwon, Editor-in-Chief, informing me of 
an interesting conference to be held April 7-9, 1998.  He 
suggested that I might want to cover this event in the next 
issue of PsychNews International.  In his email, Sunkyo forwarded 
a posting of a "Call for proposals for the Third Annual Teaching 
in the Community Colleges Online Conference."  The theme of
the conference was "Online Instruction: Trends and Issues."  

Having developed several Internet-enhanced components for my 
university classes and several Internet courses at the 
post-graduate level, I was particularly interested in 
submitting a proposal.  The only problem I foresaw was 
the deadline of midnight, that very night!  Having a clear 
idea of what I intended to present, I prepared and 
submitted my proposal within a few hours.  Evidently, it 
was well received and I was notified of my paper's acceptance 
on February 4.  To present the paper, I needed to agree
to certain conditions that included:

1. Submitting the text of my presentation for conversion into a
   web document by February 27, 1998.
2. Agreeing to answer questions by participants through public 
   and private email.
3. Submitting a photo and brief professional biography.
4. Participating in a one-hour MOO discussion during the 3 day 
5. Allowing publication of my paper in an online publication of 
   conference proceedings (TCCJ)

I was pleased as this would be a novel experience.  Over four 
hundred participants were expected to "attend" this event.  
At face value, the online medium appeared to contain the 
same objectives of live conferences including 1) the timely 
presentation of material and 2)discussion with participants.  
As an added bonus, I would finally learn what was meant by "MOO."

My Preparation

Having considerable experience creating web pages, I immediately 
emailed Janice Cook (the HTML Guru) and asked if she would 
accept the submission of my presentation as an HTML document 
instead of pure text.  Besides saving her some time, this 
provided me with several advantages.  First, I was concerned 
with the length of my paper.  My experience in teaching through
the Internet suggested that participants become fatigued and/or 
bored with "long" documents that require scrolling through 
several screens of information.  My plan was to divide extensive 
material into several smaller modules using separate web pages.  
The second advantage was that I would retain total control of 
the product.  I could use formatting to accentuate structure 
and main points, color coding to separate main text from
ancillary information, and hyperlinks to demonstrations and/or 
reference material. 

Highlights of the Presentation

The theme of my presentation centered on the development 
of an Internet-enhanced undergraduate course in research 
methodology.  To summarize that project, all students 
learned basic web browsing and email skills during the 
first two weeks of the semester. That was followed by a
variety of exercises and assignments presented through 
the Internet. Electronic forms were used for the submission 
of these assignments. Students were able to gauge their 
relative progress by examining spreadsheets posted weekly 
on the Internet.  In effect, my presentation explored 
both 1) my teaching philosophy and 2) the technology that
facilitated this approach to teaching.

In retrospect, my online presentation incorporated learning 
opportunities unavailable in live presentations.  However 
well organized, all information in a conventional live 
presentation is delivered in a sequential fashion.  
A live presentation has a beginning and it has an end.
In sharp contrast, online presentations allow for what 
I will call "layered organization."  To understand this 
potential, remember that while hundreds of participants 
might access the presentation (almost) simultaneously,
each participant receives the information on an individual 
basis.  Thus, each participant's learning experience can 
be individualized.  In turn, this allows for 1) mastery 
learning, 2) self-paced learning, and, most importantly, 
3) deeply layered structure.  An example will clarify 
these points. 

Early in my presentation, I mentioned that all students 
received training in email skills and Internet-browsing 
skills through an Internet based tutorial.  My online 
presentation included links to the actual tutorial and
suggested to readers that they visit this optional link. 
Now, readers who wanted more information about my Internet 
tutorial could delve deeper (level two) and see first hand 
what the tutorial contained.  There, as one example, they 
would discover that one of the many skills and topics
covered by the tutorial included email "netiquette."  On the 
tutorial web page that discussed netiquette, readers would 
find several links to other web pages throughout the world 
that discussed netiquette.  Thus, readers would have the 
option to delve into an even deeper structure (level 3).
Participants who attend live presentations do not have 
the luxury of these deeper substrates.  Information is 
either presented or it is not.

The Process of Online Conference Development

On March 10, I received a "Test Message" from Jim Shimabukuro, 
Chairperson of the conference committee.  This was the first 
of many email messages intended to assist conference presenters.  
Since all presenters were included in an email distribution list, 
many conference-planning nuances were openly discussed.  Early 
in this dynamic process, presenters were assured that they 
would receive training in the MOO technology and that
many pre-conference practice sessions were scheduled. 

What ensued in this email distribution list reminded me of 
many experiences with various newsgroups and professional 
mailing lists.  In a somewhat hostile fashion, conference 
organizers were attacked for using MOO technology.  One 
complaint stated, "I am extremely disappointed to discover
what a MOO is. I can't believe people are still using DOS/unix
line-command-input as a method of communicating with each 
other." The subject line of that email read "MOO SMOO!!" 
and was repeated in a thread of subsequent emails by 
other respondents.  Keeping an open mind, I was still 
eager to learn the details of this MOO technology.

Many other email messages from this distribution list 
provided both interesting and informative news.  Since the 
conference's home-base was Hawaii, time zone conversions 
were frequently provided.  Schedule details (e.g. keynote 
speakers, featured discussions, etc.) were frequently
reported and updated on numerous web pages.  A wide variety 
of distribution lists was developed for specialty interests 
(e.g. different cognate areas). Similarly, presenters and 
participants could selectively subscribe or unsubscribe 
through automated list processors.  Many of the paper
presentations were posted quite early on individual web 
pages.  Having read several of these papers, I looked 
forward to participating in "discussions" with other authors.

Access to the paper presentations themselves was limited 
to registered participants and presenters.  Web pages 
containing presentations were secured by requiring 
usernames and passwords.  If interested in perusing my
presentation, it is available at 

The MOO Technology

While I considered my own skills in Internet technology 
relatively sophisticated, I was humbled by my naivete 
with MOO environments.  The scheduled pre-conference 
workshops did help in providing basic instruction
on telnet operations required to connect to a MOO 
session.  I also learned about a useful shareware program 
called "Pueblo" that made a connection to MOO hyperspace
somewhat easier.  I also learned that web pages had been
developed to allow conference participants Internet entry 
to a MOO based chat room.  Within this MOO environment, 
I appreciated the vast amount of work and preparation made 
in adding Hawaiian symbolism (e.g., the Mezzanine level 
and contained coconuts and tropical fruits) to purely 
text based communication. 

While I quickly attained success in traveling from room 
to room, I soon discovered my own limitations with this 
medium.  Apparently, I was not alone as many other 
MOO-newbie presenters would write, "Where am I?" In my
own pre-conference training, I was fortunate to meet a 
person who had immersed himself for many years in the 
MOO environment and patiently tutored me through basic 
skills such as "cut and paste" and downloading
objects.  Humbly, I realized that the learning curve 
was quite steep. While 4-8 hours seemed sufficient for 
attaining novice skills, the time necessary to acquire 
intermediate and skilled levels of proficiency appeared 
to be measured in months if not years.  Fortunately, I was
assured by my tutor that novice-level skills would be 
sufficient to converse with the numerous participants 
expected for my discussion hour.

The Conference

The week before the conference included much activity and 
excitement.  I received several personal and complimentary 
email messages from participants stating that they would be 
incorporating some of my concepts into their own classes.  
The keynote speaker (Steve McCarty) sparked much discussion 
and a separate listserver was established to handle this
traffic. David Lassner, Director of Information Technology 
for the University of Hawaii, provided an interesting 
welcoming speech by describing the role of the Internet 
and Video Conferencing in connecting 10 campuses across six 
different islands.  During the first day of the actual
conference, 11 open forums were established to help streamline 
email traffic.  I subscribed to three of these forums and 
found keeping up with the email a formidable task.  
I couldn't wait for my discussion hour.

My Hour of Glory

My discussion hour was scheduled in the North Room. 
Throughout the hour, there was considerable discussion as 
many participants entered and exited the room.  (Activity 
was logged which allowed me to see who was entering
and leaving.)  Mostly, discussion was of the form, 
"Where am I?" or "How do I get to [another place]?"  
Not one question focused on my own presentation.  
To say it mildly, I was disappointed.

I asked myself, "Was my presentation so boring that no 
one was interested?"  This was certainly not the 
sense I received in earlier emails received.  
Was there an alternative explanation?

To answer these questions, I lurked in several conference 
rooms throughout the day and next day.  Interestingly, 
I discovered two very different types of participants. 
The vast majority could be categorized as MOO newbies.
Their comments were of one of two types: "Where am I?" 
or "MOO [pejoratively explicit]?  The remaining small 
percentage included participants well versed in the 
MOO language who seemed more intent on socializing 
than on any discussion of content.


Was the conference successful?  If the purpose of a 
conference is the timely dissemination of information, 
the answer is a resounding "Yes."  If the purpose of a 
conference is to allow participants to have questions answered 
by presenters, the answer is again "Yes."  Simple email is an
easy solution for this purpose.  If the goal of a conference 
is to stimulate discussion among participants, then the answer 
was "Minimally yes."  MOO appeared to be a stumbling block.  
As mentioned earlier, there is a significant learning curve 
required for adequate MOO connectivity. For novice entry 
participation, a handful of hours and good tutoring is a
prerequisite.  Most participants did not have this experience.  
Do alternatives to the MOO format exist?  I believe so.  
I would strongly urge anyone organizing an online conference 
to explore these alternatives.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Online Format

The obvious advantages of online conferences include cost 
and convenience. Often, the cost of live conferences 
includes travel and lodging.  Unless a conference is 
scheduled in one's home town, registration fees represent a
relatively small fraction of total cost.  That ratio is 
magnified when one factors time away from work.  With 
online formats, the affordability of conference attendance 
becomes greatly extended. When web presentations are
accessible 24 hours a day, convenience is a natural byproduct.  

Besides economical considerations, online conferences have 
several pedagogical advantages.  First, participants can 
access and digest information at their own pace.  
Second, if done correctly, presenter-participant 
interaction can actually be enhanced!  My own experience 
in the classroom is that although not all students feel
comfortable asking or answering questions in class, all 
are willing to interact through email.  I suspect that 
this finding would generalize to a conference atmosphere.  
Third, online conferences offer more resources for presenters 
to use in support of their presentation.  I realize that there
is great variability among presenters in the live setting 
but I have great respect for colleagues who augment live 
presentations with good audio visual aids, outlines, handouts, 
bibliographies, printed examples, etc. While providing handout 
to participants is commendatory, it is expensive. Furthermore, 
it is sometimes difficult to know what would interest
participants the most and how many copies would be needed.  
Publishing these materials on web pages is a simple and 
inexpensive solution. Moreover, all forms of audio visual 
aids including text, graphics, sound, and video lend 
themselves to this task.  

Of course, there are advantages to real live conferences.  
For one, they allow the sampling of sights, sounds and 
cuisine of different cities. Cyber-coconuts and 
cyber-tropical-fruits simply don't do it for me.
Another advantage is the social dimension of mingling 
with one's peers.  My Gateway computer has difficulty 
mimicking this sense of belonging.  

Is there a place for online conferences for mental 
health professional?  My answer is "Certainly."  
Should professional organizations abandon yearly
conventions and replace them with online formats?  
I sure hope "Not."