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Walter Scales from the Netskills project describes the trials and tribulations of putting together and presenting a Netskills talk

The 3D buffs amongst you may recall the 3D & Multimedia on Internet, WWW, & Networks Conference, 17th-18th April 96. This was intended to meet people's interests in the areas of WWW, networking, 3D, multimedia, cyberspace, computer graphics, CSCW, virtual working, and networked applications.

The Conference was held in the prestigious National Museum of Photography, Film & Television in Bradford (close by the University). Because of the planned multi-million expansion for an Electronic Gallery in the Museum, and also access to digital archive material over the Internet, it seemed very appropriate to have a Conference with this theme in the Museum and in Bradford. (Information about the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, is at http://www.nmsi.ac.uk/nmpft/)

All very prestigious and shiny, of course, but I was involved in the slightly lesser-known pre-conference course during 16th April at Bradford University itself. Glorying in the title "An Introduction to the Internet, World-Wide Web, and Multimedia", this course was intended to introduce the Internet and the World Wide Web and provide hands-on access to information resources on the Web, together with the opportunity to create simple HTML documents. Current developments and initiatives in 3D graphics and multimedia were to be outlined and the offerings of Microsoft and Netscape summarised. The course was intended for those new to the Internet and World Wide Web and who wanted to gain the basic information needed to understand the state-of-the-art developments and initiatives presented and described in the 2-day Conference following the workshop.

Together with my colleague from Netskills, Brian Kelly, and two colleagues from Bradford University, Dr Ian Palmer and Nic Fulton, we delivered a whiz-bang packed day of "how to" on writing and publishing HTML documents. The other presenters went on to the full-blown conference itself - Brian actually delivering the Capstone lecture there. I thought, however, that readers of this eminent journal might like to hear the "behind-the-scenes" lowdown about my involvement with the pre-conference workshop. [Ed: no, he didn't; I "suggested" he might like to think that]. You won't hear an ounce of sour grapes from me, though; the trauma of being whistled straight back to Newcastle doesn't rankle with me one tinchy bit.

That the workshop was a pre-conference course didn't really impinge on the workshop, apart from the fact that we tried to tailor our workshop materials to a 3D theme, and we benefited from the organisation of the 3D Conference team at the host institution led by Professor Rae Earnshaw of Bradford University. So, `nuff said about the 3D main conference, let's consider the problems inherent in organising a one-day workshop like the HTML pre-conference course away from home at a host institution.

I think the organisation of such an event falls roughly under five or six heads:

A. Materials
B. Venue and its Resources
C. Catering
D. Participant Booking and Registration
E. Presenters' Personal Arrangements
F. Liaison
G. Flexibility/Responsiveness
H. Comments/Feedback

A. Materials

The standard Netskills approach is to develop for any of our workshops a workbook which includes "thumbnails" of any PowerPoint slides used in the workshop, as well as the meat of the workshop itself - the hands-on practical sessions which build upon and develop the themes posited in the trainers' presentations. "So far so good", I hear you cry, "the Netskills lot should be old hands at that by now if they're doing it all the time." Ahem [discreet self-deprecating cough] well yes, but... Web afficionados will appreciate that nothing stays the same for long: screen images become out-of-date within a matter of weeks (for example, the WebCrawler search engine has just changed its interface this month) and it can be worrying for participants if what they see on the computer screen does not echo what they see on the printed page. There is also the little matter of making materials relevant to our particular audience at the time.

Netskills have now run their introductory WWW and HTML workshops aimed at several subject specialisms, for example medical/biosciences, administration, social sciences and are planning to cater for language and other specialisms in the near future. What we try to ensure, however, is a standard "transferable skills" element, so that the techniques learned in any one workshop can be applied in the participant's workplace. The other element of the workshop workbook is the drive to design materials so that any trainer (and not just the poor sap who's burnt the midnight oil over them) can take the material and use it. Linked to this idea is the long-term intention to make many of the Netskills materials available on the Web. So, as you can see, it wasn't just a case of sitting down and gaily putting together a jolly list of 3D workshop tasks.

Liaison is another difficulty associated with producing materials for a workshop where other trainers are to talk, but see below for a discussion of the problems of liaison. Even without the input of Ian and Nic from Bradford, which had to be considered for this workshop, members of the Netskills team are in any case frequently involved in preparing separate sections of the same workbook, and, for this workbook, the join in the work that Brian and I completed had to be seamless and transparent to final users. In this situation, the Netskills team agrees a general strategy (for example, founded on a timetable or other first-principles base point), then we go away and prepare our stuff making sure we all share exactly the same software, and then amalgamate and proof the material carefully looking for consistency and progression, adhering to agreed standards of quality and appearance. Sounds easy, doesn't it, when you say it fast like that?

In preparing materials for the differing specialisms, Netskills puts into practice what it preaches and extensively uses well-known search engines, virtual libraries and information gateways to home in on likely sources. In addition, each member of the Netskills team has joined various Mailbase and listserv discussion lists and reports back regularly. We also review carefully feedback and comments from workshops. Additionally, the Mailbase list Netskills-forum has been set up to promote discussion of any Netskills or wider training issue.

B. The Venue

There's only so much you can do about the venue, of course. Sometimes it's good, sometimes not so good; the nightmare situation is where people can't see slides because the projection is too low for Arctic sunshine streaming in through the lace curtains, or when people in an awkwardly shaped room can't hear the presenters busily mumbling and chirping away in the furthest recesses. Things can be improved by providing even temporary blackout curtains, checking which works best a wall or screen for the projector, and perhaps trying out a different layout with desks and machines. For this workshop at Bradford the staff were extraordinarily kind and did their best to make the thing go with a swing. The most exciting incident was when an electrician arrived and, as if his very life depended upon it, set about removing the panels from a considerable portion of the ceiling. He was dissuaded from continuing just as the first participants entered the room. Apparently nobody ever tells electricians what's happening.

Because Netskills is attempting to make its materials fully portable, Brian and I decided to leave our Netskills equipment at home and use the resources afforded us by Bradford - anyway we felt it would be easier that way. Unless one has actually seen the host equipment running, this can be a gamble: cables and sockets don't match, the last-seen location of projections screens can never be quite recalled, and so on. It's good for the circulation, though.

C. Catering

I've included this heading because I do like my food, but also it's a catch-all for a lot of other stuff that sometimes gets forgotten about: is registration in roughly the same building as the nearest coffee facilities, is there anywhere people can they leave their coat, where are the nearest toilets, is the route to lunch clearly signed, are vegetarians or special diets catered for, and so on. Bradford had had the good idea of sending us a research student to take on some of the load of answering queries, and he rather sportingly scattered dashing hand written signage about neighbouring lifts, corridors and stairwells.

D. Participant Booking and Registration

One of the nice things about the booking arrangements at Bradford was that each participant had a list of all the other participants. I know it's the first thing I look for whenever I go to a conference. The work for Brian and me was all done on the administrative front, so that made a pleasant change from checking people off on lists, pointing them in the right directions, filling conference packs and sticking address labels onto envelopes. One of the hardest parts of organising any workshop or conference must be the administrative tasks connected with getting all the right things to the right people, and getting all the right people to the right things. And of course, no, there never ever seems anything remotely miraculous about the process, does there?

E. Presenter's Personal Arrangements

Under this rather beguiling head I'm thinking of travel and accommodation. At Bradford we were superbly looked after; there are two hotels right opposite each other in the middle of Bradford, both equally splendid I'm sure but apparently the absolute antithesis of each other. One is the sort of place my mother would have felt at home in: stately, lots of carpet and wood about the place and a nice faintly superior hush about the way the occasional floorboard squeaks or a curtain is swished. The other looks to be the type of place one would go for a serious night out, thoroughly modern and where creaking floorboards and curtains that went swishing about the place unbidden would be severely frowned upon. Not saying which one Brian and I stayed at, but we loved it. Due to a rather fortuitous bomb scare at St Neotts which delayed the Edinburgh train by some two hours, I made it back to Newcastle via York in cracking time on an express train which technically wasn't there. Handy hint: if you're ever on a train from Leeds to Newcastle, always make sure you ask the Guard if the train is going to Newcastle: if he's nice he will be so sorry for you that he'll phone through for you to a friend at York to see whether you'd be quicker changing there.

F. Liaison

Ian and Nic were presenting in the afternoon on new Web developments like VRML (Virtual Reality Modelling Language) , Java (a new development in programming for the Web) and other exciting developments. This meant that Brian and I had to incorporate their material, for example a recent article, in our workbook. To incorporate other people's material meaningfully in workbooks necessitates all parties having to be very clear about what it is they are going to present, how they are going to present it, and how they intend it to be fitted in with other people's materials. There is an emphasis here on timings, types and variety of materials, and a natural progression. I think that new speakers in the afternoon and a fresh "future" feel to the afternoon was a good idea, but the change from the Netskills mix of presentation/workshop to a format of pure presentation was perhaps too abrupt.

G. Flexibility and Responsiveness

This is always a difficult area, as few trainers go into a workshop ready to work around their prepared material. At Bradford there was an ideal opportunity for people sharing a common interest from hugely disparate backgrounds to come together and perhaps form small workshops or groups to explore together the Web's potential for them in their workplace, and possibly report back. It's often through informal sessions that people really make contact with each other and develop useful pointers for their work role.

Comments/Feedback Netskills have recently "webbified" their feedback form which makes the process of completing a feedback/evaluation form much more fun, much quicker, reinforces the learning experience, and in addition makes the future task of cataloguing, ordering and analysing comments much more automated and productive. At Bradford we didn't have this facility, but many participants took the time to complete a paper form. Some of the comments were:

  • Very good, highly enjoyable, well-pitched
  • Well put together and presented in a confident and professional manner
  • Coffee would have been nice if available during registration period
  • No tea in the morning
  • Very interesting workshop with adequate balance between presentation and practice.

Altogether, there were some 38 participants, and of these 12 declared themselves to be novice users, 10 had done some HTML authoring, and 4 had some knowledge of using Java. A fairly mixed bunch! I guess it would be nice to know now if in fact they did feel better equipped for the two days of the Conference ensuing after their workshop, and whether it was in fact relevant to their understanding of the Conference offerings. The lessons, as always, seem to be the age-old ones: talk to fellow organisers in plenty of time, talk to the participants during the workshop as opposed to talking at them, and provide some mechanism for obtaining evaluation and feedback after the event: perhaps most importantly of all, but the aspect which seldom gets any attention, is the obvious policy of following up on comments afterwards and setting up some form of open-channel review panel involving even a percentage of participants at the workshop. Ah well, in a perfect world, perhaps...

Walter Scales, Netskills Trainer (see URL http://www.netskills.ac.uk/)
UCS, University of Newcastle
Newcastle-upon-Tyne NE1 7RU

Phone number: UK 0191 222 5002 (Fax: 5001)

Date published: 
19 May 1996

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article | by Dr. Radut