In addition to the content of the discussion (summarized in Chapter 2) the Web/E-Conference offered lessons to those planning web/e-conferences. The participants of this conference were generous with both their praise and criticism. Their main points, and relevant reflections from the Web/E-Conference managers, are given below.
Participants appreciated the good and comprehensive background documentation provided. However, some participants felt that the four theme papers presented were too long to be read and discussed during the limited time period, and thus they did not feel comfortable actively contributing their comments. Some participants felt that the themes and direction of the discussions were too much predetermined by the subject matter and content of the four papers. For future and comparably structured web/e-conferences, they recommended limiting the length of background papers to six to seven pages, with brief, debate-oriented summaries. All background documents should then be made available at least two weeks before the start of the conference, in all three formats: Word, PDF and HTML.
A limited number of start-off questions for the conference should be available from the beginning of the conference. These questions should be short, catchy and even a bit provocative in order to stimulate debate. Participants definitely liked the opportunity to start new threads (discussion groups), as everybody's interest was not necessarily reflected in the threads offered by the moderators.
Participants considered responsive moderation and reliable technical support as extremely important. They suggested briefly "introducing" the moderation team to inspire trust and help participants relax into the process. The conference moderators themselves also concluded that one full-time person for the technical support and another full-time person for moderating or coordinating the moderation team were absolute minimum requirements for running a reasonably responsive conference. Ideally such a two-person core team would be supported by co-moderators.
The degree of (reliable) access to and knowledge about computer systems and web-based technology varied considerably among participants. After some start-up difficulties, it was found that a combination of the web-based conference facility running in parallel with a simultaneous e-mail-based conference service (eventually offering a daily e-mail update to all participants) proved adequate. With this system, all participants:
When they do have web access, participants can make use of the associated advantages: direct accessibility of all background documents and a well-structured overview of all previous and current postings in past and presently active discussion threads. Many participants who found it technically difficult to submit comments on the web-based facility had no difficulties with e-mail.
The web-based conference facility used during the conference was a pilot system developed by FAO (WAICENT). Although prior to the conference a number of modifications were made in order to improve the system's functionality, many conference participants still found it extremely user-unfriendly. As a consequence, few participants submitted their comments directly through the website, most preferring to use the e-mail mode. Comments made by e-mail were then posted on the website under the users' names.
The FAO web software used for the Web/E-Conference proved to have a number of characteristics that limited its usefulness. Chief among these were:
It is essential to thoroughly user-test all functions of a web-based system well in advance of a conference. It is certain that adjustments will be needed before the conference goes online. This testing should be done on different computer systems, with different browsers, different e-mail systems, and in and outside of one's own organization.