Online Lecture Reflections And Plans

This past May, we kicked off a series of online lectures with Aladdin Diakun’s Towards the Effective Governance of Geoengineering: What Role for Intellectual Property?. Since then, we have held 11 different lectures, including a reprise lecture, on diverse topics including chemical pollution, artificial intelligence, ethics, and international law. The lecture series has been very successful by many counts. Now, for the first time since May, there are no new lectures scheduled, though next month we will host practice lectures for the SRA 2013 GCR sessions. Until then, we’re pausing to reflect on the experience and refine our plans.

This blog post documents the recent lecture series, shares some of our thinking, and invites you to offer feedback.

A Quick Summary

The bottom line is, this works. It is possible to have a successful lecture series 100% online, for free, with attendees worldwide. We heard great speakers, had great conversations, learned a lot, made connections, and more. We struck a reasonable balance between keeping conversations private while sharing key insights with the world through online summaries. The technology – mainly the audio quality – was occasionally glitchy, but we got by. Looking ahead, we could keep doing more of the same, or make lectures more public, or more private. We welcome your suggestions on where to go from here.


Initially, we intended the lectures mainly as an internal seminar series for ourselves and a few close colleagues to hear from researchers of interest. We quickly recognized that the lectures offered an excellent opportunity for broader education and networking, so we started inviting more people from outside GCRI, including many people we did not previously know. The result was a diverse and constantly changing audience: 51 different people participated, most of whom only attended one lecture. Total attendance counting speakers was 96, or 8.7 per lecture [1]. This put us in conversation with many interesting and talented people throughout the series.

Lecture invitations were sent through a variety of channels: the GCRI newsletter, online pre-lecture announcements, email announcements circulated to colleagues, and occasionally social media, mainly Facebook. All of these channels brought some attendees, with email invitations bringing by far the most. We could have increased attendance by circulating invitations more widely, but this was not our goal. Instead, we wanted more intimate lectures in which all attendees could join the discussion. We were also nervous about exceeding the capabilities of the technology, though in the end this was never a problem.

Privacy, Online Summaries, & Recordings

We wanted to strike a balance between privacy for lecture participants and publicity for lecture ideas. By keeping lectures private, we hoped to promote candid discussion, often of unpolished ideas. Speakers could seek feedback on works in progress not yet ready for public consumption, and all involved could speak openly without worrying about attribution (compare to the Chatham House Rule). At the same time, we wanted people who couldn’t attend the lecture to be able to learn from them.

Our compromise solution was to post written summaries of each lecture, except for two lectures that needed to remain private. Each summary was sent to the speaker and audience for edits before going online to improve the quality of the summaries and to ensure nothing offensive was said. The summaries have the additional advantage of being much faster to digest than a whole recorded lecture. We maintained a policy of not recording lectures, to which we made one exception, the Beckstead reprise lecture. However, there has been growing demand for lecture recordings. While we remain sensitive to privacy concerns, and will not record anything without prior permission, we are considering posting recordings online for more future lectures.

The Technology

Throughout the series, lectures were held via Skype. Skype has three key features: it’s VOIP and thus free calling for people worldwide; it has a built-in chat space that we used heavily; and, most importantly, it’s familiar to almost everyone who might attend the lectures, so no learning curve. The familiarity is a big advantage given our constantly rotating audience. But Skype has some disadvantages. We often experienced sound quality issues, mainly related to weak internet connections for certain attendees. (Interestingly, we never had trouble with too many people on a Skype call despite hearing concerns that this would happen. Our maximum attendance was 13.) Phone would usually permit better sound quality. And professional conferencing service (Fuze, WebEx, GoToMeeting, etc.) would offer an array of services that Skype either lacks or implements poorly, such as phone-VOIP integration and screen sharing.

Our speakers presented slides in either PowerPoint or Prezi. Prezi worked great because it is easy to share online [2]. The speakers who used PowerPoint simply told people when to move to the next slide, which worked well enough that we never bothered to invest in Skype’s group screen sharing feature.

Where To Go From Here

Here are some (non mutually exclusive) options for future online lectures:

Stay the course. We could continue more or less as is, possibly with a few tweaks such as recording more lectures or switching to new technology.

More public. We could work towards lectures with larger audiences, switching from more intimate discussions to more of a one-to-many broadcast format. This could involve several changes: producing high-quality recordings and posting online; featuring more polished research instead of works in progress; recruiting more high-profile speakers; and partnering with other organizations to improve production quality and draw a larger crowd.

More private. We could work towards lectures with more high-level attendees, especially from outside academia. These lectures may need to remain private. Even if the audience is just a small group, if it’s the right group it could have a big impact.

More or fewer lectures. We’ve been doing about two online lectures per month. Hosting them takes about 10-15 person hours of effort per lecture [3]. We could probably pull off four or five per month if this became our central focus. But we have plenty of other things to do with our time.

Over the upcoming weeks, we’ll be thinking about which of these (and possibly other) options is best. We welcome your input on any this.

[1] Thanks go to GCRI volunteer Steven Umbrello for compiling lecture attendee data.

[2] Credit goes to Aladdin Diakun for the idea of using Prezi.

[3] The 10-15 person hours of effort per lecture figure includes recruiting the speaker, scheduling, publicity, helping the speaker and audience with the technology, hosting the event itself, and writing/posting the online summary.

This post was written by
Seth Baum is Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.
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