The Future Of Web Conferencing: Good Interviews Heike Philp
Heike Philp is the first interviewee in this series that has expressly requested me to cover the business and entrepreneurial aspects of utilizing new media communication tools to deliver live training services on the Internet.
Heike seems to have been quite successful at this, as she does run a full-time online international language school, that fully leverages the power of live collaboration tools while providing enormous flexibility and comfort to both her trainers and her school students.
By utilizing these technologies on a daily basis, and living and working through them, Heike, better than several chiefs of Web conferencing companies, has identified and pinned down with precision, the issues, features and needs that will define the future of Web conferencing as we know it now.
Her view is simple, pragmatical and down-to-earth. She, like you and me, doesn't care much about the number of buttons in the side bar or the list of facilities listed up front. She cares only about having tools that simplify collaboration and live interaction from being a complex, dedicated activity through sophisticated applications to becoming an intuitive second-nature, springing from IM tools and escalating to whichever level of collaboration, sharing or presentation required by the specific event at hand.
Overall, I think she well summarizes some very evident key trends, while pointing to the essence of what, as users, we are after.
Robin Good: Heike, you use Web conferencing tools for running an actual online business, how has been your experience with this?
Heike Philp: Using a Web conferencing tool has fulfilled a long-awaited dream of mine: the dream of having my own international language school.
The biggest experience so far has definitely been in terms of investment. Here, I have been able to fulfil this long-awaited dream at a fraction of traditional costs.
Investment flexibility has proven to be an experience that has enabled me to focus on the technology, the method of teaching and the producing of material rather than looking for a suitable premises, signing rent contracts and buying tables and chairs.
Another positive experience has been the potential for growth as international expansion has been the logical consequence of our development as a virtual company.
Robin Good: How did you first got involved with Web conferencing technology and what was that hooked you on it?
Heike Philp: I first got involved with Web conferencing technology after having worked in the 1st-level support at a Siemens start-up company. It was my job to administer 25 clients.
During this time we used a remote control tool, which I highly valued. When the company sadly closed its doors I noticed that the very same remote control vendor offered a teaching tool. This offer and my long fostered dream of having my own school didn't take long to join forces.
Extensive market research and a testing of different systems as well as intensive technical studies marked the first 6-12 months followed by a long period of teaching family and friends.
A company contract was then signed which inevitably meant training trainers, solidifying a teaching method, creating material and solving technical problems.
After two and a half years of hard work, I am now confident that there is a potential for expansion and I am embracing each new development as an acknowledgement of this.
Robin Good: What opportunities are there for individuals and small companies to leverage these technologies for online training and education?
Heike Philp: My experience as a free-lance teacher was typically dominated by redundant travel time to clients and companies. The ability to teach from a home office has made an enormous difference for me personally and to the lives of my teachers.
Online training has made our business not only more flexible but practical.
Time management poses no difficulties any more as we can offer our services to many more clients without the unnecessary down time associated to travel time and travel costs.
My teachers live in Paris, Frankfurt and Munich and I wished, they lived in the Caribbean Islands, in Bahia or in the beautiful Alpes. As soon as one of my teachers leaves Germany and moves to Ireland for example, he can take his laptop along and hook it up in his new home.
This flexibility is paramount to a business operating online and empowers our USP in terms of future growth and expansion.
A number of our language students are sales representatives based in Germany, Austria, France and Spain. They work from their home offices. Many have expressed their appreciation for being able to learn online. Not wanting to miss a single lesson, some of them carried on with their course even during the summer holidays, from Bretagne or from an Italian beach resort.
Robin Good: In your opinion, what are the factors that discourage people the most in adopting and utilizing these tools on a daily basis?
Heike Philp: In a nutshell, the technology.
My experience with teaching this software has been:
Participants (students) need to be computer literate, to become a host (teacher) necessitates computer exploration and a background in computer science would almost be a prerequisite for those intending to install a Web-conferencing solution.
I am not exaggerating.
When the telephone was introduced to the market, there was a telephone operator, who kindly connected both parties. I have often wished that there were a Web-conferencing telephone operator. Why? Because web-conferencing is an intricate solution where technology replaces traditional approaches to learning and of course this is a relatively new medium.
The change from phone to headsets has not posed any obstacles. Students have adopted this change willingly as soon as they saw, that they are required to use their keyboard in class. Our interactive medium encourages students to have their hands free to work on documentation, grammar and vocabulary.
Robin Good: Heike, what happens, in terms of business opportunities, when people become able to talk, see and collaborate online effortlessly and at a very low-cost?
Heike Philp: Let me relate an experience I had only recently: trying to get a Spanish user online, we experienced firewall problems. Stela, the student to be, lives in Barcelona and does not speak a word of English. Carlota, a very helpful bi-lingual secretary in the head office is located in Madrid. Erwin, who installed the firewall in his position as IT System administrator of the company, is based near Munich in Germany. The result of our online collaboration: the technical problem was solved within minutes, because the IT professional, the interpreter and the user were all present at the same time and we were all able to see Stela's desktop which I administered remotely following Erwin's directions.
Teachers, experts, consultants, interpreters, psychologists, keynote speakers - all at a finger tip and affordable because they do not need to travel. I am looking forward to this kind of future collaboration.
Robin Good: Which specific live collaboration tools, which have emerged in the last 1-2 years, have impressed you the most, outside of the one you utilize for your work?
Robin Good: How do you think that real-time collaboration tools will look in three years from now?
Heike Philp: In three years from now Web conferencing will be 'normal' and a well-known communication tool. Following are my hopes and expectations:
a. A merging of voice over IP with telephone lines so that people without a headset and microphone are ready to listen in
b. An instant messenger service that acts as an initial contact to the client where it becomes the door to the meeting room. This would be very valuable in establishing voice contact and eliminates any potential technology problems from the outset. The host would then accompany the participant to the virtual training room.
c. A link to a web-based 'MS Outlook' to provide the scheduling of meetings and tasks lists for the much needed 'to dos'
d. A presence on a website, web shops manned, sales people online... Web conferencing is an ideal tool to fill websites with people you could talk to.
Robin Good: If you were to list three areas of online collaboration where the industry has not been making enough progress, which ones would you mention?
First obvious choice: Voice over IP.
It is almost like the 3 litre car, which was blocked by a powerful oil industry lobby. Telecommunication companies are fearful of losing well-paying customers. I am saddened to see that Web-conferencing tools use telephone bridges because they can't get VoIP working.
Secondly: the price.
Many of these Web-conferencing tools are overpriced for what they are. Vendors justify their licensing models by comparing it to how much money can be saved on travel costs. What kind of reasoning is this? It is like saying: the price of my jumper is directly linked to the heating costs saved whilst wearing it?
Robin Good: If you were to define your own perfect Web conferencing tool what would it be like? Could you list what features it would have and how it would "feel" to the user?
I would like to connect via instant messenger. Both parties 'see' as soon as the meeting partner is online, then they call each other at the arranged time. Having established voice contact (or text chat contact), you 'enter' the secure virtual meeting/ training room together.
Look and feel of this software?
It should not be cluttered and can be a simple whiteboard. Different toolbars can be activated one be one - or all at once:
A) The web cam tool bar
B) The presentation tool bar, featuring presentations, co-browsing, remote control
C) The collaboration tool bar, featuring annotation tools, application sharing, polling
D) The file sharing tool bar
E) The scheduling tool bar, featuring calendar and tasks
In many ways, my tool of choice would very much look like Netmeeting started out to be. Sadly Netmeeting was not accepted in the business world due to a lack of quality, stability and security but also perhaps because it was way too early on the market.
I entertain morbid fears that Web conferencing will similarly be stained by people who exploit the video image for private gratification.
Robin Good: How much would it cost?
Heike Philp: It should be a 'pay as you go' model like the telephone system and it should cost more than a local phone call, yet less than a national phone call.
It should never cost as much as an international phone call and no hidden costs such as registration fees, monthly fees or additional telephone charges should be added.
This very pricing model ought to be the same in every country. A Pre-requisite would be: payable in local currencies, not only in US Dollar rates.
Robin Good: Heike, for people meeting and collaborating online is security going to be a critical issue in the near future? Why?
Heike Philp: Not only in the near future, it is absolutely essential now.
As an end-user I have to have the assurance that my PC and the participant's PC are not connected to each other - other than during an online meeting.
This is why a browser-based solution is essential and encryption a must.
This is one of the reasons why I have never been keen on instant messaging. However, I hope that the industry will come up with a good solution to this problem as I feel that instant messaging could be the future' door to the virtual meeting space' so as to make the entry easier.
Robin Good: What do you think will be the best way to manage "identity" online in the future? Have you thought about this before?
Heike Philp: An intriguing question indeed but I must admit I have not thought about this before.
Robin Good: Many elearning solutions do not use videoconferencing. Some people say because video is not really necessary. Is it true? When and why is video really necessary?
Heike Philp: To me video is essential and is a great feature. It is a pre-requisite for all of my teachers. Our students are not obliged to use it and have in fact been very reluctant to install web cams. Only about 5% of all students have done so. On the other hand, while talking to my teachers, all of them expressed the wish to be able to see their students.
Robin Good: What do you think of online meeting spaces as actual buildings, conference centres, and classrooms? Do you think carrying over the analogy of physical spaces and their constraints is a good idea?
Heike Philp: I don't have a problem with associating physical building terminology with virtual space. I do find our classrooms to be like real classrooms - just virtual.
Robin Good: If you had to make two recommendations to those who build Web conferencing solutions what would these be?
First recommendation: Include in your offer a dual pricing model, one for the education industry (live learning) and one for live meetings.
The Web conferencing industry has two main target groups:
a) live meetings
b) live learning
Sadly the majority of vendors focus their efforts on live meeting conferencing technology and seem to charge their prices accordingly. ROI is too easily calculated when you include the price for a flight and add a manager's wage to the travel costs. This is why Web conferencing is overpriced.
Second recommendation: do not focus on selling software with its many features; focus rather on selling a communication device.
If you sell a communication device, then, demonstrate this by providing a 'telephone operator'. A sales person or a customer care agent should also be present during the first 2-3 online meetings as they will then be able to counteract technical problems and to advise improving performance.
Heike Philp is a successful and highly dynamic German entrepreneur founder of www.letstalkonline.com, a live learning institute conducting language training via the Internet. Heike, who is happily married to an Englishman, has lived and taught for over 20 years in different parts of the world including Japan, England, Switzerland and Germany.
Heike Philp has a university degree in Social Education
Heike's focus is in combining traditional teaching methods with the latest communication media. Heike has just been accepted as an official expert/advisor at Kolabora where you can post and submit questions directly to her.
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