Science Online New York (SoNYC) encourages audience participation in the discussion of how science is carried out and communicated online. To celebrate our first birthday, we are handing the mic over to the audience so that anyone who would like to participate will get five minutes to show off their favourite online tool, application or website that makes science online fun. To complement the celebrations, we’re hosting a series of guest posts on Soapbox Science where a range of scientists share details about what’s in their online science toolkits. Why not let us know how they compare to the tools that you use in the comment threads?
Daniel Burgarth is a lecturer in Mathematics and Physics at Aberystwyth University. His research interests are in many-body physics, control theory and quantum information. He obtained his Ph.D. at University College London in 2007.
Matt Leifer works on problems at the intersection of quantum foundations and quantum information theory and has recently completed a postdoc at University College London. He obtained his Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Bristol in 2004, and has since worked at the University of Cambridge and at Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo in Canada. See http://mattleifer.info for more details.
Q+ hangouts is a monthly online seminar series in quantum information and the foundations of quantum theory that we have been organizing since August 2011. We use Google+ hangouts for the seminars, and all the organization is done using free online tools and services.
Why online seminars?
Having an online seminar series is a good way of opening up research to a wider number of participants who do not have access to the continuous stream of visitors that typically pass through a large research institution. For example, the online seminars enable people on maternity leave or with illness to keep up with the latest research during those periods. We also have regular participants from universities that do not have large enough groups to attract a lot of visitors, from universities in isolated locations, and from less-developed countries.
Another advantage of online seminars is that nobody has to travel. This spares the environment and allows us to organize talks on hot topics extremely quickly. For example, we organized a talk on an arXiv preprint that was highlighted in Nature News within a couple of weeks of it appearing. We also never have to compromise on quality of speakers, since we have the entire world to choose from. Likewise, our audience is global, bringing together experts as one usually only experiences at conferences.
Picture taken at the IQC in Waterloo, Canada showing how local people present the hangout to their whole research group.
Fully online seminars are preferable to streaming video from an existing conventional seminar series. In the latter, the speaker is primarily talking to the audience of people who are with them in the room. Online viewers can therefore feel like second class citizens, and are less likely to participate in the discussion even if they are given the opportunity to do so. In contrast, when all participants are sat in front of a laptop, including the speaker, there is more of a level playing field. The quality of discussion in the question and answer sessions of our seminars has typically been very high.
Screen shot from a Q+ hangouts session that took place on the 24th April
Why Google+ hangouts?
Many universities have quite sophisticated systems for streaming lectures and conferences online, so you might wonder why we did not just use one of those rather than relying on Google+. One reason is that a large fraction of our research community joined Google+ when it launched, so there was momentum to do something there. Since we started, we have tested out several alternative systems, but none of them come close to the value for money, ease of use or reliability of Google+ hangouts.
Systems for streaming lectures typically come in two types. Those that you have to host on your own servers, or hosted solutions. Self-hosted systems are quite fiddly to set up, require servers with high bandwidth and are often beset by issues such as audio and video lag. You really need a competent AV technician to help you set them up correctly. Hosted solutions can be easier to set up, but they are often quite expensive. In contrast, Google+ is free and you can start a hangout just by clicking a button. Participants do not have to download any complicated software apart from a small browser plugin, which is available for all major operating systems. They just go to a webpage and start viewing. Because some viewers participate with their webcams and audio, the seminars feel a lot more alive than a one-way streaming seminar would: the speaker can see her/his audience.
There are also a few disadvantages of using Google+ for seminars. There are currently no metrics available during the seminar, so you do not know exactly how many people are watching the live stream and hangouts do not have any sophisticated tools for chairing a meeting that are found in other systems, such as the ability for someone to virtually “raise their hand” if they want to ask a question. Perhaps most importantly, by using this system you are giving up control of your data to Google. However, we feel that these disadvantages are easily outweighed by the simplicity and ease with which the seminars can be organized on Google+.
Screen shot from a Q+ hangouts session that took place on the 24th April – Q&A section
If you want to organize your own seminar series on Google+ then you should be aware that most hangouts are currently limited to ten participants. Initially, we got around this by asking people to share their screen, but we have recently been given access to the new “hangouts on air” feature that allows us to stream to an arbitrarily large audience and to record videos to YouTube. Our advice would be to simply start with the ten person limitation and then petition Google for the “hangouts on air” feature if your seminars become popular enough. It is not a bad idea to limit numbers at the beginning in any case, so that you can smooth out any problems before exposing yourself to a wider audience. In time, the “hangouts on air” feature will be made available to everyone as a default, so this will no longer be an issue.
Setting up an online seminar series using Google+ hangouts is very easy because we just use free tools services that are available to everyone. We first set up a “brand page” for our seminar series on Google+, which we use to announce the seminars, post videos, and start the hangouts. Google+ users who circle this page see the hangout in their stream once it starts. People who don’t have a Google account can still watch the seminars live by going to this page at the appointed hour.
After the seminar, the video automatically gets uploaded to YouTube and appears there within a couple of hours. With a simple bit of editing it is ready to be posted publicly and we post links to it on our social media accounts.
We use Google Docs and Google Calendar to manage the seminar scheduling. Specifically, we have a public spreadsheet where anyone can add a suggested speaker for a future talk, and we maintain a calendar of scheduled talks. We have to compromise with the choice of time for the talk- currently they are at 2pm UK time, which means that participants from say California or Australia will find it hard to join.
Recently, we have also set up a Twitter account and a Facebook page so that we can advertise to a wider audience. We also post announcements to relevant mailing lists and encourage people to email local mailing lists at their universities.
We feel that Google+ hangouts have a lot of potential beyond just seminars. Since they can easily be set up ad-hoc, they could be used for small journal club-like discussions, without the need for much centralized organization. Other ideas include online panel discussions and online conferences.
You can find further details about Q+ at the following links:
You can follow the online conversation on Twitter with the #ToolTales hashtag and you can read Mary Mangan’s Tool Tale here, Dr Peter Etchells’s Tool Tale here, Alan Cann’s here, Jerry Sheehan’s here, Boris Adryan’s here, Anthony Salvagno’s here, Zen Faulkes’s here, Jenn Cable’s here , Mike Biocchi’s here, Susanna Speier’s here, Derek Hennen’s here, Musa Akbari’s here, Benedict Noel’s here, Chris Surridge’s here and Gerd Moe-Behrens’s here.