Caucus Conference Organizer's Guide

By Stuart Karabenick, Ph.D.
Center for Instructional Computing
Eastern Michigan University
Ypsilanti, Michigan 48197

Last revised: 20 September 1999

This guide was written for the Center for the Instructional Computing and University Computing at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Michigan.  It has been revised and reprinted with Dr. Karabenick's permission.  For more details about how to use Caucus features to start and organize a conference, see the companion guide Caucus Conference Organizer "How To".

This guide is intended for new organizers of Caucus conferences.  Prospective organizers may be familiar with conferencing in general, and Caucus in particular; however, there are certain features and issues with which organizers need to be familiar and which deserve special emphasis.  These are examined in the following sections.  It should be noted that the original guide was written for a large conferencing system in a university setting, and a special section is devoted to that context.  Most of the topics, however, are generic, and they apply to a wide variety of settings.

1. Starting Up

1.1 Types of Conferences

Each conferencing application will have a variety of conferences suited to that environment.  In general there are four types:

Open
In an open conference, membership is available to anybody with access to the Caucus conferencing system.  Open conferences cover general topics open to all.  These can include anything from restaurant reviews and company picnics to office policies, vacation schedules, music, politics, and literature.

Restricted
Restricted conferences impose some limitation on membership.  The organizer can specifically designate persons who may become full or read-only members and/or exclude others.  Examples of restricted conferences are:

Course-related
In an academic setting one of the major uses is in connection with classes.  In the typical course conference, membership is restricted to students and their instructor.  Additional non-course participants, such as other faculty members or experts, are sometimes included (see Course Conferencing, section 7).

Special purpose
There are many types of special conferences whose membership may be partially or fully restricted.  Examples in an academic setting are: thesis committees, faculty committees, student and faculty organizations and research groups.  Business examples are: Boards of Directors, research and development groups, holiday party committees, and sales support groups.

1.2 Obtaining Computer IDs for Participants

Using Caucus requires some kind of computer account or "id".  Typically these ids will either be assigned by your organization, or else can be selected by the users themselves.  If you as an organizer are running a restricted conference, you will need to know your members id's so that you can identify them.  (If a person is already using Caucus, you can find out their id by clicking on the "People" icon to find that person.  The id will appear after their name, in parentheses.)

1.3 Starting a New Conference

In some applications, users are free to start their own conferences.  In other settings, a conferencing system coordinator may restrict the number and type of conferences.  Restrictions prevent duplication of discussions and conserve system resources.  (For information on how to start new conferences, see the Caucus Conference Organizer's "How To".)

1.4 Learning to Use Caucus

It is very important that participants know how to use the system before engaging in any "serious" conferencing.  Introductory training sessions led by experienced users, practice (fun!) conferences, and provision of quick reference guides to users are suggested.

2. Principles of Conference Organizing

2.1 Creating a General Framework

An organizer's first task is to provide a conference structure, or framework.  Considerable time and care at this phase is suggested.  The information participants first encounter begins to establish this structure.

Pre-conference Communication
Computer conferencing is often preceded by interaction using non-electronic means.  Quite frequently, participants communicate with each other by phone and/or discuss the conference in person prior to any computer communication.  These interactions may be augmented by printed material that announces the conference, its goals, topics to be covered, and information about the participants.  Such interactions and information are especially important for first-time conference users.  The more they know prior to going on-line, the more they can concentrate on mastering the conferencing system and substantive content.  Consider the nature and extent of such preliminary communication and how it can help to achieve your conference's objectives.

Conference Interaction
Conferencing users are required to register the first time they use the system. That registration carries over to all conferences of which they become members. Their first interaction with a specific conference consists of an introduction, followed by a greeting.  The organizer customizes them by editing some text inside Caucus.

Introduction
The purpose of the introduction is to describe the conference to prospective participants.  It is displayed the first time a participant joins a conference.  Its major utility is giving prospective members of open conferences enough information to decide whether they wish to join.  For closed conferences the introduction is typically less important since it is presumed that members of a restricted group would already know why they are joining.

Greeting
The greeting is text that is displayed every time participants join a conference.  The greeting can serve several functions.  For example, at the outset, it can serve to orient members by elaborating the conference's goals, purposes and etiquette and rules (see section 5).  Later it can be used as a bulletin board for announcements or to direct participants to important new information, items, or responses.  Some organizers prefer to keep greetings brief and use a separate item as a bulletin board.

2.2 The First Few Conference Items

The first conference items (discussion topics) have an important bearing on a conference's success.  This is especially true when participants are new to conferencing.  The following are recommended:

Extended Introductions
The first item gives participants the opportunity to expand upon the information they provided when they first registered in the conferencing system.  Consider asking them to describe their background and/or provide other relevant information.  This is especially important in larger and open conferences and even in small conferences in instances where participants are relatively unfamiliar with each other.

Purpose(s)
Even if discussed in other forms (e.g., in pre-conference interactions or hard-copy) an item devoted to the conference's purposes is worth including. This is your opportunity to restate the conference's goals and, importantly, to receive feedback from participants.  It provides an opportunity for participants to ask questions and to suggest alternatives after having encountered the original introduction and greeting.  The item may also be useful in keeping track of changes in objectives as the conference progresses.

Help With the Conferencing System
This item provides a central place to ask questions and serves to reduce the stigma that participants often attach to seeking help.  It is especially important for novice conferencers.

Bulletin Board
Even if the greeting is reserved for fast-breaking news, an item devoted to a bulletin board is quite useful.  Unlike the conference greeting, past information remains, and there is a record of prior bulletins.

Conference Rules and Norms
Another useful item is one reserved for the discussion of special conference rules or norms.  For example, there may be issues of confidentiality, anonymity, adding items or altering previous responses, and rules of conduct (see Etiquette and Rules, section 5) that need to be stated and about which participants may have opinions.

 

3. Managing Your Conference

3.1 Facilitating Interaction

Starting Discussions
Participants, especially novice conferencers, are understandably reluctant to respond to "blank" items.  Thus, a useful technique is for organizers to respond to their own items just to get the ball rolling.  For example, an organizer might be the first respondent to the item used for extended introductions or the one used to discuss a conference's purposes.

Respond to Initial Responses
Keep in mind that while you may enjoy discussions and conferencing, some people do not.  They may be cautious and embarrassed about stating their own opinions in public, and, quite possibly, intimidated by computers.  It helps if organizers respond to participants' contributions either in the conference itself or by sending a private message acknowledging their input.

Developing a Sense of Cohesion
Although physically and temporally separated, regular conference participants can develop a feeling of cohesiveness.  This dynamic varies according to the nature of the conference.  It is more evident in longer-lasting working groups than in large open conferences, but it is usually present in all conferences to some degree.

Organizers can play an important function in nurturing cohesion.  It helps to greet people when they join.  Ask them questions.  Encourage people who have not contributed to do so rather than just to read.  Give participants feedback!  Remember, as in face-to-face discussions, participants who are consistently ignored, who feel they are talking to themselves, will cease to contribute.

Lighten Up!
Humor can be an important element of discussions.  If not spontaneously generated by participants themselves, consider injecting some in otherwise "serious" conferences.  It helps relax people if you break the ice first.

Degree of Organizer Participation
Too many public responses by an organizer can make a conference seem moderator-dominated.  Thus, organizers should consider using private e-mail to make constructive comments, to ask a participant why they haven't contributed, or to defuse an argument.  Private e-mail does not interfere with conference activity.

Summarizing
Providing summaries is another important organizer function.  This helps current participants to quickly understand what has transpired while helping new participants catch up on discussions.

Keeping Things Going
Because computer conferences can extend over long time periods, there are two important maintenance operations.  One is to bring in new material to help freshen up conferences.  Consider bringing in material from other sources (including from other conferences).  The second is to houseclean occasionally by deleting dormant items or by moving "topic drift" responses to a new item.

3.2 Managing Discussion Topics

How Many Items, How Structured the Conference?
Some conferences have a very well-defined and detailed agenda which should be set by the organizer in advance.  For example, a group working on a task (e.g., a new marketing strategy), a course conference, or a committee established to discuss a new program might have specific topics they need to discuss.  In these instances the items may be known in advance and the conference structure may be rigid.  However, in conferences with more general topics (e.g., office morale, personal computers, or music), it may not be possible, or even desirable, to do this.  For open conferences, it is suggested that the initial topic structure consist of a few general items.  More specific items typically emerge from those general discussions, and there may be hundreds of items in conferences of a long duration.

Item Drift
An important moderator function deals with what is called "item drift." This occurs when people stray from the topic of an item.  You might want to gently (sometimes not so gently) remind "drifters" to return to the topic. Conferences with significant item drift turn out to be "muddy" since the same topic may be discussed in many different items.  Some drift is inevitable (do not be too heavy-handed), it is a matter of degree.  In fact, participants sometimes signal they are drifting to make a digression (by saying "set drift on" and "set drift off"), indicating that others should not follow their lead.  If the drift is significant and raises issues or covers topics not addressed in other items, it may warrant moving the "drifting" responses to a new item.

Private E-Mail vs. Public Responses to Items
A conferencing system is designed to facilitate group discussions.  Private e-mail would, therefore, seem antithetical to this purpose.  Nevertheless, e-mail can serve many useful functions.  As in face-to-face discussions, there are some things better said in private.  Some communications are simply more appropriate for another individual or subset of the entire group.  It is suggested that as much of the communication as possible be conducted in the conference itself (it would not be much of a conference otherwise), while recognizing the need for private communications.  The presence of extensive private communication between some people could suggest the need for another conference for those members. 

 

4. Participant Restrictions

4.1 Adding Items

Typically, conference participants are permitted to add their own items.  There are, however, circumstances in which this may be undesirable.  This is especially true in newly organized conferences, when it may be beneficial for the organizer to maintain control of the topics and/or the order in which they are discussed.  There may even be conferences where the organizer wants to completely control the conference items, such as in computer-mediated business meetings and, in educational settings, course conferences.  Once conferences have matured, an organizer may wish to relax this restriction.  Note that open conferences would probably not survive this restriction for very long.

4.2 Altering Previously Entered Conference Material

Unless you decide otherwise, participants are permitted to change (i.e., edit, replace, or delete) material they have previously entered (items or responses).  This is useful when, in retrospect, they are not content with something they have said.  However, there may be circumstances when allowing such changes would be inappropriate.  For example, in a group working on a sensitive topic, retrospective changes could significantly alter the context in which subsequent remarks are embedded, changing their meaning entirely.  It is suggested that restricting the right to make such changes should be used with caution and only with the consent of the participants.  Of course, you can always reverse the restriction.  Restricting changes is ordinarily not appropriate for public conferences.

4.3 Names: Real and Pseudo

Except for duplications of names already registered, participants can select any name they desire.  Thus, pseudonyms are possible and can be used creatively.  For example, names can be used for role-playing, or groups of individuals can select similar names for simulations.  However, under some circumstances they may be inappropriate, as in business settings or in course conferences where it is necessary to track participation.  Furthermore, pseudonyms should be used responsibly and not to harm or impersonate other conference members.  Remember, the identity of the author of any item or response can be discovered despite the use of pseudonyms.

Where there is a need for anonymous responses, the organizer may choose to allow "anonymous" items.  In these items, no information about the identity of the response authors is kept; everything is truly anonymous.  Anonymous items can be very useful for some circumstances, but should be carefully managed and monitored.

 

5. Etiquette and Rules

5.1 Remedies for Violations

Organizers of open conferences need to be especially sensitive to objectionable content.  After all, participants' comments are available to anyone with access to your Caucus system.  The same basic guidelines that apply to free speech using any other medium apply here as well.  There are two minimal rules that should be adhered to in all public conferences: no vulgar language and no personal attacks.

There are several ways to handle problems:

5.2 Confidentiality

Confidentiality is frequently an issue any time people communicate.  However, since computer conferencing creates an instant transcript, breaches of confidentiality become markedly simplified: it is relatively simple to print material, copy it to another conference, or publish it in some other fashion.  Thus, computer conferencing provides a greater potential for abuse.

It is typically assumed that conference material is intended only for other participants.  Reproducing that material for wider distribution would violate that assumption.  However, if material in a conference is of a particularly sensitive nature, you might wish to:

 

6. Winding Down

6.1 Saving Your Conferences

Keeping a permanent record of a conference is highly recommended.  This is especially true for course and special purpose conferences that you may wish to review after they have ceased to exist.  One option is to archive a conference, so that it may be recreated at any time (or any number of times).  Another is to take a static "snapshot" of the conference; this produces a set of HTML files (web pages) that you can publish on the web or save on a disk.  (For more information, ask the Caucus manager for your system about these options.)

6.2 Terminating Conferences

Open conferences run continuously but are typically restarted periodically (with much advance notification to participants) to conserve computer resources (and to keep from overwhelming new participants).  Conferences established for specific purposes (e.g., task groups) have a definite life.  In educational settings, course conferences normally terminate when the term closes.  Other special conferences may be indeterminate.  In each case, the organizer should notify the conferencing system coordinator when to terminate the conference.

 

7. Course Conferencing In Educational Settings

7.1 Why Course Conferences?

In course conferencing, a class is provided with one or more of its own closed conferences.  When used with on-campus classes, this adds communication possibilities beyond those which normally exists.  Course conferencing also can be used to teach complete courses by computer-mediated communications (known as virtual classrooms).

By opening up additional communication channels, conferencing can increase access between instructors and students, and among students.  Conferencing also has the potential to significantly increase the amount of writing by students, even in courses where writing is neither an essential nor even a minor component.  Parenthetically, using conferencing helps satisfy two goals which colleges and universities typically attempt to foster among their students: familiarity with computers and increased written communication.

7.2 Important Benefits for Classes and Students

7.3 Some General Considerations

It is important to recognize that communicating via computer and conferencing may be new experiences to many, if not most, students.  Therefore, an introduction in class to the general principles of both is important prior to any workshops or other hands on experience.  Equally important is that students understand why conferencing is being included in the course.  Indicate how much you expect them to participate.  Also, clarify for students the use of private e-mail.

While this information also may be presented and discussed in the conference itself, creating a context for conferencing can go a long way toward allaying anxieties that accompany this experience.  As conferencing becomes more common, such introductions will probably cease to be as necessary.

7.4 Suggestions for Items and Uses of the Conference

Here are some specific ways of using a course conference:

7.5 Additional Considerations and Suggestions

Here are some further issues to consider when using course conferences:

7.6 Evaluating Conferencing Activity

An important advantage of course conferencing is the capacity to effectively evaluate students' contributions to discussions.  The way to evaluate contributions depends on your course objectives and expectations for conference participation.  Here are some typical conferencing standards:

Have Students Accessed the Conference and Its Items?
At the very least, students might be expected to read the material in the conference.  Caucus permits checking on the items and responses that students have displayed.  If this is done once per week, a record could be kept and referred to at the end of the term.

Minimal Responding
A second level requires that students join the conference and contribute to some or all of the items.  This could be checked by examining the conference, or by using "Search by Author" to find all of a person's responses.  By using the information tagged to each response one could determine whether these contributions occurred during a specific time interval, say once per week.

Beyond the Minimum
Levels of contribution beyond these minima can be gauged only by closer examination of the conference transcript.  One criterion is response length.  Although as with any other contribution this may not be the best measure, it can be used as a rough index of student participation.  One suggestion is to use three levels, something like terse, average, and extensive.  A one-line response may indicate the student's participation but not much else.  Two or three sentences is usually enough to justify more extensive interaction, while a ten-line response may signify extensive participation.

Content Analysis
How incisive and meaningful students' contributions to discussions are can be only determined by carefully examining an entire course transcript.  How one does this depends, again, on one's course objectives.  As with any grading scheme the metric can range from global to fine-grain, from acceptable vs. unacceptable to a specific letter grade (complete with + and -).  The advantage of having the complete conference transcript over attempting to do this with in-class participation should be obvious.  Instructors who repeat courses have the additional advantage of making between-term comparisons.

 

8. Helpful Hints

Here are some additional suggestions that others have found useful:

Foreign Language Conferencing
It is possible to conduct conferences in languages other than English; this can be excellent homework in reading and writing skills.  You may need assistance from your local computer support personnel to determine which key combinations to use to produce special characters such as or .

Indexing With Creative Item Titles
Items can be selected in database fashion with the judicious use of item titles.  Suppose there are several working groups producing several versions of documents in one conference.  If each group's document was entered as a separate item that carried the group (e.g., G1) and version number (e.g.,V1) the "List [Items titled]" menu on the conference home page could be used to show all documents for group 1.  Other standard information contained in item titles would be similarly searchable.

 

9. Important Organizer Features

9.1 Conference Membership

Each conference maintains a userlist which controls who has membership privileges.  Click on "Customize" from any page in the conference, and then on "Users" to get to the userlist.  (For a more detailed description of the userlist, see the conference membership section of the Organizer's How-To Guide.)

 
Completely Open Conferences
A completely open conference allows anyone to join and participate.  Its userlist should start with a box like the one shown to the right.  It "include"s everyone -- that's what the asterisk ("*") means.
        
 
 
Restricted Conferences
To specify a list of permitted participants, the asterisk should be replaced by those userids.  The userlist box to the right specifies three faculty members and a student (fox).

 
 
Use of "Wild Cards"
To specify a group of participants with a common account name, such as a set of course accounts, enter the common element, then an asterisk which is called a "wild card".  The userlist box to the right would include a faculty member and all students in his chemistry class.  Student IDs would all begin with the course prefix, then their student number (e.g., chm610566475).  The common element is chm610.

 
 
Excluding or Limiting Participants
Participants are excluded by entering their userids in an "exclude" box.  In addition, participants can be limited to only being able to read (not contribute to) material by putting their userids in a "readonly" box.  The following userlist would permit all faculty members in the psychology ("psy") department to participate, give an invited guest (gendin) from the philosophy department permission to read the discussions, and exclude one department member (orloff) from accessing the conference at all.



9.2 Customizing Conference Characteristics

Customize the Introduction
The conference introduction may also be edited from the "customize conference" page.  Modify it to suit your needs for the particular confernce. For example:

Customize the Greeting
The greeting appears every time a person sees the conference home page.  As with the introduction, text already exists upon the conference's creation.  Modify it as you see fit.  An example:

Allow users to add new items?
The organizer may instruct Caucus to permit or deny conference participants the right to add their own items.  The default is to permit adding items.

Allow users to edit their own responses?
Caucus gives the organizer the option of not permitting participants to alter, replace, or delete the text of items and responses they have entered.  The default setting permits such changes.