A Practical Combo for Web Conferencing: Google Docs and FreeConference.com

A committee in my church’s regional body, New Castle Presbytery, asked me to do a study of the annual cost of driving to meetings.  At fifty cents per mile the cost amounted to $39 per person per meeting, or about $36,000 annually for the whole presbytery, a figure we understandably want to reduce!

girl_on_phone_and_laptop Teleconferencing is an obvious remedy, but what kind of teleconferencing?  Our presbytery stretches over Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland.  Not all residents in that region have access to broadband, so certain high tech solutions are ruled out from the outset.  And then, there is the average user’s skill level to consider, which is not very high.  Many of our members are seniors, whose familiarity with computers lags behind that of younger people.  We didn’t want a solution that would require installing new software, or fiddling with hardware settings either.  We wanted a solution that would be within the reach of our average user, who may already have taken part in a telephone conference call, and who has a rudimentary competency viewing Web pages with a browser.

We settled on conducting Web conferences by using Google Docs so that the participants can view static but editable visuals in the form of Word documents or Excel spreadsheets, published to Web pages.  And, instead of paying for a telephone company to set up our audio conferences, we decided to use one of the many low cost internet conferencing services, FreeConference.com, where you set up the meeting yourself.

Why FreeConference.com?  Well, in part because they are used by even large companies to save money, and we figured the big players must know a good deal when they see one.  And also because FreeConference.com offers a FaceBook plug-in that makes it really easy to arrange a conference call.  Many of our members are already on FaceBook, so that was a resource that didn’t require more learning.

FreeConference.com conferences are not totally free, of course.  The “free” applies just to the lack of an administrative charge.  Each caller pays his or her long distance phone rates for the connection, which can be made by land line, cell phone, or a VOIP device, in which latter case the connection may indeed be free.  Although smaller groups in our presbytery (with ten or so members) have used Skype (a VOIP service) for audio conferencing quite satisfactorily, we decided not to prescribe Skype as a solution for the whole presbytery because:

  • Using Skype still requires learning some skills which our average user might not have the patience or courage to acquire.
  • Some of our members have PC’s or connections not up to handling even audio connections on Skype let alone video ones.

Therefore, we settled for a combination of an old, familiar technology, the telephone, paired with a modern but not-too-demanding one, the internet, for viewing and editing static pages, which even dial-up users can manage.

And, for the member who has no computer, or who is computer-phobic, he or she can still participate in the telephone conference, though the Web conferencing feature of editing conference documents in real time will not be available, because he or she must rely on paper visuals received beforehand via the mail.

All in all this combination of Google Docs and FreeConference.com seems a good practical solution to a not-just-technical challenge.  I’ll let you know after some field testing how it’s working out for us.

Here are five steps for setting up your first Web Conference using this combo:

1.  Have everyone who will meet register with Google.com.  You will use a free feature of Google membership, Google Docs, to share visuals for the meeting, such as Word documents and spreadsheets.  If you do not have a computer, that’s O.K. The convener can send you paper documents for the meeting by mail.  You won’t be able to edit these visuals as the meeting progresses, but at least you will have something in front of you as you follow along.

2.  Have the convener open a a free account at http://www.freeconference.com and follow the instructions there for inviting attenders to call a designated telephone number at an agreed-upon time, and then enter the conference by touch-tone dialing a given code, which the convener will convey ahead of time by email or telephone. A nice feature of FreeConference.com is that it offers a FaceBook plug-in, which makes inviting members to a meeting very easy.  However, one doesn’t need to belong to Facebook to participate in a FreeConference.com conference.  Also, please note:  Attenders can use any manner of telephone connection:  land line, cell phone, or an internet phone connection such as Skype.  There are no administrative charges for FreeConference.com conference calls.  Connection charges are paid by each attender, at whatever long distance rates he/she customarily pays. Using a landline–these days perhaps the most expensive long distance connection–my customary expense is still only $6.00 for a one hour meeting.

3.  The convener will prepare ahead of time whatever visuals will be needed for the meeting.  He/she will place these documents in his/her Google Docs library, and under the “share” link, will then publish each one to the Web.

4.  In his/her Google Docs section, accessible from a top link in on the Gmail Inbox page, the convener will give permission ahead of time for each attender to edit the documents to be shared.  Permissions are set in Google Docs by clicking the “Share” button at the top right corner, then selecting “Sharing permissions”.

5.  The convener will make a list of all the urls (Web addresses) of these documents, and will send out to all attenders an agenda in which links to these urls appear.  During the meeting attenders will be able to see any document by clicking on its link in that email note.  Having been given permission to edit, attenders will be able to make changes to any of the meeting documents. All can see these changes immediately by clicking on the refresh button of their Web browsers.  (Note:  The convener should courteously “control traffic” so that only one attender edits at a time.  The Web software will get confused if two attenders try to edit simultaneously.)

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