Melanie Shier-Baker, Applied Sociology Thematic Group:
The Applied Sociology Thematic Group has two central themes: (1) to provide opportunities for sociologists working outside of academe to network, collaborate, and share knowledge, and (2) to help promote the usefulness of sociological theory and analytical tools in a wide range of arenas.
Sociologists paving a career outside of academe are limited in their capacity to liaise or consult with their professional peers or to have their expertise and knowledges understood by the wider community. As such, the group’s convenors, Mithzay Pomenta and myself, decided to trial an online communication system to enable group participants to present and/or listen to the experiences of others. In facilitating a series of free webinars from July 2016 leading up to the annual conference in November 2016, we have enabled an array of speakers to explain how sociology informs their work and engage in lively discussions with people from various sectors and geographic areas.
We selected ‘GoToWebinar’ to host these sessions because of the range of features available with the subscription and the general positive reviews provided by others. The format for these sessions has been 30 minutes for the presentation and 30 minutes for questions and comments.
The benefit of this medium has been its far-reaching capacity in time, space and cost. Given that many sociologists outside of academe have no option to participate in conferences or professional development opportunities, this platform allows people to engage at no cost and with no travel required. In addition, sessions could be recorded and this enabled us to upload presentations onto YouTube for viewing at more convenient times. The discussions so far have been lively, informative and interactive. So far, there has been an intriguing and diverse line up of speakers covering themes such as revolutionary theory, semiotics, community development and ‘where to from here for applied sociologists’, all of which can each be accessed on the YouTube TASA Applied Sociology channel.
Of course, online communication can be fragile. The convenors have been faced with a few technological challenges, including:
- Slow internet speed and poor internet connection by organisers, panellists and audience participants causing screen freezes and internet drop out.
- Badly behaving technology.
- A panellist’s computer crashed five minutes before a scheduled presentation which resulted in a late cancellation.
- Poor sound quality from some panellists.
- Technologically ‘un-savvy’ webinar users.
- The webinar facility requires a level of competence and familiarity to operate its features competently. For some users, the facility was difficult to open and navigate in a short space of time.
We have not yet completed the series and nor done an overall review of the project. However, preliminary observation suggests that an alternative mode, such as a podcast series, may be more suitable for future group discussions and/or presentations. The podcasts are easier to access and may enable a more informal opportunity for discussion between members and non-members of the group because of the reduced expectation of webcam or visual presentation. We have been fortunate in this exercise in that Mithzay Pomenta has extensive skills and experience in editing media productions, allowing us to incorporate the TASA logo and clean up sections of the recording that were inaudible before uploading to YouTube.
As an organiser and facilitator, the experience for me has been both anxiety-provoking and rewarding. I have stumbled my way through mastering GoToWebinar, learning to be a host, and trouble-shooting technological issues, but the feedback received from participants has been positive and enthusiastic, suggesting more interactive sociological discussions in the future would be well received by the applied sociological community. We thank TASA for providing funding under the thematic groups support scheme.