U of I on Business by Priscilla Salant: Technology helps bring Idahoans together despite distance

Priscilla Salant, director of the University of Idaho’s Office of Community PartnershipsMay 7, 2013 

Priscilla Salant.JPG

Priscilla Salant

Getting from one corner of Idaho to another is a challenge. For example, traveling the shortest route from Coeur d’Alene to Idaho Falls involves driving 480 miles via Montana or flying from Spokane to Idaho Falls with an out-of-state connection. Driving from Sandpoint to Boise is a little shorter in terms of mileage but takes even longer. Idaho’s vast stretches of public lands are priceless assets, but they make coming together in one place a difficult proposition.

These long distances are a concern for anyone organizing a statewide conference in Idaho, especially if organizers want to attract a large number of participants or people from rural areas. For most of us, travel budgets are shrinking and travel time takes a big chunk out of our workweek.

Using broadband is one way to reduce travel time, costs, and energy — or what some analysts call the “friction of distance.” The advantages of using broadband in Idaho are becoming more widely known these days, thanks to LinkIdaho a statewide initiative to promote the availability and adoption of broadband Internet access. LinkIdaho’s webinars, websites and publications show how broadband opens doors for distance education, telemedicine, e-commerce and enhancing public safety. (See www.linkidaho.org).

We know less about using broadband to convene large groups of people in a conference setting. How can we use broadband to reduce the friction of distance while offering a high-quality learning experience and social interaction? After all, one of the great advantages of conferences is networking, especially for people who live in rural Idaho.

The University of Idaho set out to answer this question by organizing a two-site, fully interactive conference that took place March 19-20 at North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho. The occasion was the fifth President’s Sustainability Symposium. The symposium addresses issues related to Idaho’s economy and environment. Previous events have educated, demonstrated and inspired attendees on sustainability issues such as energy, climate and green building. This year’s conference focused on wastewater treatment and solid waste management, both critical issues for today’s city planners, commercial developers, elected officials and facilities operators nationwide.

Almost 200 people attended, all at one or the other of the two conference locations. They came from 25 cities and towns across Idaho. Attracting this many participants from such widely dispersed places is clear evidence that the two-site, video-conference format offers great potential for statewide or regional gatherings, primarily in terms of lower travel expenses and time away from work.

The financial cost of using videoconferencing technology was very low, thanks to the wonderful facilities and expertise at CSI and NIC.

Nevertheless, we learned what should be done differently next time. Based on attendees’ feedback, people want ample time for personal interaction, which is difficult for two large groups connected by videoconference. Next time, we will schedule more opportunities for on-site, face-to-face discussions without the filter of technology.

Another lesson had to do with the simple fact that northern and southern Idaho are in two different time zones. A solution would be to make the day’s agenda shorter: It turns out people in the north don’t want to start early in the day and those in the south don’t want to end late.

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psalant@uidaho.edu

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