Toastmasters ‘Clicks and Bricks’ … hybrid online/physical clubs .. a brief report.

Background: I’m currently a member of four Toastmasters clubs, having rejoined Toastmasters in Brisbane, Australia, about two years ago.

I was also a member of multiple other clubs in my previous Toastmasters membership, in the 1980s.

But all those clubs, and three of my existing clubs, are ‘traditional’ clubs – in the sense that they meet in a physical location, and I deal with other members face-to-face in the same physical space.

My fourth club, however, is an online-only club which meets weekly ‘in cyberspace’.

Online Presenters has no ‘home base’ in the traditional sense. While a large number of members are from Florida, others come from across the USA, the Caribbean, Australia, the UK, and other nations as well.

Instead of meeting at a physical venue, we all meet from our homes, or offices, or wherever we happen to be. I can remember attending one meeting while on a cruise ship, while another member was attending while commuting on a train.

I’ve also attended other ‘online only’ clubs as a guest evaluator, or just as a guest – and they all operate the same way … each individual member logs in from their own location, and a ‘virtual room’ is established for the meeting.

There are around a dozen of these clubs, and the number is growing.

But what about ‘hybrid’ clubs, where some members meet in the same physical space, while others meet ‘virtually’?

There are quite a few ‘corporate’ clubs where members at one company site meet in a single space (normally a board room or training room) while members at another company site  do the same – and they conduct Toastmasters meetings via dedicated videoconference.

The same applies to some Toastmasters clubs based at Educational institutions – I understand at least one Australian university allows Toastmasters members on two separate campuses to meet using the university’s dedicated videolink.

But then there’s another option – where some members meet in a physical space – and others connect using MULTIPLE connections.

This is an option that one of my bricks-and-mortar clubs is considering … and an option that Naracoorte Toastmasters Club (soon to be renamed Limestone Coast Toastmasters Club) is currently utilising.

Again,  some background … Naracoorte is the second oldest Toastmasters Club in Australia, and has (over the  years) spawned other clubs including Mt Gambier Toastmasters club (of which I was once president).

Unfortunately, the changing demographics of the region have seen Mt Gambier club close altogether, and Naracoorte struggle for some years.

A couple of years ago, the club decided on the strategy of holding one meeting per month in Naracoorte, and another two weeks later at Mt Gambier (approximately an hour away by car).

This proved less than satisfactory, due to the constraints of travel, and so the club began experimenting with a physical meeting in one location – and allowing virtual attendance from the other.

I was fortunate enough to be invited as a guest to a recent meeting of the club – at which the majority of members were physically in attendance (at a town half-way between Naracoorte and Mt Gambier)

However, besides those physically in attendance, there were three meeting participants who logged in remotely .. one from her home in Mt Gambier, one from his home in Adelaide (5 hours away by car) and me, from my home in Queensland (two thousand kilometres to the north)

And apart from some technical hiccups which I will outline below, I felt the meeting worked remarkably well.

Those of us who had logged in remotely were able to see and hear the other participants clearly, and were able to participate in Table Topics, the business session, and more.

Initially, the laptop which was chosen as the ‘host’ machine in the physical meeting-space (the CWA hall in Penola) wasn’t up to the task – either inadequate video resources, or (more likely) inadequate internet bandwidth.

However, after a few minutes, another member loaded the meeting connection software onto his iPad and placed it on a shelf facing the lectern .. so we could see the speakers, and they could see us.

While a dedicated laptop would have been better (and a larger separate monitor would be better still), I understand from discussions with members at the physical meeting-space that we remote participants could be seen and – subject to the restraints that are common to delivery via webcams – our gestures and body language were clear.

The software used for this particular meeting was GoToMeeteengs – one of the two main delivery platforms used by Toastmasters clubs.

The other platform is Zoom, which is used by even more clubs in cyberspace (and the platform which would be my personal favourite)

These are not like Skype, or Facetime, or other one-to-one video platforms … these are designed for meetings, and generally allow users to set them up so that only the active speaker appears on screen, with other online participants appearing in a ‘gallery’.

So – how easy (or otherwise) would it be for a club to allow online participation in a bricks-and-clicks scenario?

The answer is ‘how long is a piece of string’.

IF the club has some tech-savvy members who can set up the ‘host’ machine, and
IF the club venue has a decent internet connection, and
IF the host machine can be plugged into a larger monitor, and
IF the club meets in a timezone that is attractive to others,  then
it should be feasible to invite online participation.

I intend trialling this at a forthcoming meeting of one of my bricks-and-mortar clubs  – and if it proves successful, we may well extend that trial and eventually evolve into a hybrid club.

It is important to note that this concept is NOT yet ‘plug-and-play’ … there will no doubt be bugs that need to be ironed out.

In fact, I am going to investigate the possibility of writing a setup guide and manual for establishing hybrid clubs as an HPL project for my DTM award.

But I believe it should be possible .. and, in the words of a late Aussie TV cleaning product mogul … “I’m Excited!”

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