Individuals, associations and businesses are increasingly turning to the Internet for delivery of material to friends, business associates and association members. Some are starting to experiment with conducting meetings online as well, using Net Meeting, CU-SeeMe, ICQ and others. Eventually, many will use the Internet for voice and video communication, but for many people, in the short term, text-based systems remain the best option.


ICQ (pronounced I seek you) is a combination of Internet paging, messaging and chat facilities. Users of the software can set up a list of other ICQ users to keep track of. ICQ will then alert you when these people log on or off, giving you an easy way of seeing who of your contacts you can currently talk to. Messages can also be left for people who are not currently online. Members of the AJCPTA EdNA project have been using ICQ to hold meetings, as an alternative to face-to-face meetings or telephone conferencing. As with most new ideas and technologies, there are problems implementing such a system. Here are some of the suggestions I came up with to help improve the running of such meetings. These are simply some starting points for discussion. Depending on your circumstances you may wish to consider using some or all of these suggestions.

  1. Copies of the agenda and other documents should be emailed to all participants well before the meeting. All participants should have these documents in front of them at the beginning of the meeting. A website where the documents could be downloaded from would be handy for people who have lost the originals. This site could also contain peripheral documents, the text from previous meetings, and a list of forthcoming meetings.

  2. The frequency with which people "drop out" and then try to get back into the conversation leads me to suggest that it would be a good idea to email everyone the text of the whole meeting shortly after the meeting is concluded. At the very least the text should be included on the website mentioned in point 1.

  3. Given the time constraints many people have when attending such the meetings, I would suggest that the meeting window is used only to discuss agenda items. Other chatter should take place in private windows, containing only the people involved. ICQ will allow several windows to be open at once, so this is one way to keep one window just for the agenda and to prevent conversations from continuing at cross-purposes.

  4. There should be a chair for each meeting. The chair should invite people to talk, rather than letting several conversations take place at once. People wishing to talk could flag their desire by typing "me next?" or something similar and then being recognized by the chair after the current speaker has finished.

I'm sure that there are several other points which could be added to this list, and I encourage you to explore and add to these suggestions.

While these ideas do detract from the delightful anarchy of the web, a format similar to this is needed to make meetings run smoothly. As a point for consideration, discussions lasting 45 minutes in our AJCPTA meetings could have been covered in a phone conversation of less than 5 minute's duration, and there would have been far less trouble with the technology. Meetings are carried out at the pace of the slowest typist, or they don't contribute at all, and multiple conversations being conducted at once also distracts everyone from the purpose of the meeting. Given the cost of the time for each project officer to be involved, a telephone call would have been cheaper than the time we spent online.


Many proprietary systems offer chat facilities as well. Systems like FirstClass and Top Class allow for the creation of Internets, complete with email addresses and web pages. Users can dial in via a modem connected to the server, or come in via the Internet. In either case the user will need to give the appropriate user name and password before being granted access to the system. For people who don't have Internet access but do have a modem, this is a great way of participating in online discussions. It is also excellent for developing restricted access Professional Development courses.

I've used FirstClass extensively at RMIT, so I'll limit my comments to this system. FirstClass can be used to create a private meeting space and to make message boards which are only accessible to users who have access to the FirstClass server. If you are concerned about privacy online then this might be an option you wish to consider. The text-based chat facility is similar to ICQ, with a list showing which users have logged on, who is part of the current chat, who wants to chat to you privately, and so on. Documents can be sent either as attachments or by simply sending them to the FirstClass workspace of the people you wish to receive it.

In order to use FirstClass you will need to find somewhere to host the FirstClass Server software. Once the software is installed and running you will be able to administer the system from anywhere you have a connection to the Internet. Creating users is easy - it can even be set up to allow for self registering for a specified period of time, reducing the workload of the administrator. Each user will need to install the FirstClass Client. This takes a few minutes and is not at all difficult. After using FirstClass for a year, I would have to say that it is an easy system to use, but maintaining a vibrant discussion within the message boards is very time consuming. Many of the users on our system didn't like having a separate email address for FirstClass mail and much preferred mail being forwarded on to their normal email addresses. Again, the speed of the slowest typist was the limiting factor when conducting meetings with groups of my students.

Internet Telephony.

If your long distance meeting is one that could be carried out over a telephone, you might like to consider Internet Telephony. This is one of the many areas of use of the Internet increasing at a phenomenal rate! Use of Internet telephony as an alternative to normal telecommunication lines has become so widespread in America that committees were set up by the US Senate to investigate whether this use of the Internet was a threat to the US telephone companies.

There are now many companies offering Internet Telephony software. Do a search on the web for specific packages, or go to for specific information about how this might alter the way we communicate.

I have used VocalTec's Internet Phone for a number of years now. As the software has developed I have found it has become increasingly easy to use and the sound quality has become increasingly better. Internet Phone allows you to call other people who have the same software on their computer. Once connected, you use a microphone and speakers to talk to one another, essentially for the cost of your Internet connection.

Internet Phone was available for both PCs and Macs. The key difference is that PC users can connect to gateways in different countries and then dial phone numbers in that country and talk to people who only have normal telephones. Using this system allows users to talk to people using a normal telephone in the UK for less than 20c per minute - not as good as a PC to PC call but still far better than calling via Telstra!

Because most of the call is transmitted across the Internet rather than dedicated telephone lines the cost is considerably less than a conventional telephone call. On the down side, sound quality still isn't.quite as good as a normal telephone. Slight delays in transmission bring to mind ship to shore telephone calls which are transmitted via radio, and there is still the occasional bug which will cause computers to crash.

Most of the Internet telephony packages only allow one-to-one conversations, but a number have developed ways to carry out multiple person conversations. Internet Phone users can drop in on the Atrium and participate in multiple person conversations, but it isn't particularly private.

Many of the "calling-card" phone services that allow you to use a regular telephone to make long distance calls but charge the call to the account you hold with the "calling card" company use Voice Over IP technology. This is why you see offers that list prices of only 7 cents per minute to the UK when the main carriers are still charging as much as 80 cents per minute!


Developed originally by Cornell University, CU-SeeMe allows for up to eight people to talk to one another, and to see one another as well. The program works well but can take a while to set up properly. It is available for both Macs and PCs. See the Using CU-SeeMe article I wrote earlier about using this software.

Net Meeting.

Microsoft's NetMeeting program is in many respects similar to CU-SeeMe. It allows for text-based chat and has a shared whiteboard, and also allows for one-to-one voice and video communication. The really clever part of NetMeeting is that users can also share applications across the Internet. I have used as a form of help desk, where I can actually show someone how to use a piece of software or to perform a particular task. Because NetMeeting can "share" the application, the software doesn't even need to be installed on the other person's computer. Unfortunately, this only works really well across fast networks, and even a 33.6K modem is really too slow for this feature to be of much use.


Parachat is a Java-based chat facility which can be included in a web page. This means that you can host a live chat page in your website. This site can be password protected in order to restrict access if you wish.

There can be problems with using Parachat through, particularly for users with older machines, as a number of computers crash when they encounter Java. Visit the Parachat homepage ( for more information about how to set one up for your site.

Finally, I suggest that you start by exploring a few of these systems yourself for a while. Take some time to look at the benefits and disadvantages of using a particular program before committing your association to using it. You might even have some fun while doing your "research".