Four Planning Tips for Hosting Remote Guest Speakers

Don't worry, it doesn't take this many people to help you connect with a remote guest speaker!

Don’t worry, it doesn’t take this many people to help you connect with a remote guest speaker! Image “Telephone Operators” (c. 1914-1917) courtesy of the Library of Congress.

It seems that everyone I talk to at William & Mary has amazing personal connections. Each faculty member seems to have at least one, but usually many, superstar advisors or academic colleagues that they keep in touch with. Students have parents and family members working in all sorts of interesting and influential positions. We are also very fortunate to have W&M alumni all over the world with unique insights in business, government, and culture.

The “Other” Distance Learning

For several years now I have been helping faculty take advantage of the increasingly easy to use and reliable teleconferencing technologies available to enhance their courses and brown bag events. Unlike the use of some of the same technologies to allow the exporting of your classroom to geographically or temporally scattered students — a feat that can require significant institutional investments and often significant course redesign — having guest speakers is almost always free and can be nearly as unobtrusive to your classroom as having a physical guest speaker come by and give a talk.

While there’s still some work required to set up for a remote presenter, it can be achieved with a lot less time than you would typically need for a trip to the airport and/or hotel to pick up your guest speaker, dinner the night before or lunch after the class, and the usual paperwork. Better yet, in almost every case the cost to you should be approximately nothing. Obviously that last part is only true since you can piggyback a “free ride” on the investments already made by the College in the required classrooms, projectors, high-bandwidth network, software solutions, etc.

Getting Started with Remote Guest Speakers

One of the strengths of integrating remote presenters is that the technology has gotten to a point where you can be very flexible in how, where, and why you use it as part of your course or event. This unfortunately means that for the purposes of this blog there are far too many permutations of software, types of interaction and venues to cover here. However, there are certainly some general, as well as quick and easy experience-based tips and suggestions, that we can pass along.

In most cases the best approach is to contact your academic technologist as soon as you start to consider bringing in a remote speaker to see if there might be any hidden gotchas in what you are planning to achieve. A short list of things to consider before contacting us include:

1. Interaction

What type of interaction do you want to have among your guest speaker, yourself, and your audience? Will your guest only be speaking to the audience, or will they also be using other visual supports (PowerPoint, video, graphs, images, etc.)? The answer to these questions will determine what software and hardware will provide the functionality you need and whether your class/event can be conducted in your normal classroom or if an alternative venue will be preferable.

2. Audience Size

How many people will be in the audience? Our dedicated videoconference rooms on campus can more easily support high-interaction sessions (more fluid two-way conversations between the speaker/s and audience), but are limited to approximately 20 to 25 attendants.

3. Far-End Speaker Support

Will your guest speaker have technical support and/or teleconferencing resources at their location or are they “on their own?” Will your speaker be working from locations with limited network and other computing resources? In some cases, due to limitations at the “far-end” you may need to adjust your expectations as to what can be achieved.

In general, all of the arrangements that might be needed to set up for a remote speaker can achieved in less than two weeks. However, since things can move more slowly in situations without support, it is very important to get in touch with your academic technologist earlier if your guest speaker has either no support at her or his end, and/or if they will be presenting from a location with limited network access (meaning not only slow network access but also working through a tightly secured network – for example, many Federal agencies have such security measures in place).

4. General Information

For planning and preparation purposes, as well as if something goes wrong during the actual presentation, you’ll want to have this information on hand:

  • Your speaker’s telephone numbers (both landline and cell), as well as their email address(s).
  • Your speaker’s tech support person’s name, email address, and telephone numbers.
  • If you plan on using a tool such as Skype or Google Hangout for the event, make sure you have each other’s account names. In these cases make sure you have added each other as contacts, “friends,” or whatever is required to make a call to each other. You may already use these tools to stay in touch with each other, in which case it should not be an issue to do so from W&M’s network. However, if you have not contacted each other using them in the past, make a few test calls so there are no surprises on the big day.

We’re looking forward to hearing from you about the remote guest speakers you’re hoping to bring to your classroom and events!

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.


  1. Dave Shantz says:

    Excellent points, and well written Pablo!

    I hope faculty know they’re also welcome to contact Classroom Support for help with their remote Guest speakers; either in their classrooms or our VC facilities. 1-3011 or