omNovia just announced "Presence Manager" as a new feature in their web conferencing software. This is yet another attempt by a vendor to answer the always-tricky question: "Are my attendees actually paying attention?"
I think (without any real certainty) that Citrix was the first to incorporate an attention monitor into a web collaboration product. But I have always been a bit cynical about trusting results from its "black box" algorithm that comes up with an artificial rating number for attentiveness. This is supposedly based on things such as use of chat, amount of time where the conferencing window has application focus, and number of interactions. At the end you get an integer that doesn't really mean anything and has no exposed basis for the calculation. Other vendors have implemented similar measurements.
One of my clients is a big professional association that offers continuing education credits for attendees at its webinars. To verify attendance and participation, they ask guest speakers to include many polls throughout their presentation. Sometimes these feel superficial and are obviously there only to do a spot-check on attendees. Having lots of polls that don't add value for audience members is a real turn-off, not to mention taking time away from additional content delivery.
omNovia's approach is more simplistic and brute force. When a webinar host elects to use it, the software automatically displays a big "Are you there?" message in a popup window on attendees' screens. Messages come up at random intervals and disappear if left unclicked. At the end of the session, you can get a report on a cumulative and per-user basis of clicks, giving an accurate and explicit insight into attentiveness and interaction with the webinar.
Hosts can customize various aspects of the tool: Size of the popup message, what text gets displayed, how often to do popups (within a range), and how long the window should remain visible to allow for a response.
It goes without saying that this is a much more intrusive approach to the problem than the passive monitors from other vendors. Attendees have their concentration on content interrupted randomly and repeatedly during a session. But for classroom and educational situations, I can see it being justified as a necessary evil in granting completion credit.
If you click through to the Presence Manager announcement page, you can see a short video of the feature in action. Tell me what you think in the comments section… Good idea, or too distracting?