The early experiences of school boards that have chosen to broadcast their meetings over the internet–known as “webcasting”–show potential benefits but significant obstacles, especially in terms of effort and expenditures.

Here are some observations drawn from interviews with members of school boards that are experimenting with online meetings:

o Access. Webcasting offers the potential to draw in attendees who are unable or unwilling to venture out in the evening to attend a board meeting. For time-strapped parents, the online option is very attractive.

o Anytime, anywhere viewing. Parents or teachers who want to find out what happened at a meeting–but who are busy during the actual event–can watch it later, as meetings can be archived easily. Archives also provide an exact record of what was said at the meeting.

o Early interest, hard to sustain. One rural school district reported record “attendance” for its first online meeting and was thrilled with input received during and after the meeting through eMail. However, a study of the data indicated that many viewers didn’t stay online for the entire meeting, which suggests the novelty factor may be stronger than a sustained interest.

o Technology isn’t perfect. Viewing a broadcast is easy using RealPlayer, a free downloadable program. However, RealPlayer uses a great deal of bandwidth, and the broadcaster’s computer network can become overwhelmed if a large audience is trying to watch online. When this occurs, the video may become a series of pictures, instead of a video. As with most aspects of technology, this will continue to improve over time.

o Cost. While viewing is free, creating the webcast can be costly. Broadcasting a single board meeting can cost several thousand dollars. The necessary audio-video equipment costs about $5,000 to $10,000–or more for top-of-the-line gear. Internet sites to which the video can be uploaded charge month fees, and the companies that actually shoot the videos and upload them to the web also charge for their services. Though rates vary widely, it is not unusual for the web service to cost $2,500 per month and the filming another $1,000 per board meeting.

o Staff capabilities. The alternative to hiring a webcasting firm is performing the task in-house, and few school districts have people with these skills. Some districts have been able to prevail upon local businesses to donate the services of their technical staff for a test broadcast, but it’s not likely these companies will commit to the donation long-term.

o Student input. Filming board meetings is a great way to get students involved in both the technology of webcasting and the substance of the meetings.

o Brave new world. As with any other aspect of the web, attention must be paid to people’s privacy concerns. A formal, written privacy policy is essential.

o No substitute for human contact. Webcasting experts note it’s easy to assume that webcasts are the equivalent of in-person interaction. They are not. It’s important for school boards to make sure they are not acting in isolation, nor perceived as such.

o Uneven access. Some people lack internet access. Boards must continue to offer these people traditional opportunities to find out about and attend board meetings.