Tips on how to plan a virtual academic conference

Poster sessions, networking and holding panels across time zones are all possible online, say Celia Popovic and Erika Kustra

April 7, 2020
Man and woman videoconferencing
Source: iStock

As the Covid-19 pandemic expands across the globe, the cancellation of academic conferences may not seem a top concern. But for those involved in organising or contributing to a conference it can be devastating to see their work wasted. In 2019 the Educational Developers’ Caucus in Canada changed the traditional face-to-face format of our annual conference and took it online.

Unlike those who are now trying to move a conference midway through planning, we decided to go online from the outset. While that gave us an advantage, we feel it is possible to shorten the planning time for an online conference. Without the need to book rooms and organise accommodation, it is possible to organise an event with some speed. The advice below from lessons we learned may be of help to those of you considering running institutional conferences this summer – it may not be necessary to ditch your plan completely.

Get your timing right. We wanted to ensure that all Canadian institutions could take part during normal office hours. Consequently, we changed the format from the usual two-day in-person schedule to four days. For some this meant that the conference took place in the morning, for others in the afternoon. Holding the conference over a limited time period does allow for momentum and focus, but the main reason they are structured this way is to meet the needs of travellers, who have limited time away from base. If run online, a “conference” could be redefined. Sessions could be held for the same hour or two on a given day over several weeks or months, for example.

Keep it simple and familiar. If this is an institutional conference use the virtual learning environment or teleconferencing system on offer. We involved several institutions, so we elected to use Big Blue Button (BBB) as our platform. This did not require users to download software and BBB were able to provide technical support including training for presenters in advance of the conference.

Networking and serendipitous conversations are the most often cited advantages of conferences. We encouraged institutions to hold in-person gatherings during the event. Several institutions welcomed colleagues from their neighbourhood for lively discussions and meetings. In a time of pandemic, consider creating online groups that meet before, during and after the conference, to allow for more conversations focused on local issues.

Posters, likewise, are a common feature of in-person conferences not easily replicated online. Our solution to this was the Showcase – a virtual place where participants were able to share resources in a variety of formats such as websites, videos and podcasts. There were also drop-in synchronous sessions at the same time every day. The Showcase remains available as a resource more than a year after the conference takes place.

Keynote addresses and parallel sessions are relatively easy to schedule. Parallel sessions enabled us to accommodate a larger number of presenters than if we had held them concurrently, but this does restrict access. If time is no longer a constraint, they can be spread out. Each of our sessions had a co-presenter in addition to the technical support from our team. When there are two people one can focus on the comments in the chat feed, and respond to the technical person if there are problems.

A virtual room host attended each session who was able to deal with technical issues.  While most of the sessions ran smoothly it is fair to say there were some glitches that we would hope to avoid in a future online conference, but it is not possible to guarantee a problem-free experience. All presenters and virtual room hosts were required to take part in training sessions which were offered at multiple times. Presenters and participants were provided with online guides.

Give advance access to the platform. We provided practice rooms so presenters and participants could try out the platform in advance. We included welcome videos from the executive, and an online land acknowledgement to which people could contribute.

Stay in touch during and after the conference. We contacted participants every morning with a welcome, update and easy, clickable links so they could connect. Since the entire conference is online it is easy to provide access to resources after the event.

It’s not a guaranteed cheap option. Yes, costs are significantly reduced from a full in-person conference, but they are not necessarily eliminated. The platform may incur a charge, for example, and keynote speakers may expect an honorarium.

As a final thought, just try to remember that some people hate the online experience no matter what you do.

Celia Popovic is an associate professor in the Faculty of Education at York University Toronto and Erika Kustra is director of the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the University of Windsor.

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