Team meeting on a laptop screen

How to run a virtual Conference - Reflections from the 2020 Learning & Teaching Conference

Catherine Lillie, Teaching Enhancement Advisor and Tom Tomlinson, Teaching Enhancement Officer, Teaching Excellence Academy

The Learning and Teaching Conference is a staple in the Teaching Excellence Academy’s professional development diary. The conference provides a platform to share good practice and celebrate our learning community at the University of Hull. This year the conference was to be offered to an international audience for the first time which required some new thinking, but then in the context of the global pandemic the decision was made to deliver the conference virtually, which led to one huge question… what is the best way to deliver a learning and teaching conference online? In this post, we will unpack our process and highlight some of the successes and lessons learned from running an online conference for the first time.

We have broken down the key components of an online conference below;

  1. Logistics - The tech setup
  2. Content - Preparing speakers for a virtual conference
  3. Agenda - Structuring a virtual event
  4. Engagement - Creating real-time interaction online
  5. Tips - Running an online conference.

Logistics - The tech setup

This step created a lot of debate within the Academy. We wanted to make the sessions as accessible as possible for staff inside and outside the University of Hull so we started by defining our requirements:

  • Attendees need to be able to join sessions with minimum friction.
  • Non University of Hull colleagues need to be able to access the conference space.
  • Sessions need moderation.
  • Conference presenters need to be able to share rich media (slides, video and audio).
  • Participants need the ability to interact with the speakers and their fellow attendees.

With our essential requirements agreed, we reviewed our available platforms to see which ones could deliver to our specification. Always in our minds was making the conference experience easy for all involved- attendees, presenters and ourselves. A slight niggle at the time was that an effective online conferencing platform (MS Teams) was on the horizon at the University but was not yet available. However a platform that the university recommends for webinars and large virtual teaching sessions is Big Blue Button on our VLE Canvas which whilst not designed for large online conferences, did have the core functionality we needed and many colleagues were already familiar with it. So this, coupled with a Conference Canvas site formed the hub of the conference.

From our experience, one key thing that worked exceedingly well was having one virtual conference space. Whilst this meant that concurrent sessions couldn’t be offered, it had the advantage of having only one link to disseminate and one virtual conference space so attendees and presenters knew where they needed to be. It also meant we had a good number of participants (an average 66) at each session.

Content - Preparing speakers for a virtual conference

Good content is the backbone of every conference. Fortunately all of the presentation sessions had already been accepted by the Academy Conference Committee so we knew we had a set of high quality academic presentations to share. There was a mix of sessions from within and outside the University, including our Partner Colleges and student speakers which represented our theme of learning community.

After initial communication was sent to the speakers confirming the conference would now be delivered online, the Academy made the decision to allocate a significant amount of time with each presenter in preparation for the conference. This time was spent exploring the affordances and constraints of delivering their content in an online forum. For example, one of the presenters planned to survey the attendees at the start of the session which we were able to replicate online using polling software, and other presenters had extremely large videos or wanted to integrate resources directly into their presentations which needed to be considered. Each presenter was also given the opportunity to explore delivery options including a choice of two formats: live presentations and pre-recorded video presentations. These meetings helped presenters to become familiar with the new conference format and also gave them the confidence to explore alternatives that may not have been possible in the traditional format. Additionally, all speakers, session Chairs and facilitators were invited to a practice session with the Conference team a few days before the start of the Conference so that any final questions or concerns could be dealt with. Whilst the Conference wasn’t free of all technical glitches, these steps did help everyone to feel more prepared.

Agenda - Structuring a virtual event

The Conference took place over three days and the sessions for each day were themed. There were a mix of keynotes, workshops, discussion paper and Pecha Kucha sessions all of which provided attendees with opportunities to ask questions. Sessions were scheduled between 10.00 and 16.00 with regular break points so that attendees could get a screen break and attend to domestic or professional distractions! This seemed to work for attendees- comments in the evaluation survey indicate that a number of attendees liked the accessibility of the online format which allowed them to blend their conference attendance with other activities.

In previous conferences, resources, session slides and videos were made available after the event and this was something we wanted to maintain. To do this, and to help the attendees find their way around the conference sessions, a Canvas course was created to host all the conference information, including the programme which contained links to the abstracts. One of the advantages of this was that sessions could be clearly identified and additional session resources could be provided in the same space, including the session recordings which were uploaded after the Conference had concluded. This meant fewer clicks for attendees and a manageable space for the organisers.

Engagement - Creating real-time interaction online

After taking care of the technicalities and the structure, now comes the most difficult part - creating interaction. Feedback from previous face-to-face Conferences showed that networking and discussion with colleagues was one of the things attendees valued most, so it was important to consider ways to replicate this online. Each presentation session had a Chair to introduce the speakers and the topic and to welcome attendees to the session- using their names as much as possible to help attendees feel included. Session attendees could post their questions in the comments and if their question was not addressed the Chair could circle back and highlight key points or questions at the end of the presentation. This was particularly useful for sessions with a large number of attendees.

Some speakers also used live polls within Big Blue Button to survey attendees during their session and all sessions had time allocated for Q & A. Participants were also encouraged to turn on their web cams and microphones to ask their questions directly to the presenters- whilst this was favourable, most questions and comments appeared in the live chat and there was often a lively conversation running in the chat box, which received a number of positive comments in the Conference evaluation.

Quote from evaluation survey: “I love how lively and engaging the chat box was throughout the conference, and how it functioned both as a networking tool for fostering new and developing partnerships, as well as a way of showing support and appreciation of the speakers and furthering the conversations that took place during sessions.”

Many conference participants attended multiple sessions so by the end of the three days attendees had got to know each other and conversations flowed more freely. Big Blue Button does have a break out room feature which was used in a couple of sessions but it can be difficult to administer in a live session. In future we would also explore having virtual spaces for specific special interest themes or for social activities - feedback from attendees showed that this would have been useful. 

Tips - Running an online conference

  • Create a dedicated online space for the conference and allow speakers and facilitators to see and practice in the virtual space as early as possible.
  • Keep it simple i.e. don’t offer concurrent sessions; have everything in one place so attendees are not searching for links.
  • Create a single, direct point of contact for technical questions in the run-up and during the Conference.
  • Have a dedicated Facilitator and Chair for each session – one to deal with any glitches, the other to keep the session to time, introduce the session and field questions. This allows the speaker to focus solely on their presentation.
  • Collect video samples before recording: Ask each speaker to share a short video sample e.g. a trailer for their session before recording their full presentation. These can be used to check that the setup and sound are correct and also to promote the session.
  • For both pre-recorded and live presentations ask speakers if they can use an external microphone, a high-quality external camera, and a great source of light.
  • Share tips for presenting on camera: Provide concrete pointers on how to be engaging on camera. For example looking straight at the camera will create a connection with participants- looking down at the notes will have the opposite effect.
  • Use two devices for live presentations with slides: Instead of looking in the corner of their screen, ask speakers to view their slides on a mobile or tablet placed right above their laptop webcam. They’ll see the slides while connecting with the audience.
  • Edit videos for consistency: Edit and adjust the recorded sessions to unify the videos. Add an intro, outro and put in slides or animations to highlight the key points. To make the presentations look consistent, ask speakers to use a plain, light-coloured background.
Image courtesy of Chris Montgomery.

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