Running an online conference

Notes from the SoLAR Webinar Running an Online Conference

The convenors Vitomir Kovanovic and Maren Scheffel described their experience of turning a large (500 person) conference into an online conference at short notice due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They observed that most online conferences have tended to be run with people experienced with online platforms, who are often organisers of online events themselves, with a focus on the novelty, conducted over a single day. In contrast their conference was much longer and involved people who were opting in, couldn’t be assumed to have this experience and were scattered throughout the world. They had to make a number of changes to the structure of it to adapt it online:

  1. To make this manageable they cancelled the workshop sessions, inviting facilitators to run these independently as a ‘fringe’ associated with the event. The doctoral group organised a one day event independently of the conference. I thought this was an interesting sign of how controls can be loosened by organisers in online events (not least of all because there’s not the same duty of care?) in order to make organise a more collaborative and networked exercise.
  2. They asked poster presenters to produce a PDF and a video in lieu of their poster which could be shared online.
  3. They lengthened the conference day in order to ensure that as many time zones as possible were represented within the working day of the event. This still excluded people but the videos were uploaded immediately so that people who were sleeping during the event could have immediate access to it on the next day.
  4. They harmonised presentation lengths to make management easier, fixing all talks and breaks within thirty minute slots.
  5. The timings became much more important in this format which meant that if someone no shows it’s not possible to just move on, as people will be tuning in at specific times for specific papers. People were assigned times for their talks
  6. A few people wanted to have pre-recorded talks due to fear of the quality of communication, even though they remained for the Q&A with the audience. They make the interesting observation that no one could tell the difference, unless they happened to be present at the start of the session when the video was played.
  7. They tried to give a structure to the days by opening and closing with a keynote, as a means to ensure what I’ve tended to think of as a ‘happening’.

They used three platforms for the conference. WordPress for the conference site, Slack for a back channel between organisers and Zoom for the sessions themselves. They had two support people for each Zoom room, with the same settings for each one. Presenters were invited via e-mail link as ‘panelists’ and asked to arrive 15-30 minutes early to check AV. Attendees were muted on arrival and denied screen sharing, with the invite to raise their hand if they wanted to ask something, entering via a protected link on the WordPress site. Chairs were invited as panelists via an e-mail link, tasked with coordinating the discussion.

It was interesting to hear how much of the activity was about chasing up participants. Ensuring speakers were there on time, getting their equipment working, granting the permissions to the right accounts etc. This included an ‘info board’ for emergency updates if something goes wrong and there was a need to quickly communicate updates. They managed users using a WordPress plug in to facilitate user based discussion, with a plug in that automatically parsed the csv file of conference registrants and used this to create accounts.

For social interaction there were two Zoom rooms Coffee Machine and Bench in the Sun. In specific break slots, people were invited to come to a particular room and bring a coffee cup with them, sun glasses or a funny hat for different breaks. There was also a session when people were invited to bring something typical for their country of origin. These were intended to encourage interaction within the rooms and alert people to the possibility of informal interaction using them.