Conferences are a vital part of research and scholarly work, with paper presentations and chats over coffee being some of the ways academics exchange information with one another at these events.
As the world has now gone online due to COVID-19, conferences have gone online with it.
But that doesn’t mean important networking opportunities are lost through virtual conferences, says Norm Young, Data Architect with Brock University’s Information Technology Services.
“Even though it seems like it’s a one-sided experience where you’re just watching your computer, you can still make real connections if the conference is set up in the right way,” says Young. “Most of the virtual conferences that I’ve gone to that have been successful also have a tea and coffee room or a virtual bar. When the conference is done, people go to this area and mix and mingle with their webcams on.”
Organizing an online research conference or large meeting may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be if organizers use the tools and expertise available to the Brock community.
When organizing a gathering, Young recommends using Lifesize or Office 365’s Live Events, a video and discussion system that can be accessed mainly through Microsoft Teams, one of Brock’s online communications technologies.
Live Events is similar to a broadcast in which a ‘producer’ moderates questions and answers when conference participants type messages in a chat window. The producer can also manage visuals such as PowerPoints as presenters deliver their talks.
Using a Microsoft Teams team, it’s also possible to create tabs on the screen that contain background information, links and other materials when clicked.
To recreate the concurrent breakout sessions that take place in a live conference, organizers can set up channels within Microsoft Teams where people interested in a particular topic can join in the presentation and discussions. Young recommends that a sort of ‘table of contents’ be set up on the main page with links to the various sessions that people can click to join.
Associate Vice-Provost, Teaching and Learning Madelyn Law and graduate student Julie Finnigan successfully co-organized and hosted the I-Equip Virtual Health System Improvement Conference held on March 14, two days after COVID-19 social distancing measures came into effect.
As a conference moderator, Finnigan fielded questions from an audience of 100 people and ensured that discussions flowed smoothly by prompting the speakers.
The in-person conference was supposed to have a session in which participants would walk around and read the research posters on display.
“Instead of having a poster session, we uploaded all the posters in pdf form onto the I-Equip website,” says Law. “What we did to engage participants is have them look at the posters the day before the event and vote on their favourite one. At the end of the virtual conference, the person who won the poster prize was announced and we mailed them the prize.”
Law makes several other recommendations on organizing and hosting a research conference, including:
- If you’re showing a YouTube or other video found on the internet, download it onto your computer and upload it into the presentation rather than streaming it during the presentation to avoid technical glitches.
- Videos should be turned off and all participants muted except for those people presenting, asking a question, or answering a question, as cameras and background noise can be distracting.
- Brock has Microsoft Teams, which is “a great place to host an event.”
For technological support with hosting a virtual conference, contact the IT Help Desk. Young says organizers should allow for sufficient lead-up time.
Sonya Forsey, Manager of Brock’s Conference and Event Services, says she and her colleagues are looking at ways to support virtual conferencing. The team can currently assist with online registration services.
She gives additional tips on how to prepare for an online conference:
- Keep sessions short and allow for breaks in between sessions; a full-day conference online can lead to fatigue.
- If you’re running a panel, test it out ahead of time to ensure you have IT glitches figured out in advance.
- Ensure that the bandwidth is enough to support the number of people participating in the event.