2020 brought us all online in ways we would never would have imagined at the beginning of the year. For our team, this included taking our 2020 conference online. Although all of our team members have run plenty of in-person conferences this was a new experience. I (Kate Holmes) had been quite proud about our commitment to livestreaming, but going completely online was a bit of a gear shift. Having taken the lead on the conference, I thought it might be helpful to share our thoughts on how our approach worked.
Going online meant a complete rethink of the programme due to the dangers of screen fatigue. This meant we had to schedule fewer, shorter sessions in a day; the knock on being that we had to ask people to volunteer to defer to 2021, when we hope to run an in-person event (gods allowing!) Otherwise, it would have been a full week of papers.
Our next issue was time zones. Those who chose to lead the way by presenting in 2020 did not fit neatly into one time zone and meant we were working from something like -9 GMT to +11 GMT. As we were asking people to join us from their homes, this meant we had to be sensitive to that and schedule panels according to linking themes and time zones. This led us to two blocks of time, one to suit North America and one to suit Asia and Australia (as much as possible), with the opportunity for those blocks to catch up later. Take a look at what this meant for the eventual programme.
These are the tools we used to adminster it at no cost beyond our time:
– Eventbrite for registration and sending out joining instructions.
– Zoom meetings rather than webinars were used so that people could ask questions on camera to speakers. (We also asked people to turn on cameras at the start of each session to try and give speakers the sense of a listening public. Although, we set everyone to enter spaces on mute to try and minimise echo etc). Zoom also permits recording sessions that can be shared as links with passcodes (although this is fiddly) that can be set to expire after 30 days. It also allowed us to put people easily into break out rooms for the 20 minute networking sessions that followed each panel.
– YouTube was used where video was a priority. I uploaded videos as unlisted and shared them in the chat as playback in Zoom can be a bit dodgy.
– Google Docs was used as a hub for people to pick up links (set to view only) such as recordings and, in a separate file, to allow those watching to contribute to the themes and connections they saw emerging if they were watching back later. We wanted people to feel engaged and included whenever they were watching, as well as helping us out!
– Flipgrid was where individuals could upload short video introductions to a video wall. This was to fulfil a couple of purposes related to not physically sharing space. This included trying to facilitate conversation in the networking sessions, allow people to share contact details which we can’t due to GDPR (made more significant by the number of delegates) and to make people feel like they had visibility at the conference regardless of whether they were speaking or not.
– Microsoft Forms – for gathering people’s thoughts about how the conference went and any standout things they wanted to share. This also allowed us to request permission to add people to our project mailing list and to try and learn how we can improve administering an online conference. I’ll be honest here, use Google Forms if you can. Because we were gathering personal data and the University of Exeter considers Microsoft the best security-wise, I went for them. But, a few users did encounter a log in page when they shouldn’t have. (This is a known Microsoft issue which I only found out when one person hit the log in page).
– Going online is a great way to encourage people to attend your event if you can make the conference free. Our first 2019 in-person conference had around 40 delegates and a good number of individual live-streamed panel views with round 15-20 people online (you only get YouTube data per panel, so that’s a guesstimate). Going online in 2020 pushed us over 200 registrations and we ranged from 40 to 60 participants live on Zoom which felt like a good number of contributors.
– Prepping an online conference took a long time and a lot of careful logical thinking. I think much of this is because it wasn’t a known beast in the same way as an in-person event. Make sure you share around roles and responsibilities. I found it helpful to create a list that outlined exactly who was meant to be doing what when. I saw this list as a bit of a cue list for everyone. However, you will have to adapt too. For instance, I discovered that I had to take back one role on the day because of how privileges differ between Hosts and Co-Hosts in Zoom. Testing had sorted most of these out, but not all…
Communication & Thinking Ahead:
– The University of Exeter’s institutional Zoom account requires a higher than average security level to access it and prevent Zoom bombing. For that reason, we tried a few different ways of explaining how to access sessions and settled on a step by step process. Unlike other meetings we hosted this seemed to do the trick and we didn’t have anyone let us know they struggled to get in.
– Have standard responses ready for issues you can anticipate with links to further support available. If you’re monitoring your email, twitter and listening to sessions this can take a little pressure off.
– One of our team encountered problems receiving Eventbrite emails so we included information on our website and Twitter about how to work around this and to flag when communications had gone out.
– Schedule tweets and Eventbrite emails so you don’t have to think about them in the moment and review them on the morning of the conference to check it reflects any adjustments to the programme.
– Ask for Twitter handles when you invite abstracts so that you can include @mentions in your pre-scheduled panel tweets.
– We asked people to send through their presentations in advance so they could preserve bandwidth by turning off their camera to let one of the team run their presentation on their behalf.
– I also offered each speaker the opportunity of a test call so that they were clear on how to share their screen in Zoom. Presenting online can be nerve-wracking, so this was about ensuring smooth running sessions and giving people confidence in tech.
– Uploading a video of the presentation to YouTube can also be an additional back-up if a participant is concerned about their internet, such as we had from one person located in China. I’ve heard of other conferences asking this from all participants, but we felt it was probably unnecessary and didn’t need to deploy any of these solutions in the end as everyone’s internet cooperated. (Peace of mind is great though!)
– Communicate clearly with your speakers, chairs and delegates thinking about what they need to know with clear emboldended deadlines. Don’t be afraid to remind, speakers in particular, about what you need with bullet pointed emails. Send chairs, speakers and your team a meeting request with joining instructions so they can start from their calender. Send tailored reminder emails with joining instructions to everyone on the morning of the conference so they can quickly access sessions.
– Although this will be less relevant as we all get a bit more au fait with conferences online, let your chairs know any norms you wish them to promote. We did not chair any sessions ourselves because of the various roles we took on and made sure they were not presenting in order to take the pressure off speakers working in this less familiar format.
Things I didn’t realise you could do:
– You can link Zoom to Eventbrite so that Eventbrite can automatically let people in. However, you can only set that up if you have the event as one session. We were working with two chunks of time so set up two… Letting people in is something that co-hosts can do, so don’t be afraid to hand that task off if you need to.
– If you include all of your panels as one long session, you will have to wait until the session has ended until your Zoom recordings become accessible.
Doing Things Better:
Although our questionnaire revealed that the break out rooms were really appreciated, this was the main thing people thought could have worked better and that I’m going to think about for the next online conference I plan. I wasn’t that familiar with Zoom break out rooms and chose to go for random allocation. Some people would have preferred more autonomy over where to go, perhaps with speakers allocated to separate rooms so that they could ask questions once the panel was done. Another suggestion was for some discussion points if conversation took a while to get going (something we’d thought about but discarded as being a bit too teachy!)
Setting the Tone
A couple of days before the conference, I initially thought the FlipGrid was a bit of a waste of time as few people contributed to that and to our crowdsourcing themes and connections google doc. However, there is something in both these things that I would want to preserve and develop: it let our conference-goers know that we were interested in them; it set the tone for an event where people knew we wanted them to be active and engaged audience goers. Something that seems particularly fitting bearing in mind the conference’s focus on embodied spectatorship…