Conferencing online

Only the one person struggling to wave with both hands then…

Lots and lots to talk about off the back of EuroTLC last week, so I’m going to chunk it up over the coming weeks. But the starting point has to be some reflecting on whether and how you can have a conference online.

As a top line, I think our event went well. The feedback has been positive; we’ve reached a wider audience than with the physical events beforehand; we had no major technology issues; and I’ve come away with as much to think about (and act on) as before.

But it’s still a different thing to what it was.

Naturally, being good pedagogues, we had thought about that a lot beforehand, and tried a number of things to make it work as well as it could.

  1. We encouraged presenters to make their sessions as interactive as possible, parking lectures or materials into cloud folders ahead of time where possible. That meant a wide variety of things going on during sessions, from polls to break-out discussions, to collaborative documents and more. Even our plenary sessions kept ‘opening thoughts’ to a minimum, in order to be driven much more by audience contributions and discussion: to look at the chats in those sessions really underlines how much that brought out.
  2. We kept all sessions short: nothing more than an hour, with at least 15 minute breaks in-between
  3. As well as the programme of sessions, we also had parallel activities running alongside. On one side, there was a ‘cafe’ where you could drop in at any time to chat (or ask to be put into a break-out room for a bit more privacy): that got some traffic, but mostly between sessions. On the other, we hosted a Padlet site for people to share materials and ideas: as you can see, we got lots of activity there.
  4. Part of that is that we tried to join elements up. The Padlet page got used in our opening session, where we did a speed-dating format to allow people a chance to talk to others. That early introduction also broke the ice for later use. That said, no one went for the bingo activity, but that’s hardly the biggest loss.
  5. Finally, we made a lot throughout the event of the willingness to experiment. This is not a typical group of academics, in that there were self-selecting and generally very comfortable around the technology (I saw a couple of instances of audience members helping to resolve issues as we went).

Apart from that last point, all of this is under your control and is pretty transferable. But what of the challenges?

  1. The most obvious issue is keeping focus. Online is much more draining than face-to-face. That’s because there is only really ‘on’ or ‘off’: there’s isn’t a back of the room in a Zoom call. Sure, you would let people keep their video/audio off (and to judge by our event, some people had just logged on without then taking any part), but then it’s very hard to get back into the conversation/activity. I certainly had to abandon any plans to live-tweet during the event and even keeping notes was a struggle.
  2. At least as big a problem is the lack of spontaneity. Online spaces are relatively inflexible, it’s really hard to pick up cues from others about queries or confusions and trying to change things around is time-consuming. If you have the luxury (as some reported having) of a chat monitor, then this can help with integrating that into the main conversation, but otherwise you find your attention divided between the two tracks (which takes you back to the previous point). Even the kinesthetics of making people move into different groups to talk is lost as it becomes simply a move to a new window in your browser.
  3. Different tech is good for different things. We talking about the relative merits of different platforms (Amanda might share her survey findings on this at some point), but generally it’s horses for courses: nothing is the best of everything, so you need to pick with care. Delegates did pick up on the dangers of asking students to master multiple platforms, but in this context the loss of time/energy to an inadequate platform translates very quickly into missed opportunities. Indeed, that’s why the bingo didn’t happen: it was my best effort on free tech, but it requires too many steps for anyone to bother.
  4. Finally, online just doesn’t have the soft spaces you get in person. All through the event, I kept seeing people I’d like to chat to or catch up with, but I never got the chance: partly that’s because I was chairing most of the time, but also it’s because there was no quick hello while walking into and out of rooms, or queuing for coffee (which was great this year, BTW). It’s a slightly silly thing for academics to go on about, but it is one of the most important functions of a conference: maintaining our community. This year, I’ve not come away with plans for publications or research projects (although possibly with something much bigger, to be discussed anon), just an uncertainty about when I might next see (in person) these people.

I think this is all stuff we know, but it’s good to put it all down in one place. And it was very pleasing to hear some many people say nice things about this blog: I did mean it when I said you should write for us.

And it prompts one more thought: the need to move away from seeing conferences as time-bound.

This came from a discussion with Heidi and Silviu, who did much more of the organisational load than me. Essentially, it’s the idea that events are accelerators of discussion and reflection, not the sole sites in which they occur. We noted that many of the participants were people we’ve been talking with for months now about the shift online and who we’ll continue to talk with.

If we can recognise that the event doesn’t have to do it all, but can be a moment for discussion and decision, then we can start to build a much richer conversation that provides mutual support and development and which is more resilient to whatever type of situation we might find ourselves confronting.

One to talk about some more as we go on, obviously.

One Reply to “Conferencing online”

  1. I thought the conference was really great. I was particularly impressed with the games panel–the presenters did a very short introduction to their games, then we actually played the games for a few minutes, and then they put up a poll with 4 discussion questions to allow the audience to indicate our interest in each question. They had slides prepared with answers to those questions. It was very interactive and lent itself well to the virtual format.

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