Making online events more effective

Remember to maintain unblinking eye-contact

If you’ve got to this point without thinking about this question, then you’re either someone who’s had no need to be online in the past year, or just a very unreflective person.

In either case, I envy you.

As we roll around to a full 12 months of All This, I find myself spending as much time wondering how an online event could be working better as I do engaging with the nominal point of said event.

This isn’t about the – scarcely believable that we still have it happen – “you’re on mute” or the – only slightly less credible – “can you see my slides?”, fun though those things are, but about the structure of events in the broader sense.

Moving online has given us a great opportunity to reimagine how we do an important part of our work as academics. Personally, I’ve loved being able to join groups that would have been essentially impossible to talk with if we’d had to be in the same place, as well as the possibility of levelling-up access to debate, rather than just having to go with the tedious “it’s more a monologue than a question” from the usual suspect in the audience.

But it might not be the most controversial position to hold that this could all be working better.

In particular, the notion of “let’s just move it online” seems too often to mean “let’s just do exactly what we’d have done in-person, online”, rather than “let’s try making the most of the opportunities that moving online offers.”

To take the most obvious example, we still find ourselves sitting through lots of transmission, rather than getting to use the space for debate and dialogue. Even as we’ve all spent ages moving our lectures into pre-recordings, just to avoid doing that to our students.

As ever, I think this comes back to the same kinds of issues that we talk about so often on this site: are we being clear about what an event is for, and are we structuring it so that we have the best chance of hitting that objective?

I’m not going to offer a solution to this one, for the simple reason that I don’t think there is a single solution, just a need for constant reflection and discussion among organisers to check if this is doing what it needs to do.

That must necessarily be an occasion-specific process, even if it does work from a standard set of principles. As with our teaching, it’s possible (likely, even) that there are multiple ways to hit our goals, and that variety is part of our response (since there’s a limit to how much engagement you’re going to get from someone who’s sitting through many hours of video calls every day).

But maybe the first step is something like the one I’m making: constructive critique.

When I’m sat in something that’s not working so well, I try to think if I am clear (as a participant) about what the objectives of the session are, and then I try to think if I could have devised something that might work better.

Importantly, that’s not always possible, so we have to consider whether it’s a matter of the least-worst option.

I also try to think about what elements work and why: most obviously, I try to think about the extent to which individuals’ personalities and actions cover a lot of the ground, as opposed to more structural elements, because the latter are going to be much more transferable.

And I try to do that while still paying attention to what’s happening in the event. Hopefully with my mic muted.