Saturday, October 5, 2019

Organising a digital conference

Post-conference organisers' meeting (CC BY Markus Schneider)
If we are serious about limiting our carbon footprint in the education sector we have to develop formats for online conferences to at least partly replace the flora of on-site conferences. The technology is available but we have to overcome many preconceptions about online meetings and dare to experiment. Over the past months I have been part of a team from both the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU) arranging a national digital conference on teaching and learning in higher education with a focus on digitalisation. Finally last week, 27 September, the conference was held with a total of over 500 participants from all over the country and several from abroad. Most of the registered participants attended; some attended all the sessions whilst others chose the sessions that were most relevant for them. At most we had over 350 people simultaneously and nearly all sessions had at least 50 participants. The conference was a great success and the technology worked perfectly all the way. The most important fact was that we showed that a digital conference of this dignity can be organised and can include social events and the chance to network, just like an on-site conference. It was so much more than a string of streamed presentations. We wanted to create the feel of a conference with a reception area, social breaks, online lunch and plenty of interaction in the sessions including many small group discussions.

The main aim of the conference was for the authority to inform and stimulate discussion about current national initiatives in the field of quality in teaching and learning. Normally this type of activity would be held in Stockholm and this naturally limits participation of those who have furthest to travel or have limited budgets.A digital conference is therefore more inclusive and saves a considerable amount of money that would otherwise be spent on the conference venue and catering as well as all the flights, train travel and hotel nights. the participants came from almost all the higher education institutions in Sweden as well as representatives from other educational sectors such as schools, learning centres and adult education. We also had many representatives from other government authorities who were mostly interested in seeing how a virtual conference could be organised.

Conference structure and technical set-up
On the technical side the conference used the e-meeting tool Zoom which all Swedish universities have access to and is familiar to many of the participants. You can see the conference programme on the conference site (in Swedish, but use a translation tool and it should be understandable). We decided to use Zoom's webinar room for for the plenary sessions since it can handle large numbers of participants. Here the participants are unable to activate their microphones and webcams and can only communicate by chat. This keeps the interface "clean" and puts the focus on the speakers. It also eliminates the risk of an unmuted microphone creating background noise. However all plenary sessions featured polls in the tool Mentimeter or encouraged questions and reflections in the chat, both of which proved extremely popular.

For the parallel sessions we used Zoom's large group rooms and here the particpants could be seen and heard and this enable a much freer discussion. These sessions involved between 50 and 150 participants and many involved small group discussions in breakout groups of 4-6. this also worked well and enabled participants to meet new colleagues. We devoted considerable planning time to testing various options and even carried out a stress test to see if there were any limitations when a room had hundreds of participants. We also documented all sorts of rules and guidelines for all the speakers, moderators, chat moderators, hosts and technical support staff and in many cases we had alternative plans if anything went wrong. This meticulous planning was the foundation of the conference's success and some of my colleagues worked extremely hard to cover all eventualities.

Social activities
We aimed to make all the sessions as interactive as possible but decided to experiment a little by also arranging the sort of social opportunities that make on-site conferences so valuable. Before the conference started we offered a mingle meeting in our reception/helpdesk room. This room was manned all through the conference to answer questions or help people set up their audio and video but in the early morning it was a drop-in mingle. I hosted this and was amazed that more than 70 people logged in from around 08:00 am just to say hello and test things. We allowed all to use their webcams and microphones and it was nice to have some small talk before we all moved to the main webinar room for the opening plenary. At lunch we offered a wide selection of rooms where you could simply eat your lunch with random colleagues from around the country. However the most interesting lunchtime activities were the rooms that featured mindfulness, yoga and even a German conversation course. We weren't sure anyone would dare to participate in these but they were all well attended and received plenty of positive feedback.

Feedback and reflections
After the dust had settled, all the organising team had a euphoric after-work session (online of course!). The relief that everything had worked beyond our wildest dreams was almost tangible and we all agreed that this experience will lead the way towards many more such ventures. The feedback from the participants was overwhelmingly positive and I can't recall any serious issues at all. The most common themes in the feedback were:
  • Inclusion. Many participants wrote that if the conference had been held in Stockholm they would not have attended. This meant that the conference gathered a much wider cross-section of the education sector than a physical conference could have achieved. Many claimed that they felt more active and included in the discussion than at a more traditional conference. The atmosphere was relaxed and friendly.
  • Combining conference and work. Many appreciated that they could choose to attend certain sessions and still be able to do their regular tasks in between. It was also easy to drop into a session late without that awkward feeling you have when you walk into a room and make excuses.
  • Networking. Some felt that they had been able to met more people and discuss than at many regular conferences where you listen most of the time and eat lunch with colleagues.
  • Convenience. Even those who could easily have attended an on-site event appreciated the ability to participate without travel.
  • Participation. Some invited colleagues to sit in the same room with them and discuss the issues together. This meant that the conference reached many more participants than those who had registered and hopefully sparked interesting internal discussions. Some even participated on the move from a train or bus.
Finally, on a personal note this event confirmed many of the ideas I have written about in earlier posts about the potential of digital conferences and how we can also include social events and networking activities in an online space. I was part of a committed and creative team and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have learnt a lot from this and feel now that we have made an important breakthrough. We will still need on-site meetings in the future but we need to make them exceptions rather than the rule. Digital events are not the same experience but they can be equally if not more stimulating and enjoyable.

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