Organising virtual conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic

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This year, I was on the organising committee for the Early Career Alcohol Research Symposium (ECARS) and the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA) PhD Symposium. Both would initially take place in-person, but it quickly became clear that this was not possible this year. We thought it was important to try to organise online replacements, as conferences are great opportunities for early career researchers (ECR) and PhD students to present their work and network. In this blog, I will reflect on my experience organising and participating in these virtual conferences and I hope this will helpful for those who are planning virtual conferences in the future.

The main advantage of running our events online was increased accessibility. Both ECARS and the SSA PhD Symposium would have been able to accommodate a maximum of 40 delegates in person. However, more than 80 delegates registered for both events and we could accommodate them all online. Many of them would not have been able to attend face-to-face as they were from outside the UK, had other obligations, or did not receive funding for conference travel. Delegate feedback for both events showed that these delegates especially valued the opportunity to present their work and/or network with their peers.

The same benefits applied to external speakers. Both of our events included a career advice panel. Because speakers did not have to travel all over the country for a one-hour session, we could invite a wide range of panel members, including people from outside academia and someone who was on maternity leave at that time. Their perspectives were very useful for delegates and it would have been more challenging to arrange this face to face.

Finally, as a conference attendee myself, I noticed that the online format appeared to encourage ECRs to ask more questions and get more involved in the discussion than in previous conferences.

We used Blackboard Collaborate for ECARS and Zoom for the SSA PhD Symposium, because we had institutional licenses for these. Technical difficulties were our biggest concern, as there is little you can do when speakers have weak internet connections or are unable to log in. Luckily, at both events we only had technical problems for one or two speakers, and everyone else was able to do their presentation without trouble.
Blackboard and Zoom had their advantages and disadvantages. Blackboard allowed us to upload the presentations to the meeting in advance, so we didn’t need to rely on speakers to share their own screen (which may be difficult for speakers with poor internet connections). However, that also meant speakers couldn’t use transitions or animations in their PowerPoint slides. In Zoom, speakers had to share their own screen in order to give their presentation. This wasn’t possible for some speakers, which meant that the chair had to share the presentation on their own screen instead. Most delegates were already familiar with Zoom and everyone was able to join, whereas some delegates were not able to access the Blackboard meeting due to it being blocked by their firewall. Zoom also allows you to see multiple videos at once, which was great for socialising during breaks, whereas on blackboard you can only see 6 videos at once. On the other hand, Blackboard has a built-in “raise hand” functionality, which made chairing Q&As much easier, which was lacking on Zoom. For future events, it is worth investigating different conference platforms to find one that matches your requirements.

Networking and socialising are important reasons to attend conferences for many people. This was one of the most challenging things to try to implement online. We encouraged delegates to turn on their audio and video during breaks to get to know each other and/or use the chat function to socialise. However, it is hard to hold a conversation online with large groups. At ECARS, we scheduled breakout discussions at the end of each session, which allowed delegates to get to know each other in smaller groups. However, connecting to breakout groups in Blackboard takes quite a long time and this caused some delegates to drop out of the session. At both events, we organised a social event (game/quiz) in the evening to try to replace the conference dinner. Whilst delegates told us they wanted more opportunity to connect with each other, very few attended the evening event. It seems that after a day of online sessions, delegates do not want to spend their evening online too. Future online conferences may want to consider opening a “socialising room” where delegates can drop in and out at different points in the conference to meet others.

Overall, there are many benefits to running an online conference and organisers can choose a platform that suits their needs. Given that we all need to reduce our carbon footprint and that online conferences are accessible to a wider audience, it would worth considering online options for future events even after the pandemic is over.

Dr Inge Kersbergen
SSA Research Fellow, School of Health and Related Research

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