Holding a conference remotely: Reflections on success

Sonny Evans
Monday 22 March 2021

The University’s International Education Institute (IE) recently held their highly regarded EAP (English for Academic Purposes) annual conference, on the theme of Transitions and Tribulations: EAP at the crossroads, attended by professionals from all over the world. This was a significant anniversary as its 10th year of delivery and was necessarily held remotely. Conference organiser, Kerry Tavakoli, reflects on the success delivered by Teams as the chosen platform.

After organising a conference annually for 9 years, you’d think the tenth one would not cause much stress. But along came Covid and the lockdown, and the move online. This seemed to create a whole new layer of stress and worries about what could go wrong. So many decisions to make – which platform to use, how to create a good networking environment, how to deal with multiple sessions, which talks should be synchronous, and so on. Added to the usual planning, we wanted to make our tenth conference stand out, as a celebration. On the positive side, some tasks were no longer needed – no catering, no rooms to book, no janitor.

So how did we set it all up? We looked at various possible platforms, and ended up with what we, as teachers and lecturers, all use every day – a Teams meeting, the easy option, and this really underpins everything we eventually did.

Tip number 1 – keep it simple

There was really no need to venture into anything too complicated or sophisticated, and ultimately two things seemed to lead to a very successful conference – excellent speakers, and the creation of a friendly, collegial environment.

So how did we achieve that? (The end of the story is that we received the best feedback we have ever had!).

We created a Team, which ultimately all the speakers and participants would join, once they had registered. We had four plenary speakers, all of whom had fulfilled this role at least once before, as part of the 10-year celebration. This turned out to be a blessing, as it reduced the number of concurrent sessions to be hosted in channels.

Tip number 2 – stay in the general channel as much as possible

On the general channel, we stored all the pre-recorded versions of the plenary talks in files, and added a tab for the day’s programme (the usual beautiful glossy edition).

Ten minutes before the opening time, we ‘started a meeting’ and people drifted in, were welcomed as in a face-to-face event, and then muted. The conference was opened, the Master gave a welcome speech, and then handed over to the first plenary, then the second, and then a coffee break.

Tip number 3 – keep talks shorter than usual – 40 minutes maximum for a plenary (who ideally, is very dynamic). Other talks should be as short as 15 minutes + questions.

The chat bar is very good for questions, and much easier to manage than in-person – no excessively verbose questions! One colleague should manage the questions, categorising them, and putting them to the speaker in the last ten minutes of their allotted time. The great advantage of the chat is that it remains indefinitely, so is there to continue conversations and refer back to later.

For this event, we created seven channels – three for concurrent talks (with pre-recordings in files in case of technical issues), one for ‘lightning talks’, one for posters, one for Home baking (more about that later), and one for publishers.

Tip number 4 – manage the time for concurrent sessions strictly. One colleague needs to start the meeting (we asked participants to ‘wait outside the door’), keep the time, and field the questions

Participants could move easily from channel to channel according to what they wanted to listen to.

Posters and Lightning talks/Pecha Kucha were stored in files so that they could be viewed in advance of the conference, so that the allocated time could be used to interact with the authors. This part of the conference took place in the ‘lunch hour’ – no-one can stare at the computer for the whole day, so this gave people the opportunity to select what they wanted to do.

Tip number 5 – have a range of activities – plenary talks, short talks, posters

An online conference needs to end in the general channel and provide some opportunity to interact. We invited the four plenary speakers to run a Q&A panel, mediated by the head of school. This was a great success and brought everyone together, leading in to the ‘fun and games’ …

Tip number 6 – introduce something trivial to send people away with a good feeling

The sixth channel was for the home baking – our own special St Andrews touch, which we didn’t want to omit in the online conference. Participants were invited to make a cake and post a photo in the channel files. The plenary speakers had the task of judging the baking and choosing a winner.

A final point worth making is having rehearsal times for the presenters. We ran two, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon three days before the event. Presenters had the opportunity to practice sharing their screens – they weren’t sure if guests could do this. They were also grateful to check out going to the appropriate channel and knowing the procedure once they got there. My colleagues who were running the channels sent out a message to the relevant speakers with advice. This reassurance has a great affective impact.

Feedback for this conference included comments such as:
“The best online event so far.”
“Just as good as all the other nine face-to-face conferences.”
“St Andrews has excelled itself.”
“What a packed and interesting way to spend a Saturday!”

Overall, this event owes its success to four things:

  • Well-selected speakers, organised thematically
  • Strict time management, with one person responsible for ‘starting’ each meeting
  • Keeping as much in the General channel as possible
  • Maintaining the friendly atmosphere of a face-to-face event

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