Authors: Robert Scheller, Mihai Sorin Stupariu, Tatiana Kharitonova, Keitaro Ito, Werner Rolf, Andrzej Affek, Ileana Stupariu
Beginning in June 2020, IALE launched a series of conversations to discuss virtual and hybrid conferences. Of course, we were primarily motivated by the challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same, we also recognized the long-term need for more virtual and hybrid conferences and their potential benefits: reduced costs, greater inclusivity, reduced air and carbon pollution.
We held a series of tele-meetings (June 12, June 26, July 10, July 31, and October 28th, 2020). We pooled our collective learning from experience and also speculated on potential adjustments which could or should be explored in future meetings. Our goal here is to provide some basic guidance and information and considerations, assuming that virtual and hybrid conferences are likely in the near future and may become a regular replacement for in-person conferences.
Here we have broken the topic into primary components that are typically expected of conferences, as well as some general planning considerations. These recommendations are based upon the experience of several virtual events that took place in 2020 organised by different IALE chapters (US, Russia, Japan, Romania, Germany) as well as by participating in a number of further virtual events beyond.
General Organization and Planning
The first and primarily lesson learned from a year of virtual conferences was that planning a virtual conference requires an entirely different set of skills and tools than planning an in-person event. Therefore, there will be a steep learning curve and extra time should be allocated for planning a virtual conference. We concluded that six months preparation is necessary to execute well on a virtual conference and they may require more effort up front. For example, more of the meetings need to be planned in advance; you cannot simply serve coffee and snacks and expect that conversation will flow freely. In addition, if problems arise (software, registration, etc.), they are much more difficult to resolve remotely than they would be in-person. And there’s simply much more to be responsible for in a virtual conference! In an in-person meeting, the hosts primarily handle registration, abstracts, and assigning good moderators. The conference venue, the participants hotel and airline, and local restaurants handle the rest. In a virtual conference, the hosts are responsible for not only the usual tasks but every single moment is also their responsibility. Perhaps the only exception is field trips, which are not expected for a virtual conference.
Excellent IT support is essential to hosting a virtual conference. IT should be consulted at almost every stage from selecting the software, providing assistance, estimating costs. If a chapter cannot afford IT support, we do not recommend proceeding with a virtual conference.
In our experience, moderating made a huge difference in the quality of a virtual conference and is more important than during an in-person conference. Every session MUST have a moderator. The meeting hosts are strongly encouraged to outline moderator expectations and provide moderator training.
The moderator needs to not only keep everyone on time but also needs to filter comments and questions submitted in a chat box. Although moderators have been expected to encourage discussions during in-person meetings, this is more difficult virtually although many participants feel more free to type in individual questions. Maintaining time is important (although optional) and moderators should feel free to interrupt speakers; our experience was that using the chat box to keep speakers on time was NOT effective. As necessary, moderators need to find alternative (and why not funny) solutions (such as bells), for warning the speakers that the time is over.
The host of an individual session is separate from the moderator. The hosts are people who organized the session, invited speakers, ordered their arrangement, etc. The host introduces the speakers. The host need not be the moderator.
Good technical IT assistance is essential to any virtual conference. This includes communication between the organizers and the IT group, because the IT group must understand the concept of the conference, the needs of the organizers, etc. The role of the IT group is also essential in the organizing stage (before the conference): recommending solutions that fulfill the needs and the expectations of the organizers.
IT assistants (the people who are helping during the conference) help people with software and connectivity issues and can help speakers upload presentations, etc. It’s unlikely that every session will have a technical IT specialist to assist although someone should be on hand for major events, e.g., plenary sessions, large social events. If the IT assistant is not at a session, everyone should know how to quickly contact that person. Their contact information should be provided at all possible times, in the program, noted at the beginning of each session, etc.
In addition, it has been incredibly useful to have a ‘dry run’ with participants one or two days before the conference begins. Everyone can test out the software, ask questions, and become familiar with the chosen software. Again, it is essential that the IT assistant(s) be available at that time. A separate communications channel between the IT group and organizers has proven to be very useful (see below).
Registration and Participation
Registration, attendance, and participation at virtual conferences in 2020 was perhaps the most surprising, frustrating, and rewarding attribute! 2020 was also quite unique, given the pandemic, and more people may have attended or participated but were limited by their immediate circumstance: caring for children, changed responsibilities, lack of any funding for conferences, and other pandemic stresses.
On one hand, many chapters saw much higher registration (up to 3x) than their normal conferences. This is fantastic and indicates that people have not been attending conferences due to cost, accessibility, their schedules, support at home, etc. It indicates that virtual conferences are more inclusive and affordable. Although registration increased overall, people with poor internet connectivity may have been excluded and many people simply do not enjoy virtual conferences.
On the other hand, every conference also suffered from poorer participation (here we mean engagement: logging in, asking questions, etc.) than usual. Many sessions had poor attendance and some speakers did not show up for their appointed speaking time. Some people only attended the session in which they were speaking. We hypothesize that people were often distracted and most do not have their cameras turned on (perhaps due to connectivity issues).We conclude that future conferences must explore novel and exciting ideas for increasing attendance and participation. Ideas include structured discussions, smaller workshops, round table discussions around focused topics, etc. For example, structured discussions include short breaks after every three presentations during which people can ask the speakers questions or the moderator could launch a broader discussion around a common theme. In a nutshell, organizers should avoid long sequences of talks without interruption. It seems that people simply cannot listen on the computer for long stretches without the opportunity to engage.
A particular concern of ours was the attendance of young scientists. Conference attendance can be a vital opportunity to build a network and seek positions. In addition, they are often tired of on-line lectures. How can virtual conferences change to accommodate their particular needs?
Some ideas to consider
The reality that everyone discovered in 2020 is that virtual conferences cannot be scheduled the same as in-person conferences. People quickly become ‘zoom fatigued’, burn out, and logoff. Conference organizers need to consider how to spread out events, with not too much in one day, and with breaks. Presentations should be shorter and more time should be dedicated to discussion. The total time per day would ideally be five hours or less. Although this may result in a conference lasting more days, the shorter block of time will be more inviting overall.
We should keep plenaries SHORT, instead emphasize panel discussions with audience inputs/questions. (Also ask plenary speakers to stand when presenting and to dress appropriately even though they are at home.)
Last, organizers need to consider time zones. Do they expect attendance from around the world? If so, experience suggests that 1200-1600 GMT is an OK time block. If attendance will be from closer time zones, focus on including those only. A survey might be the best tool to evaluate optimal times.
Greeting old colleagues and meeting new are one of the most important reasons to attend any conference. Recreating that magic in a virtual conference is quite difficult but something approaching parity can be achieved. Note that you cannot expect everyone to attend social events, often less than half were able. Time zones are likely a barrier.
A few collective notes:
There were a huge range of approaches to fees in 2020. IALE-Romania was entirely free with the option to donate to students themselves or for their families affected by COVID (although none were received). IALE-Russia had separate fees for scientists vs. students; highest for non-IALE members with late registration (EU50); cheapest was EU20. IALE-Japan charged ~$25.
In retrospect, we discourage free as it does not cover expenses nor does it help chapters build their finances. Prices should generally be higher: High prices encourage attendance and participation. Keep in mind that people will not be paying for travel and hotels and food and therefore can more readily afford conference registration. Keep in mind though that charging a fee or increasing the fee will reduce registration.
There is huge variation in the software available to conduct virtual conferences with a broad range of features and prices. We provide a brief table below. We do not review here registration and abstract submission software which is necessary for any conference, although we note that the ideal virtual conference software would include these functions, i.e., this system hasn’t yet been invented.
In general, keep in mind:
It is assumed that any conference will include oral presentation, plenaries, keynotes, discussion, and social events. Generally, the teleconference software handles all of these functions.
What about posters? They are a unique feature of many conferences that allow more casual ‘browsing’ of many topics and more intimate conversations with someone about their science. Poster presentations are often combined with social functions. Because they are more casual people often feel more free to present works in progress or even just their ideas. Another key feature is that they remain available throughout the conference. Finally, students are often the stars of poster talks and it is a great way to highlight student research without the pressure of delivering a full 15 or 20 minute talk.
But are they necessary? Many of their qualities (casual conversation, socializing) are completely lost in a virtual conference. We recommend that organizers do not automatically include posters just because they are a common feature to in-person conferences. Our experience with virtual posters was very mixed from ‘disastrous’ to ‘OK’.
If you decide that posters will be included, note that posters have two components that can be considered separately: 1) the media that contains the information (PDF, website, etc.) and, 2) the virtual format for encouraging interactions. Encouraging meaningful interactions is far more important, more difficult, and requires careful planning.
Our shared thoughts
Our Hybrid Future… or Alternating Future?
Although 2020 was an exceptional year, the expectation is that hybrid events (both in-person and virtual together) will become more virtual in the future. Ideally hybrid conferences would combine the best of virtual conferences (with benefits for commonly excluded groups, e.g., low-income, disabled, and older participants) with the best of in-person conferences (more networking, field trips).
But there are many challenges to conducting a hybrid conference. It will not be easy to design events that serve both audiences. For example, it is hard to imagine a social event that could cater to both audiences. In addition, the effort and costs of organizing a hybrid conference will be higher than either alone. The technology required to offer hybrid versions of presentations must be placed in every room that hosts in-person presentations. There may need to be both in-person and virtual moderators.
For that reason, some of our group believe that conferences should either only be in-person or virtual, not both. Although some chapters with more financial resources can hire the IT consultants to support a hybrid conference, many of our chapters will be challenged to do so. And so before we unilaterally declare hybrid conferences to be the future, each chapter should carefully consider their options. For example, perhaps it would be better to alternate in-person and virtual conferences? Perhaps one day is virtual, one day hybrid, one day in-person? Perhaps only some elements are hybrid (plenaries, key notes, and select symposia) and are offered at a highly reduced rate?
Below we highlight some of benefits and challenges of combining live and virtual;
How do we create meaningful hybrid social events? In general, we concluded that it would be difficult to combine virtual and in-person people.
Alternatively, chapters could create satellite social events for virtual attendees. For example, a local pub crawl for virtual attendees, organized by cities. Or potlucks at someone’s house. These ‘in-person’ opportunities for virtual participants may be more important for an entirely virtual conference. Satellite meetings would need to be encouraged by the organizers. Organizers could offer to pay for a couple of bottles of wine, beer, or sake? Organizers should ask for group photos to encourage community.
How much to charge virtual participants? Because the digital tools and virtual platforms may require resources (license fees, additional knowledge), these also need to be considered. Virtual participants are not charged for food but should contribute to all other costs of a hybrid conference, including digital tools as well as physical infrastructure rooms (typically food/beverage is ~35% of total cost).
How to rearrange the schedule to accommodate both virtual and in-person?
For a hybrid conference, it is imperative to choose the right venue. The hotel or university should be selected based on their technological infrastructure. There will need to be a new standard for conference technology. Presentation rooms must have adequate video cameras and microphones and high-speed internet for streaming live events. An old laptop hooked to a projector will not be sufficient.