Menü

Recommendations for Virtual Conferences

Authors:  Robert Scheller, Mihai Sorin Stupariu, Tatiana Kharitonova, Keitaro Ito, Werner Rolf, Andrzej Affek, Ileana Stupariu

 

Summary

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.

 

Moderating

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.

 

Hosting

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.

 

Technical Assistance

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.

 

Young Scientists

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:

  • Social events for young scientists: This could be rewarding as long as it is not separate from other social events.
  • A session that highlights young scientists so long as it is central to the program, attended by all, such as a young scientists showcase.
  • Dedicated mentoring sessions: Pair young scientists with a mentor that they have not previously met for a one-on-one conversation.
  • Q&A (on-line message board, on-line “forum”) would be helpful for young scientist and students after the conference

 

Scheduling

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.

 

Social Events

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:

  • Break out rooms can be themed: young scientists vs. returning scientists; by research theme; etc.
  • There should be a social event everyday.
  • IALE-Japan enjoyed ‘web drinks’ at the end of the day.
  • IALE-NorthAmerica had break out rooms of four people that rotated every 10 minutes, giving people an opportunity to both say hello to old friends and to meet new people.
  • IALE-Romania had a social at the end of the first day where people brought food and wine from their region. Everyone was in the same event.
  • IALE-Russia had two social events;  A Russian language event with poetry (1.5 hours) that was very popular although limited to Russian speakers; and an on-line disco party with dancing (> 3 hours) although limited to 20-25 people total.
  • Be creative!  It may be years before we figure out how to fully engage on-line and we need lots of experimentation to get there.  Please try something crazy or unusual and report back to us how it worked!

 

Fees

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.

 

Software

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:

  • Software should be EASY TO USE.  People come to a virtual conference with a huge range of experience using teleconference software whereas the organizers are often very tech-savvy.
  • Strongly consider using software if your university already has a license.  This will save a lot of money and your university will also have experience using it and may be able to provide tech support.
  • Do you want to post videos?  Does the software allow that?  Do you need explicit permission from attendees (this may vary by country)?
  • It is very important to have a communication platform for organizers that is separate from the tools that attendees use.  Organizers need to be able to quickly and freely reach each other to handle problems.  For example, organizers could have a Slack (slack.com) channel set up just for themselves and moderators to continually communicate throughout the event.  Email will not work for this purpose!
  • Organize a test session for attendees!  Do not assume that something is easy to use for everyone or that everyone has experience using any software.
  • Consider paying an IT company to put everything together.  It can be a lot of work.

 

Software

Purpose

Advantages

Disadvantages

Miro (https://miro.com/)

Collaboration and Discussion

Good tool for brainstorming and summarizing participants ideas

A bit complicated for managing it: An organiser is needed

Zoho  (zoho.com)

Scheduling and Organizing

 

Time zones not functional

Google Calendar

Scheduling

Free and widely available

Requires Google account (not necessarily a gmail address)

Slack

Communications

Free, allows grouping of people

 Requires careful set up.

Cisco WebEx

Teleconference

Robust, allows password protection.  Parallel sessions built in. Public and private chat function.

Requires special extension or installation of the WebEx Meetings app

Microsoft Teams

Teleconference and Collaboration

Comprehensive.  Poster function is good. Public and private chat function.

Breakout rooms may require more work than Zoom

Zoom

Teleconference

Great video quality, everyone understands how to use it, password protection. Public and private chat function.

Everyone is tired of Zoom.  Parallel sessions require leaving one meeting and joining another.

WhatsApp

Communications

Can be used by organizers as a communications channel

 

Peatix

Organizing

Very useful

Important: Organization Web page and Peatix “linking” is needed for smooth management.

Gather.Town

Teleconference and Collaboration in 3D!

Interactive breakout rooms, different options to integrate digital tools (Google-Docs, Miro, Zoom, videos, etc.)

Up to 25 persons for free, otherwise price model

Big Blue Button

Teleconference

Presentation from within the program.  Chat functions. Participants had their own page with presentation, chat, etc.

 

Presentations had to be uploaded in advance.

iPosters

Posters

Not recommended

Not recommended

 

Posters

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:

  • Could the same goals be accomplished with 3 or 5-minute lightning talks?  Note that short presentations are not necessarily easier than longer talks.
  • The poster session should be separate from plenaries and symposium.  Do not overlap with other events.  Provide at least 1.5 hours devoted to posters with brief overview for each poster.
  • Posters can be accompanied by a short 5 minute presentation.
  • Posters can remain open throughout the day and afterwards.   Recommends that people also submit posters for any conference.
  • Consider assigning posters to a session and give them a short introduction during the session.
  • Consider encouraging everyone to everyone to prepare a poster, even if they are giving a talk.
  • Use social media to facilitate a poster session. 
  • Posters are also a visual communication tool, similar to a graphical abstract, and a few images can provide a lot of information.  For an on-line conference, encourage attendees to emphasize visual elements over text, which can be harder to read on a screen.
  • It is important to enable interaction between poster presenters and other participants of congress, possibly in real time

 

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;

 

 

Social Events

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.

 

Fees

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).

 

Schedule

How to rearrange the schedule to accommodate both virtual and in-person? 

  • One idea is to have shorter field trips each day with hybrid presentations in the afternoons.  This would avoid the risk of virtual fatigue. 
  • It will be important to designate Core Times that are hybrid, other times for in-person small-groups, meetings, etc.  Need to be very explicit about when all together (Core Time) vs. times for other activities.
  • Need to allow virtual presentations, virtual moderators (an opportunity to participate more), virtual workshops.
  • Organizers need to indicate up front whether an event is in-person vs. virtual (no room) vs. hybrid (a room provided).

 

Technology

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.

SEARCH

IALE 2021 European Landscape Ecology Congress postponed to 2022

Based on the current uncertainties about the evolution of the spreading of...

Our website is moving

With the roll-out of our new membership management system, our website gets a...

New Releases in the Springer Landscape Series

The Landscape Series from Springer has released many new titles in 2020 from...

Call for proposals: 2023 IALE World Congress

Host the premier event for landscape ecologist worldwide | Bids are due by...

IALE 2021 European Landscape Ecology Congress postponed to 2022

Based on the current uncertainties about the evolution of the spreading of...

IALE 2021 European Landscape Ecology Congress - Call for Abstracts is open now!

The next IALE 2021 European Landscape Ecology Congress will be organised from...

Bulletin December 2020 online

The IALE Bulletin Vol. 38 No. 4 - Decenber 2020 is online.
Download the new...