Virtual conference

Organize an inclusive virtual conference

Virtual conferences have the potential to overcome many barriers to attendance and participation that physical conferences have. They allow caregivers to reconcile family life and professional life. They ensure the safety of immunocompromised people. They allow people with reduced mobility to present their work and network safely and comfortably. They allow scientists from countries affected by travel bans and low-income countries to continue to progress professionally.

A article in Nature last year described how good virtual conferences can be in terms of accessibility. He noted that the American Physical Society conference in April 2020 drew about four times as many people as usual. And people were really there – they didn’t just sign up and become ghosts. “Virtual sessions, on average, saw higher attendance than in-person ones at standard April APS conferences,” wrote journalist Giuliana Viglione.

But if you’ve attended virtual conferences, you know they aren’t perfect, for everyone involved. Glitches, quirks and suboptimal use of technology can prevent full participation.

So how do you make the best, most productive, and most inclusive virtual conference?

It’s new to most of us, so we’re still working on it. But some things seem to have rocked the past two years of trial and error.

Accessibility surveys and diverse planning committee. As mentioned in my article last month, these two things can provide a starting point for creating an accessible conference. Also, since we’re about to start Year 3 of Virtual Events, check your event feedback forms and see what worked or didn’t work last time.

Make sure your meeting software has accessibility options. And include a budget for any additional features you might need. Many meeting software options have accessibility features such as automatic captioning, adding a live captioner to the meeting, and compatibility with screen readers. Be sure to use the one that best suits your audience and your topic. Also, make sure that the software you choose will work for people from other countries.

Provide information in advance. What is the program ? Will there be any special software, downloads or technical requirements? Do attendees need to update their Zoom to the latest version? How will you handle the Q&A sessions? What types of networking events or breakout rooms will there be? This way everyone can be prepared. Advance notice of how things will work is nice for everyone, but can be essential if you have a disability, slow internet speed, shared workspace, care responsibilities, etc.

Multiple formats and times. As noted in this Physics World article, “Having the choice of format—for example, text or audio—also allows people to choose how they participate in the conference based on their needs and preferences. Recorded meetings and repeating sessions during the conference can also overcome time zone challenges. »

Allow recordings of lectures and PDFs of posters to be available for a few days. While unpublished data means you can’t just post chats to YouTube, allowing chats to be viewed later, even just a day or two, can help people who are in different time zones or who have other things (like illness or caregiving) that may interrupt their conference experience.

Include a call option. One of the downsides of virtual conferencing is that it assumes everyone has great internet speed/bandwidth and the ability to stare at a screen for a long time at home. This is not always true. And while it’s ideal to be able to see and hear everything, in case someone’s internet is fragile or they have responsibilities or reasons why they can’t stare at a screen all the time , a dial-in option allows people to be at least partially connected to the meeting. Zoom meetings automatically provide a call-in number.

Stick to the scheduleIt’s always a struggle at conferences, but the effects are compounded if you have people logging in remotely from all over the world. Keeping to the schedule ensures people don’t have awkward experiences like logging into the conference only to find everyone still absent in breakout rooms or other weird situations.

If people are logging in from all over the world, they can set off an alarm in the wee hours of the morning to pick up their most important conversation; you don’t want them to find out the conversation is over or still in half an hour.

Here are some tips for staying on time:

  • Tell the speakers several times, starting well before the conference, how long the talks should last.
  • Finish the Q&A on time and remind people that if they have any more questions (that’s great!) they can talk to the speaker during the breakout sessions/networking time etc.
  • Plan frequent breaks that can be shortened if the discussions are prolonged.
  • Give a one or five minute warning. Right here are some tips for reporting weather warnings on Zoom.

Have a contact person for technical issues. Even if your entire meeting is on Zoom and it seems like everyone surely knows how to use it by now, have a contact person for technical issues. There will certainly be plenty, no matter how simple things get. Suggest speakers send in their PowerPoint slides ahead of time and, if needed, the tech maestro can share their screen instead of the speaker.

If your meeting requires special software, this person is very important.

Maximize opportunities to chat and ask questions. One of the benefits of a virtual conference is that many people who are shy or nervous about speaking in front of people can now type in questions that can be read by a moderator. Use this feature if you can.

Additionally, Zoom webinars and several other platforms allow you to vote on questions. As described in this Nature article: “At the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting in April, the ability for the public to vote on questions in real time ‘resulted in better question quality,'” Emily said. Costa, a cancer researcher at Memorial Sloan. Kettering Cancer Center in New York.” It’s a great way to make virtual Q&As even better than in-person ones.

People who accept can have their contact information available for email and chat throughout the meeting.

Provide a structure for networking breakout rooms. If you use rotating breakout rooms to network, a few tips can help. Boardroom networking can feel a lot more awkward than actual networking because you’re just stuck with a bunch of people suddenly staring at you. did you just chat? Do you talk about your work? Do you go around in a circle and introduce yourself? Having suggestions can help people engage and even prevent one or two people from dominating the room.

Consider offering networking. One complaint about virtual meetings is that it’s harder to network. One possible solution is to be very specific about how networking occurs. There are several platforms that make it easy to match participants; participants can be paired or grouped according to their research interests and can request short one-on-one meetings.

Get creative on poster sessions. These seem to be the hardest things to do well in a virtual conference. We just haven’t figured out how to do a good online poster session yet, because these of them Twitter users show. It seems that the most negative viewing experiences occur when poster presenters are assigned to rooms (Zoom or otherwise) and others have to strain to enter the room to view the poster. This leaves many people sitting alone staring at a blank Zoom screen wondering if anyone cares about them.

A simple solution could be for the conference organizers to encourage more people to visit many posters. Maybe a little incentive like a raffle for people who visit more than five posters.

There seem to be a few positive feelings around fake “physical spaces” like Gathertown, where it feels more like walking through a real room and can see other people nearby. The catch here is making sure everyone knows how to use it. And the more real it looks, the more participants rely on sight and graphics, and the easier it is to exclude people with slow internet and impaired or unimpaired vision. In this case, it is also important to have an alternative format, such as posters available in PDF format or pre-recorded videos posted on forums like Slack, where people can write messages and questions that can be asked and answered from asynchronously.

Hybrid conferences

Have a reference person for virtual participants in hybrid meetings: Like this The Fast Company article points out, “To keep remote participants engaged and involved, it is largely sufficient to assign someone on-site to monitor them during meetings and encourage their questions and comments.

Good quality and technology placement: This article from Rooted In Rights has some great tips for optimizing the experience for hybrid attendees. Suggestions include using a large screen so in-person attendees can see virtual attendees throughout the day, using microphones optimized for large rooms, ensuring that camera placement for virtual attendees gives a clear view (not just the back of everyone’s head) and share PowerPoint presentations.

Like this The Harvard Business Review article on hybrid meetings states, “As you design the meeting, continually ask yourself: What do remote attendees need to fully engage? No one wants to feel like an afterthought