Conference in the Time of Corona: A Beginner’s Guide to Hybrid Conferencing

This article was co-authored by Jonatan Marquez.

About a year ago, my colleague and friend Jonatan and I were asked to organize EvoDemo7, the 7th Annual Meeting of the Evolutionary Demography Society. It was planned to be a traditional, small-sized conference: a comfortable, almost family weekend-like get-together of about one hundred scientists from all over the world, nestled in the Norwegian mountains. Little did we know that a pandemic would turn the world upside down and spark the scientific community to come up with creative ways to meet, forge collaborations and share research ideas.

Admittedly, even before the coronavirus spread across the globe, there was an increasing number of scientists that wanted to push for a shift towards online conferencing (see Esther Ngumbi’s excellent article below). Virtual conferences do not only allow us to continue to share and discuss our work in times like these, they also help to reduce our carbon footprints, and allow a broader, more inclusive audience. However, virtual conferencing comes with a bunch of technical issues (e.g., software, hardware, time zones) and can be very demanding for participants – if anything, the billions of Zoom meetings and video calls this year have taught us that they are extremely tiring.

Relevant: Science Conferences are Stuck in the Dark Ages

Instead of a fully virtual format, some conference organizers resorted to a hybrid conference; a format where local people gather in small groups and people who are restricted to travel, join the conference remotely. After the first version of EvoDemo7 (in April 2020) was cancelled and moved to October, we also decided to combine physical and virtual participation. At first glance, this format seemed like the best of both worlds, but in practice, a hybrid conference had twice as many issues to solve and hurdles to overcome. When a physical meeting is impossible, our most straightforward and simple advice is to go for a virtual conference. However if you require a hybrid format, we hope that the following tips and tricks help you on your hybrid adventure.

Meet

When planning a hybrid (or virtual) meeting, the first thing that you need to think about is the online platform – basically the virtual equivalent of the conference hall. For this, you want to pick the software that best provides that real conference experience: allow people, in groups of various sizes, to meet and connect, present their work and discuss research plans. Often, a single software does not have everything you are looking for. Instead, a combination of software packages, each with different strengths and features, might actually be the best option. Start with listing the functions that your online platform should have. 

For EvoDemo7, we wanted the following three functions:

  1. a general platform for physical and virtual participants to communicate and chat through; 
  2. a platform for virtual participants to present their work; 
  3. a streaming platform for virtual participants to watch other participants’ presentations. 

We did not find one platform that included all the features we wanted, so we ended up with a combination of Slack as a general communication platform (which worked perfectly!) and Microsoft Teams Live Events (which did not always work smoothly, so in some cases we resorted to Zoom) for presentations and streaming. 

Be aware that seemingly widely used software (like Zoom) are not available to all and that whichever software you choose, there will most likely be participants that do not have experience with it. Make sure that the software is free and easy to download for all, and consider putting together a basic guide for beginners. 

Connect

A crucial component in the success of your hybrid conference is the connection among and within virtual and physical participants. We would almost go as far as to say that it makes or breaks your event. The ideal situation has your virtual and physical participants interact smoothly and straightforwardly as if they were all in the same room. Virtual participants should feel included when physical participants present their work on stage. Likewise, physical participants should feel included when virtual participants discuss research through the chat. There are several ways to achieve that feeling of togetherness. 

First, let all, both physical and virtual, participants use the same platform to ask questions. If all questions are shared in an online communication software like Slack, every participant can read the questions clearly. After the presentation, the presenter can go in and answer unanswered questions and participants who missed the presentation can go back and read the discussion. It is important that you organize the structure of the communication channels carefully beforehand. One chat box for all communication is likely to become extremely messy, but a separate channel for each question could as well. We decided to have a channel for each of the sessions in our conference, which worked out great.

“The preparation of any type of event, irrespective of the format, should include at least one rehearsal.” (Image Credit: Jonatan F. Marquez, NTNU, CC BY 2.0)

Second, have two people in the organizing team dedicated as event hosts. One forms the link between the audience and presenters on stage, and one forms the link between the audience and virtual presenters. Especially for virtual presenters, it can feel like they cast their presentation into the void. If the virtual host is there to introduce them, ask the questions typed in the chat out loud, their experience improves a lot. Presenters on stage are temporarily disconnected from the communication platform, so the physical host is there to relay questions and answers back and forth.

Third, avoid pre-recorded videos. They not only prevent interaction among different types of participants, they also hinder the interaction between the presenter and the audience. This interaction is the very thing that makes a conference different from a day of watching videos on YouTube. 

Fourth, host social events that both types of participants can join. A trivia night gets everyone excited! 

Rehearse

The preparation of any type of event, irrespective of the format, should include at least one rehearsal. It is the perfect opportunity for the technical support at the conference venue to demonstrate, fine-tune and test their setup. Testing how physical or virtual presenters, workshop hosts or event hosts connect to the meeting platform and participate in the event, gives you, as event host, a peek into their event experience. Even after this first rehearsal, technical issues are unavoidable in a conference with a multitude of physical and virtual presenters. We therefore had a second round of testing together with the presenters, which can help you fix issues related to joining the online platform, audio and sharing screens.

As two researchers working through the final year of our PhDs with limited experience in conference organisation, we have by no means the expertise to write a full-length tutorial on hybrid conferencing. We did, however, learn a lot along the way, some of which we think that might be helpful to the ones facing similar challenges. If you found our tips helpful, have anything to add, or have questions about our experience, let us know in the comments, or get in touch through our contact details listed below.

Stefan Vriend is a population ecologist currently completing his PhD thesis at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Through his work on the spatial variation of hole-nesting bird demography, life history and phenotypic selection he got involved in the SPI-Birds Network and Database. You can read more about his research here, read more of his articles on Ecology for the Masses here or follow him on Twitter here.

Jonatan F. Marquez is a marine ecologist currently completing his PhD thesis at the Centre of Biodiversity Dynamics, within the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. He is also a member of SUSTAIN (https://www.sustain.uio.no/). His work focuses on understanding the drivers of spatial autocorrelation in natural populations. Read more about him at this link or get in touch with him on Twitter here.

Title Image Credit: Alexandra Koch, Pixabay licence, Image Cropped

3 comments

  • Since I toil professionally in the humanities, I have no way to assess how much better or worse the sciences are making out. I’ve already participated in one online version of an annual conference I generally attend in person. I hated it. Sound quality was lousy, picture quality often worse, and the entire experience felt totally compartmentalized. Without an audience out in front of them, most readers just stared down at their presentations and read them out to their table or desktops.
    I have one more such conference I’ve already paid for but I’m not paying for another one. I just plan to wait out the pandemic and go back to live attendance when it becomes possible again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally understand your sentiment. Connecting with old friends and collaborators and meeting new people is one of the best – if not the best – things about conferencing, and that is particularly challenging in virtual/hybrid conferences. I do think, however, that by now many event organizations and the technical staff at conference venues have had the time to adjust to the virtual format, update their hardware/software and expand their skillset to get closer to that conference experience. Some virtual meetings that have been hosted this year (like the International Statistical Ecology Conference 2020; https://www.isec2020.org/) have shown that the virtual format and an interactive experience are not mutually exclusive, so maybe it’s worth another shot?

      Liked by 1 person

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