On June 29th, LEaD held its Learning At City conference. After skipping a year in 2020 and holding the conference wholly online in 2021, this year we were able to return to the in-person experience. However, having seen how hosting conferences online increased the opportunity for people to attend, we also wanted to offer the option of attending remotely for those unable or unwilling to travel to City on the day. A good case in point was one of our colleagues who came down with COVID-19 the weekend before. They were able to change their registration and still participate online.
On the whole, it was a positive experience. For some presentations, we saw a 50/50 split between in-person and online registrations. Of course, not everyone who signed up to attend online was there on the day, but we made sure that we recorded most of our sessions so that they will be available on the conference blog site to view at a later date. We used a Miro board to host the posters online as well as hanging the physical posters in the venue.
But I can’t ignore that there were a few challenges on the day. Assuming we use the same model next year – and I think the advantages of offering an online alternative in addition to in-person attendance outweigh the few hitches we came up against – what would we change and what could we improve on in 2023?
Test, test and test again
We used two systems to present our sessions to the online attendees. For presentations of papers with no interactive elements other than a Q&A, we decided to use our existing lecture capture system (Echo360) to livestream them. For workshops where attendees were expected to participate, and for one paper that was presented by a mixed team (online and in person), we used our hybrid ISLA system.
We knew that Echo360 is usually accessed via City single sign-on and so we were unsure whether anyone without a City login would be able to view it. To ensure we could share the feed with everyone, we recruited the husband of one of our team to be our guinea pig. We set up a test livestream and sent him the link. The good news was that he was able to view it and so we didn’t test any further. In retrospect that was a mistake! On the morning of the conference, we discovered that Echo automatically translated the public URL in our invitations into one that directed users to the single sign-on page, so our carefully created links were sending external guests to the wrong place. Some hastily sent e-mails alerted them to the problem, and we were able to give them guidance on copying and pasting the original link to circumvent this.
We also didn’t think to test the Q&A facility, which we subsequently found out wasn’t available to external attendees. A quick-thinking colleague set up a Slido for each session and forwarded the link.
In retrospect, we should have tested every aspect of the livestream from start to the finish – from setting up each session, sharing the link through our booking system, to interacting within the session – to make sure it worked for both internal and external attendees.
After two years of colleagues participating in online conferences, we found that there was the assumption that all sessions would be online. It was only when we confirmed the room numbers with some presenters that we discovered that they had made this assumption too. Luckily, the flexibility of a hybrid conference meant that we could have with a mix of in-person and online presenters in the same session. But for future conferences, we’ll make double-check that both presenters and organisers agree on how the session is going to be run.
However, we also had to cope with the opposite situation. One presenter who had been planning to be there in person tested positive for Covid only days before the conference. Again the flexibility of having a hybrid session meant he could present from home and not miss the conference.
We also asked those using the ISLA system to record their Zoom sessions, but found that in the heat of the moment, a few of them forgot. Luckily, we had arranged for every session to be recorded on lecture capture and so had back-up recordings available.
It takes a village…
..Or at least a really good team to run a conference.
Every session had an on-site guardian to introduce the speakers, keep everyone to time and to field questions. But we also recruited members of the team to act as online guardians, helping out our attendees who were joining virtually. Some of the online guardians reported that they found it much easier to carry out their role away from the physical presentation, either taking their laptops to an empty room nearby or going back to our offices. This also means that for future conferences, any staff who can’t get on campus on the day are also able to be part of the conference support team.
Possibly the most important thing we learned is the importance of having a great team around you. While our student ambassadors were greeting guests, guardians were managing sessions and student co-pilots were supporting the ISLA sessions, the conference team was free to double-check links, set up Slidos, adjust the camera angles and work out why the sound was echoing in one Zoom session. It would have been impossible for one person to troubleshoot all the technical aspects of the conference by themselves. Most importantly of all, being part of a team meant we could all provide each other with moral support throughout the day.
Hybrid = flexibility for all
The feedback from our attendees confirms that the hybrid approach was appreciated.
“I thought it was so wonderful that the conference was hybrid. There is a misconception that hybrid is just for people who work from home. Of course, people who work from home may find the hybrid approach to be helpful. But others do too. People commented how they were able to sit in their office, in a different location or campus, and pop into sessions. People at other universities are more likely to attend as well as they can pop in online without the need for transport. People with accessibility requirements might prefer online so they can reduce distractions and read captions in the quiet of their own home or office. And people who are ill (especially with COVID) can join without infecting people. Over all, it means that the conference can reach more people and we can have a greater impact. The hybrid approach means that no one feels excluded. Being inclusive is good for everyone and LEaD showed how this can be done. Great job!!! “
“Thanks so much for offering online options to attend. It made the event really inclusive. I would really have felt that I was missing out if it was face to face as I couldn’t attend in person. I think more City events should be offered as hybrid events as the flexibility makes it easier for people to attend between other work and life commitments. “
Onwards and upwards
It’s fair to say that we were exhausted by the end of the day, but that we’ll be raring to go, and better prepared, next year. Roll on, Learning At City 2023.