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Organizing A Conference Online

Organizing a Conference Online: A Quick Guide

v. 3 Geoffrey Rockwell with Oliver Rossier, Chelsea Miya and Casey Germain

With the Covid 19 pandemic many find themselves in the position of having to change the format of their conference so that it can run online. The Kule Institute for Advanced Study organized a series of annual Around the World Conferences to experiment with more sustainable ways of bringing people together. I'm putting these notes together quickly to share what we learned.

This guide walks you through a sequence of decisions. Obviously it is never that simple, but it will give you a way of thinking about how to organize.

  1. First, you need to decide the overall format of the econference based on your objectives and resources. How would you like to balance realtime dialogue with mobilizing research results? How many sessions of what sort do you need, and over how long a period?
  2. Second, you need to decide how to run the individual econference sessions. How will they be structured? What happens online and what happens offline?
  3. Third, you decide how to organize the model you decide on. That involves thinking about what sorts of support you need and what sorts of roles will be needed.
  4. Fourth, you need to forgive yourself if it doesn't all run smoothly (what onsite conference does?) and be intentional about the culture of the community as it conferences. How can you all work together to learn from each other and further research?
  5. Fifth, and finally, you might want to read and share links to other sources of advice.

Note: This page is being updated continuously as I find more resources and get suggestions. Please send corrections or suggestions to grockwel at ualberta dot ca.

1. Format of an Online Conference

Rule Number 1: You don't have to run an online conference like an onsite conference! Use the affordances of econferencing to achieve your objectives.

When switching to an econference format, don't feel you have to reproduce the pacing of an onsite format. To make life easier, focus on what your conference objectives are. Is wrapping the conference up in three days the objective or is it giving scholars a chance to share their current research?

Rule Number 2: Figure out what your objectives are independent of the format and then decide what mix of online activities will meet those objectives.

Too many people start by picking a technology and working from that. We recommend starting with your objectives and picking the technology based on what your community wants to achieve. You may end up with a mix of differently paced activities that together achieve most of what an onsite econference would have, but you may also have to let go of some of the informal social aspects of conferences that can be so meaningful.

Some possible objectives might include:

  • Give Society members, especially new researchers, a chance to share their current research with their peers.
  • Provide safe access to current research to a broad audience.
  • Provide an environment for timely feedback and respectful discussion.
  • Document the presentations appropriately so that researchers can get credit for their contributions.
  • Archive interventions.
  • Welcome new researchers into the community.
  • Provide a context for networking among researchers.
  • Provide a context for meetings among members.
  • Bring in new voices to engage the community.

Chances are you are not going to be able to replicate the informal social scene of a conference but your community might find other intentional ways of dealing with the isolation that new researchers often feel. The econference doesn't have to do everything, focus on what you can do with the time and resources you have. You can provide open meetings where people can jump on and off throughout the day to socialize or have conversations outside of scheduled sessions.

Models for Overall Format

Here are some models for how the overall format might be organized. These are not incompatible, in fact, one should mix the types of interventions that make sense.

One continuous session

When we first started the Around the World conferences we decided to try organizing one long intense day that would be accessible to people around the world. Our first conference was 18 hours long starting with a session from Australia. The idea was that we would have a series of two-hour sessions one after another working our way around the world. In reality we didn't have an even spread of institutions around the world.

  • A long day can include people from different time zones. This facilitates international community dialogue. It also means that few people will stay on the whole econference as their day ends.
  • One advantage of a long day is that everyone is focused for one day and no more. It is important to not create an event that seems like a bottomless pit of commitment.
  • On the other hand, a long day of videoconference sessions is hard on the staff that are organizing the day.
  • There will always be connection problems at some point. Be prepared with materials to fill the gaps as you problem solve. We used prerecorded sessions to fill in any technical gaps and give the organizing team a bit of a break.
  • If the speaker is going to be presenting work while speaking ensure they know how to use the software to screen share (leverage the software companies guides for using these features rather than creating your own), or have provided someone the presentation in advance so a moderator can share it.

A session a day for a couple of weeks

An alternative is to spread the conference over a longer period of time. Suppose your onsite conference had 5 sessions a day for 3 days for a total of 15 sessions. You could spread these over three weeks, one session a day or shorten things and run 10 sessions over one week.

  • Spreading the conference over a number of days, even weeks, is less stressful. You need to only organize a session or two a day.
  • If something goes wrong you have time to fix things and you can move sessions around.
  • You can learn about the technology as you go.
  • People can attend to other tasks each day as there is only a session or two a day.
  • It can be hard, however, to involve people in other time zones if you have a fixed session that is convenient in your time zone.

Papers before, conference the discussion

You don't have to have live-streaming video to meet certain objectives. You can ask participants to prepare papers and then organize the econference around discussion of the papers. This reduces the emphasis on live video streaming while still sharing current research.

  • If the papers are posted, you can use lower bandwidth technologies for discussion. For example, you could use a simple Google doc, email discussion list, or Twitter, or Slack and have a text only discussion.
  • Even if you use live video for the discussion, there is less stress on everything having to work smoothly.
  • If you try to organize live discussion across multiple sites you need an experienced chair and everyone has to get used to silences as people unmute in order to talk. The chair needs to be directive as in "now we are going to Toronto for a comment from X. Please remember to use Twitter to indicate that you want to talk. ..." (most software programs also have direct messaging capabilities so attendees can direct message questions or a request to speak directly to the chair). A format for questions (twitter, direct messages, etc.) needs to be decided on in advance and communicated to all participants.
  • Asking authors to post prepared papers pushes work onto their shoulders because they have prepare papers that are more formal than what they might have done. At the same time it formally recognizes those whose papers are accepted - there are tokens online that show their work. It provides something that can be archived.
  • If your community is not used to writing out papers for conferences, you can ask people to post their "papers" in other formats like slides with a voiceover or a large poster.

Crowdsource lots of small groups managing their own interventions

An even more radical approach is to not try to organize the econference centrally. Take advantage of the experience most have using small group conferencing tools like Skype, Google Meets, and Slack. You send a call out for proposals for sessions and coordinate the sessions so they don't overlap too much. The key is giving people the room to propose alternative small group interventions that they manage similar to what most have experienced in workshops or research projects. At the concluding event, or on the summary document you recognize the work that goes into proposing and organizing these small group sessions.

  • This model takes advantage of the creative opportunities of online gatherings. Perhaps someone will propose a conversation in an online worlds about gaming? Perhaps someone will fire up one of the old text MUDs. There is a history of interesting experiments to be revisited.
  • This assumes you don't already have a bunch of papers accepted for the conference or that you want to do something in addition to the papers.
  • This model is more chaotic and doesn't support the straight-forward presentation of papers as well as other forms of interaction. Some sessions will go well and some will get no participants.
  • This part of the econference will be limited to the small sessions people are willing to propose and have the capacity to organize. Does your community have enough people with the imagination and skills to organize a full suite of sessions? How can you prod and reward the right people to propose things?
  • You need to gently encourage, review, coordinate, advertise and assist the proposals. This can be a lot of work, even if you don't have to run the sessions.
  • It can be hard to get consistent documentation as to what is going to happen and what happened.
  • This can be a great way to encourage new researchers more comfortable with digital tools to take on the roles of proposers/coordinators of sessions. Let them shine at organizing senior colleagues.
  • Giving the teams a reasonable, but fairly tight, deadline helps galvanize them into action. Creating a well-designed concluding event, document or website helps showcase the efforts of the teams.

Session Formats

Once you have sense of the overall organization of the conference, then you need to plan the details of individual sessions or interventions.


How then do you organize sessions? Here are a number of models for how sessions can be organized. Obviously you can combine them as needed.

Streaming speakers

If you want to reproduce the experience of an onsite conference we now have the technology to steam the presentation of a speaker whether they are giving a 20 minute paper or a 45 minute keynote. That doesn't mean you should do so, even if it seems the easiest way to replicate a conference, but it is an option.

  • If the technology works, this can be one of the most efficient ways to share ideas.
  • A talk doesn't have to be steamed live. It can be prerecorded and then streamed. Prerecording, even if it happens a day before, has certain advantages and takes some of the stress off the live coordination.
  • That said, despite all the challenges, there is still an aura to a live event that creates a sense of occasion that brings people together and makes it a conference (as opposed to a collection of materials that can always be watched later.) If you are streaming live talks then build up the sense of occasion.
  • If you prerecord you can edit for quality and communication. You can weave the slides in at the right time. You can add subtitles in another language. You can edit into sections and add title screens.
  • Prerecording also affords a unique ‘dual presence’ option, where the speaker is on recorded video and also available to respond to questions, add detail, send links via a chat or comment section.
  • If your community is comfortable with slides you can encourage presenters to record audio over their slides to produce prerecorded presentations.
  • People who listen to talks online often multi-task and do other things at the same time. How can you engage them so that they feel involved?
  • Encouraging discussion during and after the live talk is hard. It is useful to have a chair to coordinate questions and some people singled out to ask questions after the talk. One can also have questions sent by email or posted on Twitter and then read out by the chair. Most modern tools like Zoom or Google meet have a direct message functions so at the beginning the audience can be told to send messages to one specific person.
  • Always have a cell phone number for remote presenters so you can problem solve when the audio cuts out.
  • If you are live-streaming you can record the livestream and question periods so they can be posted online afterwards for others who may not have been able to attend.

Rule Number 3: No one likes to watch academics reading poorly recorded papers online. Test your recording! Good audio can come from simply plugging in a microphone or your earbuds instead of relying on the built-in microphone.

Prepared talks, short presentations and organized discussion

If one of your objectives is to give researchers formal opportunities to present their ideas as "papers" we recommend that you think about alternatives to live streaming their presentations. Live streaming talks when presenters are connecting from different places are hard to control. They may have a poor connection or lots of ambient noise or a phone that goes off in the middle of their talk. They may not have experience presenting to a camera and you have no way to help them.

Instead we recommend that you ask presenters to prepare a paper beforehand and then present a live summary for about 5 minutes. Thus the careful paper is available for people to read and there is a short video presentation to give people the idea and start off discussion. Then you can focus on the discussion around the paper.

  • The prepared paper doesn't have to be written for publication. It can be written in a more dialogical or informal style. Or it could be a set of slides with extensive notes. Or it could be slides and audio voiceover.
  • Few people send their papers in on time. This means you need to have the capacity to handle all the last minutes submissions and have backup plans for when people don't deliver.
  • Plan and coordinate dialogue. Don't assume that people will have questions or dare voice them live. It is a good idea to have respondents who have read the paper beforehand and have prepared comments and questions. Thus you have at least a few live participants and can stimulate discussion.
  • There is nothing wrong with seeding online parallel discussion. We always had one or two people tweeting live during streaming talks to create a sense of audience for speakers.
  • The discussion doesn't have to happen through video. You could have discussion on an email list or in a Moodle class. Spread out the conversation over a week so that people can post questions and the author can post answers.

Rule Number 4: If you don't have a lot of technical support then minimize the stress by reducing the role of live streaming.

It should be noted that a variant of this model is to not have a streaming video conference at all. You can have papers posted and use plain old email groups for discussion.

Other Models

There are all sorts of creative alternatives to streaming a speaker and questions. Here is a collection of some:

2 hour workshop

Encourage people to share what they know as a workshop rather than as a talk. A workshop can streamed on Google Meets or Zoom or Skype on a subject for up to 10-100 participants. Materials can be circulated beforehand. (And Google is making premium versions of this service available during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Mentorship programme by email

A mentorship programme to bring new researchers together with senior colleagues (or to bring together other configurations of mentors/mentees) can be arranged by email followed by individual videoconferencing. This takes work, but it creates an analogue to the corridor conversations that are so helpful. You send around a call for mentors and then identify those who want mentoring. Then you match them and ask the mentor to set up a conference call.

Open chaired roundtable

A small group can have an open discussion on a topic. There should be a theme and an experienced facilitator. Participants might submit short position papers before hand to prime the discussion. Then a small conference is organized and chaired by the facilitator. We recommend that there be some formal organization to the discussion. It might start and end with going around and giving each participant a moment to say a few words. There might be prepared questions.

Undergrad mini-conference

An online conference can bring in all sorts of people who would not normally come to your conference. How can you use the new format to include new voices? Can it be organized to bring in undergrads in new roles. Could you make it part of a course?

Demo time

Instead of posters, why not organize a set of live demos of research tools/web sites that have been created by colleagues.

Welcome an international scholar

Our conferences tend to include researchers from wealthier countries/universities. Online the cost of attending is the cost of a reliable internet connection. Why not use the online conference as a chance to bring in voices that can't afford to participate normally.

Organizing the event

Once you have an overall format and you have a sense of the sessions you need then you have to work out how to actually organize the econference so it unfolds smoothly. You need to ask what sorts of support you need and who will provide it. You need to work out what mix of technologies you need access to and who will run them. I recommend a minimum of two key (paid) coordination roles, one to coordinate the event and one to coordinate the technology.

Rule Number 5: Don't try to do it all yourself (in addition to everything else.) Contract with someone to coordinate the event.

Like any management task, you shouldn't try to both manage the econference and coordinate it. There is more than enough work managing, get coordinators to work with you.

An online conference takes more offline coordination than an onsite conference. For onsite conferences you can count on people knowing what they have to do (find the room, sit down and listen). Participants don't need a lot of hand-holding. This isn't true of an econference and so you need to budget for a coordinator who can communicate with people and answer questions. This person needs to be dependable, detail oriented, and a good communicator. They will also need your support and respect when they deal with difficult colleagues. She will be the face of the conference as she is the one who is in email/phone contact with nervous presenters. Ensure the coordinator leverages the guides provided by the software platforms you choose (Zoom, Skype, Google Meet, etc.) so you aren’t recreating manuals and guides.

Rule Number 6: Use professionals for the technical coordination.

Again, don't try to do the technical support yourself just because you love it, and don't leave it up to someone who doesn't have experience. A conference is not the time to experiment with technologies for the fun of it. Instead we recommend you draw on the professional staff at your university or hire someone with the A/V experience and equipment needed. Most universities have A/V departments that have experience with video conferencing - use them. There will be staff that have access to the microphones, the monitors, the video mixers and sound proofed spaces needed. Many of those units were downsized as universities moved to digital learning technology, but there are usually still some folk around with real experience on campus. If they can't support you they may know some contractors you can hire for a few days. Secure their time and trust them on the technology.

Rule Number 7: It isn't the technology that matters, but how it is used.

Once you have a technical coordinator then you can work with her to decide the mix of technology to use. Don't worry about what is the best, worry about what people have experience with. Respect the experience of your technical coordinator, even if there is some spanking new tech available that you know would be better. What you want is reliability, not technical bragging rights. While it is tempting, try to avoid using free versions of the software programs like Zoom, or Skype as they often have limitations around the number of participants, length of meetings, inability to record etc. Paid versions or Enterprise versions supplied by your institute are best.

At this point you should have something like an executive committee to plan the conference.

An organizational model

Assuming you are the local organizer for an organization like a scholarly society that typically puts on the onsite conference, here is a model for organizing the online conference.

  • Work with the existing Programme Committee to figure out the objectives, overall format and session format. You may want to add people that have experience with econferencing or online delivery.
  • Identify a sponsoring university that can provide the technical support and host the econference. This may be the university where the conference was supposed to take place or a university trusted to provide support. It might be your university. That university is where you should recruit your technical coordinator.
  • Argue for a budget to do this right with paid support. An onsite conference has a budget, so should an econference. Just because the internet is free doesn't mean that an econference should be.
  • As mentioned above, you may want to form a executive committee with the event coordinator, the technical coordinator, the chair of the PC and yourself, the local organizer.
  • Build out a simple WordPress or Google Sites web site for the conference. All the papers and announcements can go there.This provides documentation. Use whatever technology is at hand. Don't get too fancy with this.
  • If you can, engage a research assistant or two to provide outreach. They can help design and run a massive and collaborative outreach campaign to encourage people to actually free up the time, read, listen and so on. Econferences need a lot of outreach because you don't have a captive audience of people who have come to your city just for the conference. You are competing for the attention of people who are at home and easily distracted by their local circumstances. Put the effort into building anticipation for the econference.
  • Depending on the software used, you can record any live streamed presentations or pre-recorded presentations and upload them to either a Google Site or YouTube channel at the end of each day for those unable to attend.
  • Get design help to create professional looking materials. They will communicate that the econference can be trusted to be more than some people broadcasting from their basement.
  • Involve colleagues in the organization so that they participate and you have more people helping. Ask people to chair sessions and in so doing, help organize those sessions.
  • Engage students to participate in different ways as respondents, live discussants, and live social media mavens.
  • Make it clear to colleagues that if they are giving a paper they are expected to participate in the rest of their session and other sessions. Be explicit about how everyone needs to be intentional about participating if the conference is to work. It isn't enough to show up just for your talk and then leave.
  • Budget for a new media experienced research assistant to archive the important information on the web site and video recordings after the event.
  • Set aside time to thank all the people who worked hard on the econference but weren't necessarily seen. The A/V folk, the people who maintain your web site, and all the students are often treated as part of the woodwork, but without them an econference wouldn't happen. Thank them, it matters.

Other Advice and links

Invest in good audio support, and by support I don't mean the technology so much as the larger system of trained professionals, appropriate recording spaces, and arrangements that encourage good practices. Nothing is more annoying than choppy audio and most academics have no training in how to record good audio. In addition, if they are presenting live from home, they can hear themselves so they think they sound great. They may not realize that it is hard to hear them over the cute dog barking. What can you do then if the audio is breaking up on a keynote who is on the other side of the planet and unaware that no one can hear them? Try to avoid getting into that situation in the first place!

Always have a second and third way of contacting someone at a distance that doesn't depend on the primary econference technology. It is impossible to fix the primary technology if that is your only way of communicating and the audio has cut out. Have their cell phone numbers.

Test every distance speaker connection a week before so that you have time to fix it or find an alternative. If the speaker is unwilling to show up for a test you are at least forewarned.

Internet Connection: one of the keys to ensuring a good presentation is to ensure those speaking (especially those live-streamed) are using a stable (preferably wired) internet connection. Most campuses have good connections, but not all homes will. If possible, do a test with the speakers from the location they plan on live-streaming from well in advance to test (and if necessary work out alternative locations).

Have backup filler content for when a connection to a live event breaks down. For the Around the World we would prerecord short papers by graduate students and then play them between sessions or when things broke down.

Be careful of what you say when you think the microphone is off as it may not be off and you may be broadcasting your snarky comments about the folks in Canada. If you are live-streaming, whoever is your tech coordinator should have the ability to mute participants not speaking to avoid random background noise (shuffling papers, getting text messages, coughing etc.)




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