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A model for virtual conferences: The content delivery approach
From our Early Career Network's Committee Liam Mcloughlin looks at the full range of virtual conference types.
[Note] This blog is a summarised version of 'Let's talk virtual conferences: How should they be done' which first appeared on Leelum.com, looking at the full range of virtual conference types, with arguments for & against each and best practice tips.
Following in the wake of Covid-19, there has been a renewed and increased interest in the delivery virtual conferences. Just one example being the ECPR who announced that their Joint Sessions of workshops have been moved online. But what virtual conference strategy could work for you? I ague that for operational reasons many conference organisers might be best suited to the content delivery approach - using common off-the-shelf technologies (WordPress & YouTube) to deliver a low-cost online conference alternative in a short time-period.
"Virtual conferences have previously been used on ethical grounds by reducing events carbon footprint. While others have used them as a method to make the event more accessible to those financially constrained, who live too far away, or to those unable to travel due to disability. However, there has since been a renewed interest in the last few months due to the coronavirus; as organisers have sought to find alternatives following travel bans and concerns that conferences can further spreading the virus. After all, if university staff can work remotely and teaching can be delivered virtually, why can’t conferences?
(The attention given towards these virtual formats has been substantial. When comparing the average worldwide search interest for ‘virtual conferences’ has increased 1063.4% over the last month.)
Let’s say you’re seriously considering an online conference, what are your options?
Well for years, many conferences have actually been running events with online elements already. If you’ve been doing this, the shift might not be as painful. Conferences which have live-streamed their events or recorded important talks for later distribution online can simply reuse their existing infrastructure.
But for those without pre-existing infrastructure, what are the options you should be looking at?
You could always seek to create a live streamed conference, with the entire event being ran through Zoom or WebEx. On one side, it does replicate the “traditional” conference format. But it hardly utilises the advantages of an online conference. Having everything streamed means most people’s window to engage is limited to when event is live. Even if you record the event, with participation centred around when the is “live”, those viewing then attempting to participate with comments after the event will seldom receive the same benefits. Plus, unless you have the streaming infrastructure, this could be a costly.
(Screenshot of the British Society for the History of Science Virtual Conference on Twitter)
Then you have the social media approach. where the entire of the conference’s normal content is posted online through a social networking site. One such example of this is the British Society for the History of Science Conference (2020) whereby the entirety of the conference was held on Twitter. But limiting yourself to a social media platform might discourage those without an account. And Perhaps ironically, this approach might discourage networking. Something I’ve noticed is that academics are more willing to speak-freely in person, but everything they write has to be well considered – ultimately putting them off participating.
What about Virtual Reality? I could talk for days about how amazing this would be! Imagine being able to present your research data through interactive VR environment? I have already played with turning my network graphs (for example, those of GCHQ’s Twitter communication; or my graph of the Conservative Party Leadership Election) into a VR experience. Having people wonder through my data would make explaining what they all mean much easier. But alas, it’s not a technology that’s deployable yet.
The preferred option - Conferences as content delivery & web-forum
These styles of virtual conferences act as a single website that acts an on-demand video website and discussion board – with added features such as virtual poster sessions. Rather than the streamed approach where participation is during set times, all the conference content is posted online at the same time – followed by a set period of participation. Be it through comment sections, social media, or smaller Q&A sessions to give all users multiple opportunities to participate.
I’m inclined to argue that this approach best option for an immediate conference replacement – especially those with little virtual conference experience. On the ideological level, I’m a strong believer in not trying to replicate offline experiences online. The way we talk, communicate, and engage online is so much different to how we do in person. Most of the time, your resources are better spent on trying to create unique and engaging online content actually built for the web rather than unreachable offline replications.
But the biggest argument for this option is operational. The first consideration in is cost: many replacement online conferences might have a reduced or no income. Either due to the costs of cancelling the original event or due to the format change, some might feel uncomfortable charging out full-price tickets for participants. So, some of the expensive virtual conferencing software is out of the question too. The second is the ability to get the virtual conference set up in a short period relatively easily.
The approach of pre-recorded video content displayed on a commonly used CMS platform (such as WordPress) and hosted on YouTube – with comment functions enabled and encouraged is a cheap and easy(ish) deployable solution. In terms of costs, video hosting on your own is expensive, while YouTube is free. And a rudimentary WordPress conference website is simple enough to create if you have someone on your team with the skillset – with a small budget for hosting and templates. In regard to time? A Simple website can be ready in little under a week (including the creative and copy). But by using off the shelf themes and plug-ins, you just need to arrange the building blocks with little to no prior coding experience.
While researching this article, I came across the ‘Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model’. This is a great guide which can help those interested in the above model set up their virtual conference.
One thing the above examples demonstrates is that the availability of online services doesn’t mean your society has to be silenced by the ongoing pandemic. There are options out there, and I’m sure there are plenty more than what this blog offers. So if you’re involved with any sort of conference that offers significant value to both the pursuit of knowledge or vital experience, please don’t just cancel your event.