Taking conferences online during the pandemic

It’s been a really challenging year for everyone, in so many ways, and one of the challenges we have faced is what to do with the plans we had to run a computing education research conference in Cambridge in April. With the UK, and much of the world, in lockdown at that time we pivoted to running the event online, in what ended up becoming a series of well attended events that ran really successfully.

I’ve written this post to reflect on how the event went in terms of organisation, and what we learned about running conference events online. With more and more conferences going online in the current uncertainty I hope it provides some useful insights for others.

Switching online

We had put together our first research symposium event for the first of April, collaborating with the University of Cambridge Department of Computer Science and Technology, and it was due to take place at their campus. We had a keynote speaker booked, Dr. Natalie Rusk from MIT Media Lab, and a series of papers submitted by researchers from across the UK and one from the Netherlands. We also had a poster session for researchers to share work that was more ‘in progress’ and discuss in a more informal setting.

Leading up to the event in March we had a lot of uncertainty and we started ‘double planning’ fairly early on for the possibility we may not be able to run it face to face. It gradually became clear that our keynote speaker would not be able to travel from the US, then many speakers could not travel to us, and then the lockdowns started happening and the event moved completely online.

Hanging out

We ran the event in Google Hangouts, the video conferencing solution we use day to day, largely because that was what we were used to and we had the facility already to host large groups and multiple hangouts. Google also opened up recording to our account not long before the symposium. As we had been planning to film the face to face sessions this was helpful in capturing the event.

The team set up multiple hangout meetings, or rooms, in order to be able to run the event smoothly. We had a main central hangout where everyone joined us at the start of the day, The introduction, keynotes and paper presentations took place for everyone who was attending. This was a very large hangout and discussion was led by our chai, with the chat used to pose questions which were then selected for discussion. Some people posed their questions orally once they had been chosen. Other questions were answered directly from the chat. 

Google hangout with lots of people in it

This worked well for the most part, although there were a few challenges with the features of hangouts. With over a hundred people in a single hangout it was inevitable that people dropped in and out a bit. This wouldn’t have been a problem apart from the fact some attendees were receiving audio and visual notifications whenever anyone entered the hangout – very annoying in the middle of a presentation. We didn’t get to the bottom of why this happened or whether it was possible to turn off. We also found the chat could be quite distracting with pop up notifications, so asked people to save their questions and comments for the designated times. There was always twitter for a backchannel discussion, but it would have been good for this to have worked more smoothly in the hangout itself.

Green rooms

An inspired idea from our team running the event was to have a ‘green room’ hangout and ask presenters to log in there during the presentation previous to theirs. One the events team was there and checked their connection was working OK and the screen sharing for their slides was all ready to go. This may seem like a minor thing these days with everyone very used to video conferencing, but it resulted in a very smooth changeover between presenters. This made an event with a large audience and a lot of different presenters run very smoothly and keep focused on the content and discussion rather than any technical problems.

Virtual poster sessions

We had other concurrent hangout events for the poster presentations. The URLs for these were listed on the event web page and in the programme, with people were encouraged to move between them during the virtual poster session. Each session had a member of our team as a chair to facilitate the discussions, especially helpful as we planned to have people coming in and out.

I chaired a session and it went very smoothly into a good discussion. We started with a brief summary of the work by the presenter, followed by questions and discussion. By around half way through there had been quite a turnover of people so we recapped the summary and continued the discussion. These groups were much smaller and it felt like a very different experience to the large presentation sessions, with people more open to jumping in on their microphones, asking questions and having a back and forth discussion. 

Keeping engaged

The level of engagement was really high through the day, with questions continuing to the end and the numbers dropping off a little later on but still high. The presentations were all really well put together and sharing interesting projects. This was helped by the range of different types of sessions, a programme with regular but short breaks for people to stay fed and watered, and a well paced programme through the day. The keynote was after lunch rather than first thing, largely because of time zones for our US based presenter, but it was also good to have such an inspiring presentation to start off the afternoon.

Natalie Rusk presenting in a google hangout, showing scratch projects from children

The day was really successful, and being online meant we could cater for almost twice as many people as we would have been able to face to face, as well as a more international audience. It went so well that we decided to run a series of online seminars over the following months, and we have another series planned for the autumn.

This success was down to two groups of people. Firstly the presenters who brought fascinating work, presented in engaging and thought provoking ways. Secondly the event wouldn’t have happened without some very hard work from people on the Impact & Research and Events teams at the Raspberry PI Foundation. I’m lucky to have such smart and dedicated colleagues.

Future developments

I think we managed to run the formal aspects of a conference really well, but one area that needs more development is the more informal aspects such as networking with colleagues and meeting new people. I’m attending the ICER 2020 conference next week and I’ve noticed they have included some social events and more informal discussions in their programme. I’m interested to see how these run, and although these are likely to be the aspects that are most different about online events it will be good to have some opportunities for these kind of interaction as well. 

Tips we learned for running an online conference:

  • Have a very clear programme with all the timings, URLs to access resources and meeting spaces.
  • Stick to timings and chair ruthlessly – it can really mess things up if people in different spaces are not synchronised, and if things start to drag then engagement drops more quickly online.
  • Run a staffed green room for presenters – it worked so well getting everyone prepared and ready to transition smoothly between presentations.
  • Have plenty of staff to help with any technical challenges or people who need help.
  • Have a staff backchannel to co-ordinate and discuss issues away from the content. We used our organisation’s Slack instance.

Catching up and future events

We’ve uploaded all the talks from the symposium and the follow up seminars to our website, so do look back at them. You are also very welcome to join us for our autumn seminar series, which you can sign up to at the link below.

Content from the Cambridge Computing Education Research Symposium

Content from the Computing Education Seminars

Find out about the forthcoming series of seminars in the autumn

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