By Samantha Cheung (ChemE PhD candidate)
From April to June 2020, I led a committee that organized the U of T Engineering Research Conference (UTERC) — the Faculty’s first-ever virtual research conference for graduate students. We planned this conference completely from scratch and ended up having over 400 registrants with a program consisting of alumni panels, a poster contest and five-minute lightning talks judged by alumni. Pandemic or not, virtual conferences have many advantages and are becoming increasingly common in today’s online world and workplace.
Here are five tips to consider when planning your virtual research conference:
- Research your platform early
Selecting and researching a platform is one of the most important decisions you’ll make, which also takes a surprising amount of time. It’s not as simple as Googling “best virtual conference platform” because it is dependent on your specific needs. Consider these questions: How many people do you expect to attend? What’s your budget? Does your institution prefer certain platforms? What capabilities and how much control will you need? This last question is the most difficult to answer because you will either need to consult with an expert (or someone with extensive experience) or investigate each of the platforms yourself (heads up: there are A TON of Zoom settings you can play with.) You should make sure to have at least one person in charge of researching and managing your conference platform because it is extremely time consuming and it will make or break your conference.
- Have at least two moderators per room/session
You’ll need two moderators for a couple of reasons: 1) As backup in case someone’s internet is not co-operating and 2) to split tasks for moderating the room. Tasks during moderating might include letting people in from the waiting room, making sure presenters are set up, introducing presenters, facilitating discussions, monitoring the chat, creating breakout rooms and communicating with conference organizers if anything goes wrong.
- Hold practice sessions for everyone
If you’re hosting talks with presenters, on top of sending them detailed instructions, plan at least one practice session before the event so everyone can workout any technical issues, get some feedback on their setup (too much light, too quiet…etc.), and know what to expect on the day so everything smoothly. If you’re hosting a discussion panel, spend about 15 minutes before the start time for panelists to get used to the platform and know what to expect during the event.
- Maximize opportunities for networking
One of the key benefits of an in-person conference, and one of the hardest to replicate online, is networking. Casually talking to your neighbour during a session or bumping into someone at the refreshments table often lead to fruitful connections but does not exist in an online environment. This is where you have to be creative and think about what types of networking your participants would find valuable. For example, random breakout rooms after talks? A passive discussion board? Organized networking activities? All of the above? Do a bit of digging to learn more about your audience to determine would be the best approach, or try experimenting to see which is most successful.
- Lastly, make sure you have a group of amazing people to work with!
Planning a virtual conference takes much less time than an in-person conference (our team effectively planned ours within two months), but issues will inevitably pop up as you go. The UTERC Team was able to quickly respond and adjust when issues arose — this was facilitated by regular communication and simultaneously working on documents through Google Docs. Spending many hours per week planning a conference from scratch is not trivial and I am thankful for everyone I had the pleasure of working with in the short two months we were working together.
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