Are Virtual Conferences the way of the future? – Presenter and participant perspectives from LAK20

By Hazel Jones (Griffith University), Linda Corrin (Swinburne University of Technology) and Srecko Joksimovic (University of South Australia)

The organisers of the 2020 Learning Analytics and Knowledge (LAK20) conference, which was meant to be held in Frankfurt in March, made the bold and brilliant decision to conduct the conference fully online due to the emerging COVID-19 situation. They were able to achieve this mammoth task in just two weeks – an incredible effort that was much appreciated by participants and presenters. Did it go smoothly? – yes. Are there lessons that could be learnt for others considering this option? – definitely. Do we believe virtual conferences will replace the traditional face-to-face conference? – we hope not.

The observations and comments throughout this post are from the perspective of three participants in the LAK20 conference, one who presented, one who had their workshop cancelled, and one who was not originally able to attend physically but joined the conference when virtual registrations were made available. The program convenors for the conference also shared their perspectives in a recent Campus Morning Mail article (Kovanic & Scheffel, 2020).

Starting with some of the positives: all sessions ran smoothly, with just the occasional minor technical hiccup, which was quickly resolved. Attendance numbers at sessions were reported as ranging between approx. 50 to over 300 for the first Keynote presentation. There were two parallel sessions (half of the normal four), offered over a 12-hour period (extended from the normal seven or eight hours), allowing participants who were spread across various time zones to attend many sessions live. All sessions were recorded, meaning participants could later watch any missed sessions. At the time of writing though it seems that this has not been widely taken up by the registered conference participants, with most presentations having less than 10 views.  These presentations will be made publicly available later in the year, which should boost their viewing numbers, a further benefit for presenters.

Due to the large number of participants, the organisers made the decision to mute video and audio for all delegates during the presentations. Access to each session was only enabled right on the starting time. We found this approach to be a little isolating for presenters and audience and would recommend that organisers of future virtual conferences allow participants to enter the sessions a few minutes early with full video and audio. Session chairs could then mute the audience at the start of presentations. This will allow for networking and build social presence in the sessions. Whilst presenters could see the number of participants, it was a different experience presenting to a “blank” room. Similarly, the sessions were closed as soon as the last presenter’s Q&A session was completed, with participants being invited to continue discussions in one of the dedicated social chat rooms. Our experience was that this did not prove effective as we mostly found the chat rooms empty or with only 1 or 2 people present. We would recommend for future conferences that sessions remain open for 10 minutes following any Q&A to allow networking and continuation of discussions.

All presentations at LAK20 were traditional paper presentations, which given the short timeframe is definitely understandable. However, we would challenge future conference organisers to consider a range of online presentation types to enable greater engagement and interactivity. With the multitude of potential distractions for an audience “attending” a presentation in their home, it is important for presenters to keep their presentations active and engaging. The PechaKucha-style presentation proved highly popular and successful at ASCILITE19 and this is one option to keep the pace up and the content succinct, as would more interactive panels, webinars and quasi-workshops.

One of the drawcards for face-to-face conferences is the opportunity for networking and socialising, both formal and informal – be this at the conference dinner, welcome reception or informal chats in the coffee queues. This was something we all found was missing during LAK20. While technically there was a conference social hour in place of the conference dinner (which was very early morning for us in Australian time zones), this didn’t quite provide the spontaneous connections that often emerge when you put a large number of people together in a physical space. Hopefully some of the suggestions we have made above will help other conferences overcome this.

It is looking increasingly like there will be few, if any, traditional face-to-face conferences for at least the rest of 2020. Even if they were possible, these would probably look quite different, with no international delegates or Keynote speakers able to physically attend. There is also now the issue of funding for conference attendance – with the financial shortfalls and cutbacks across the sector it is unlikely that many will receive funding or support to attend conferences in the foreseeable future. How costs will be handled for virtual conferences is a major consideration for future conference organising committees.

The organisers of the 2020 ASCILITE conference are currently considering their options for how the conference will be staged, so stay tuned for updates.

Webinar: SoLAR is conducting a webinar on 27 April 2020 “Running an Online Conference: Insights from LAK20”. Further details and registration are available here.

References

Kovanic, V. & Scheffel, M. (2020). Brave new on-line world: key lessons from moving LAK20 conference on-line. Retrieved from  https://campusmorningmail.com.au/news/brave-new-on-line-world-key-lessons-from-moving-lak20-conference-on-line/

LAK20 Conference site https://lak20.solaresearch.org

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