Best Practices: Moving Your Virtual Conference Online

The COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States in spring 2020 and caused widespread disruptions. Among many other challenges, higher education institutions had to figure out how they could move their on-campus research showcases to online-only virtual events, while still achieving the goals of highlighting undergraduate research, celebrating the work done by faculty mentors and students, and sharing the results with the larger college community. 

The work that colleges and universities do nationally is supported by a variety of organizations, many within the edtech space. As this big shift was happening in March, we were approached by a few of our partners who wondered if there were any services SOC could provide to help make the transition to virtual conferences easier. We stepped up by offering free and low-cost virtual conference planning and publishing services to our partners—an offer that was later expanded to the larger honors and undergraduate research communities nationwide. 

Until now, we have organized and helped publish over a dozen virtual conferences for various partners, including California State University, George Mason University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Johnson C. Smith University, and University of Hawaii. Combined, the 500 student posters and presentations were viewed on the conference websites over 50,000 times and received over 2,000 comments from visitors. 

As expected, we learned many lessons through this journey. The pandemic is far from over, and this academic year will be unusual in many ways. We expect many colleges and universities will be organizing their research symposia as online-only events, so here are some recommendations and best practices if you’re about to go down this road:

1. Choose Asynchronous

While your instinct may be to organize another Zoom or Teams meeting to have people make presentations and gather feedback, please realize that this may not be the best option. Choosing an asynchronous model has many benefits of its own: it allows attendees to engage with materials for a longer period on their own schedule; you can get better analytics and engagement statistics; and the added flexibility allows for course and error correction as needed.

2. Build Some Time Buffer

While planning your conference, give each stage as much buffer as possible. The pandemic has introduced a new level of unpredictability to all of our schedules, and the participants and attendees might be dealing with an added layer of stress. Give authors an extra day or two to get their submissions in order if you can. It’s helpful also to have an external submission deadline as well as a final internal deadline. Similarly, plan to have the materials ready for launch a day or two before the conference to allow for testing, just in case.

Interested in working with SOC to plan and host your virtual conference?

Head over to our Virtual Conference page to see how we’ve helped other campuses.

3. Educate Attendees and Participants

Students who are presenting at your conference will have some questions while they are preparing their submissions. Be sure to have the answers ready so you can share this critical information as much in advance as possible. Our partners at CWU wrote a comprehensive guide on how to turn your poster into a PowerPoint presentation, add narration, upload to YouTube, and add subtitles. This guide helped avoid many questions and errors. Similarly, be sure to help people navigate through the final website. Attendees may understand how they can make the most of an in-person conference, but a virtual conference with a novel interface may not come as naturally to everyone.

4. Provide Support

Another really important thing: having easily accessible support resources can save you a lot of time and headaches. This may mean setting up a knowledge base with answers to some FAQs, providing guided videos, or having support available via phone or email. Attendees will have questions, and they should be able to reach out to you and your team during the event!

5. Ask for Help

You may have more help than you realize. Enroll a few students to help with the conference, if you can. Enlist the help of a tech-savvy colleague in case you need to troubleshoot something. Also, let your campus IT contact know that this conference is happening and you may need some help. If you’re working with a third-party provider, software service, or platform, be sure you know whom to talk to if there are any issues, and how that person can be reached.

We can help!

SOC worked with about a dozen campuses during Spring and Summer 2020 to plan and host virtual research conference and symposia. Feel free to drop us a line if you’re interested and someone from our team will reach out.

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