The Online-First Model: On Hosting an Awesome Online Academic Conference (guest post by Catharine St. Croix)


The COVID-19 pandemic is causing disruptions to the professional life of academics in many ways—for instance, by making in-person conferences and workshops highly inadvisable, if not practically impossible. What to do? In this guest post*, Catharaine (Cat) St.Croix, a philosopher at the University of Minnesota, provides some helpful guidance.

The Online-First Model:
On Hosting an Awesome
Online Academic Conference
by Catharine St. Croix

Your university cancelled all travel, you’ve been teaching classes in your underwear for a few days now, and, on top of everything, you’ve been told to cancel the upcoming conference you spent hours upon hours organizing.

Obviously, that’s no good. Cancelling the conference throws out all the work you’ve already done in terms of wrangling speakers, scheduling flights and hotels, ordering catering, and so forth. A lot of those monetary costs are recoverable, but the time you’ve put into sure isn’t. However, there’s an alternative: Move it online!

Stay with me.

Why online conferences usually suck

If you’ve participated in a conference with that one Skype talk, gone through interviews on the academic job market recently, or tried to run a reading group online, you know exactly what this usually looks like:

Scenario 1: Two head-sized nostrils, projected onto a large screen overwhelm the room in a display that would be Orwellian, were it not dripping with awkwardness. With each slightly tinny word, you cringe, wondering if cupping a hand over your ear to dampen the volume would come off as rude. The speaker, at least, probably won’t notice: They’re squinting to see the tiny, tiny audience on their 13” monitor, desperately seeking any sign of comprehension from the fuzzy pixels. They show none. During the Q&A, you shout your question three times. But, alas, you’re not a baritone. You waive on to the next person in the queue, none the wiser for your troubles.

Scenario 2: Your laptop has been commandeered to serve as the speaker’s surrogate head. As the talk begins, the room is filled with the hushed sounds of your colleagues’ breathing, carefully restrained so as to be as quiet as possible because, somewhere beneath the whisps in and out, there’s a tiny audio stream explaining the finer points of realist social constructivism about… something? It’s twenty minutes in and you have no idea where you are on the handout. But, you’re first in the laptop camera’s frame, so you do your best to nod and look like you’re following along. As the Q&A begins, someone outside of the frame leans into the camera to ask their question. It is a disturbing experience full of teeth.

Most of this boils down to one problem: the centralized local group. Happily, in the time of COVID-19, we’re meant to avoid such groups. And I think this is a perfect opportunity to figure out, as a community, how to move from the online-insert model to the online-first model for online conferences.

The online-first model assumes there is NO central, physical gathering of people. The scenarios above use the online-insert model, in which an online participant is inserted in an otherwise in-person gathering. This creates an information bottleneck between the physically centralized group and the one person online. All of the data from that group is compressed into a single stream that goes to the inserted participant. By contrast, the online-first model gives each participant their own, equally weighted line of communication (though, depending on software, those lines can be managed by a session chair) and assumes that no two participants are co-located.

Benefits of the Online-First Model

By switching to the online first model, we can avoid many of the problems that cropped up in Scenarios 1 and 2. No oversized heads, no sotto voce sessions. And, there are some huge benefits:

  • Attendees don’t need to be local. As it stands, most of our conferences, especially the small ones, are really just for the speakers and folks at the host university. The cost of bringing non-speakers in is prohibitive (~$1000 for flight and hotel) and, even if someone can support their own travel, it’s time-consuming for them.
  • It’s disability-friendly. Online conferences allow participants with disabilities to use the systems they have already developed for themselves to manage whatever accommodations they need. (Of course, organizers should still offer accommodations and make every effort to provide additional accommodations as necessary.)
  • It’s just plain human-friendly. As usually happens, disability accommodations turn out to be great for folks who didn’t know they wanted them, too. We all have slightly different preferences for volume, temperature, the amount of light in the room, etc. The online model gives control back.
  • Chair power. Online meeting tools allow session chairs to manage a queue of questions more easily and, importantly, more fairly. While the true nature of fair chairing is a blog post all on its own, many of us have Views on the matter. But, these are hard to put into place when you’re nervous about having to call Person You Just Met or Famous Person You’re Supposed to Know by the color of their shirt.
  • It’s cost-effective. Of course, software isn’t free. But neither is flying folks in, renting hotel rooms, renting conference space, catering lunch, etc. And, now that we’re in the midst of the Corona Calamity, your institution probably already has a subscription to one of the relevant services. (I’ll talk about these below.)
  • If done correctly, online-first conferences can still feel like a unified, socially satisfying experience. (More on that below, too!)

If you’ve gotten this far, I hope I’ve convinced you that online conferences don’t have to be terrible. But, these benefits don’t come from just telling everyone to Skype in at 4pm on Tuesday.

Making Online-First Work

Throwing a successful online-first conference will require conceptual (what are we doing?), structural (how can we design the conference to facilitate that concept?), and infrastructural (what material goods or services do we need in order to facilitate that concept?) changes. Let’s take each in turn.

Conceptual

In the online-insert model, the goal was to retain as much of the traditional conference experience as possible. We keep the conference dinners, the tea breaks, the hotel chats, etc. Accommodating the online participant begins and ends with the speaker’s session and the conference otherwise runs as normal.

The online-first model turns this on its head. All we’re keeping is the bare bones: session chairs, speakers delivering their papers, maybe a commenter, and the q&a. With those essentials in place, we’ll be thinking about how to recover the benefits of the traditional model without the physical trappings. We have to accommodate the online participants from the the conference begins to the moment it ends.

That raises an important question: What are the benefits of the traditional model? If accommodating online participants means ensuring that they get the benefits that a traditional participant would get, we need to figure out what those benefits are. There are some obvious ones, of course. Presenting your work and getting feedback, keeping up with cutting-edge research in your field, getting clarification on research that’s important to your own projects, and so forth. A lot of that goes on during the paper sessions. But, there’s a lot more to conferencing: the dreaded and much-reviled “networking”, the opportunity to chat about your work in a low-stakes environment with lots of feedback, the exposure to inspiring ideas (and people!), and, very importantly, a sense of community. Conferences also focus our attention on the work being presented — they are rich, dense scholarly days. There are, I’m sure, many other benefits that I’m not thinking about, but that’s a good list to get us started.

Structural

With that conceptual shift in mind, what do we do with the structure of the conference to facilitate this?

Let’s begin before the beginning.

You need a conference website. It doesn’t need to be fancy or particularly pretty, but it needs to provide all of the information your attendees will be using. Here’s a quick checklist:

  • It must have the schedule: dates and times (with timezones!) for each session, along with tites, authors, and abstracts. The session titles should be linked to sessions within whatever online conferencing system you choose as the conference infrastructure.
  • An explanation of how the conference will work (including q&a sessions, session breaks, etc) with a statement of expectations that encourages attendees to participate in all of the sessions.
  • Links for downloading and supporting the technologies you’ll be using.
  • The link for your test session. Which brings me to…

Provide a test session. Organizers should run a test session before the conference officially begins so that attendees who want to make sure their setup is working can check that they’re doing things correctly. Plan on helping people figure things out. At least one of the organizers should be comfortable providing support throughout the conference.

Provide daily intros and outros. For traditional conferences, you have the benefit of getting on a plane, getting to your AirBNB, and settling into a different context. From the time you start your journey to the conference, you’re in conference mode. Maybe you’re reading over the other papers, maybe you’re finishing your slides or polishing your comments, or maybe you’re reviewing the attendee list to see who you’ll know… regardless, you’re Doing Conference Stuff. You’ve shifted contexts. How can we manage this in the online-first model?

Intros and outros are a great way to provide that context-setting. On the first day, explain how the conference will work and talk about the theme of the conference, if there is one. Later on, you can talk about connections you see between the papers to be presented that day (tip: organize presentations so that there is such a connection) or anything else you think might help to frame the day. For outros, you can either do your own synthesis, give participants a chance to talk about all of the sessions together, or both. These sessions don’t have to be long (15-30 minutes) and can include discussion time.

This will be a significant amount of extra work for organizers, so make sure to plan for it. But, hey, you don’t have to wrangle flights, food, or hotels.

Foster social interaction. Don’t just provide a tool for social interaction (But do provide one! I’ll talk about the infrastructure to support this below); provide context, space, modeling, and encouragement. Just like the traditional model, you’ll want to provide breaks between talks. Referring to these breaks as discussion breaks or tea time can help clarify for people that they’re meant to be participating during that time. Make sure to have your conferencing software active during these periods and be prepared to strike up conversations with folks, either over text or audio. And, remind people of this time after every talk.

Remember that your participants are humans. Make sure to build in times for lunch and to break at a reasonable time before dinner.

Invite your participants to a TV Dinner. This may seem a bit silly and awkward, but conference dinners are always a bit silly and awkward. During the TV Dinner, attendees grab an at-home meal and bring it with them to join the other conference participants for an hour or so at the end of the day to have some casual time together after the program. After the last talk of the day, set a time that gives folks a chance to microwave their meals (or make/order them, if they’re fancy) and grab a drink. Again, be prepared to model behavior and encourage others. Make clear that people should feel free to come and go as they wish, and leave the client open as long as people want to chat.

Provide Reminders. Traditional conferences generate their own momentum. As long as you get there at the start of the day and follow what everyone else is doing, you’ll probably make it to all of the sessions. For the online-first model, we’ll need to build that into the administrative structure. An easy way to do that is just to provide email reminders about the conference schedule at the beginning of each day and after lunch. You might also send out Google Calendar invites for each of the sessions, allowing people to use their existing reminder settings for the conference.

Encourage Collaboration. Provide some kind of written document that people can collaborate with and encourage them to use it. Whether that’s Google Docs or a digital whiteboard of some kind, you’ll want to be able to replicate the real-time interaction that’s so important to conferencing.

Many of these ideas require some kind of software or hardware to implement. So, let’s close by turning to those details.

Infrastructural

These suggestions are a mixture of tools I’ve used and ones suggested by folks I’ve canvassed about their experiences with online conferences. More suggestions are very welcome.

Tech Support. You will need to provide tech support to your conference attendees. Make sure that one of your organizers is responsible for this. Make sure that your attendees know how to get in touch with that person. Either setting up an email address (e.g., [email protected]) or just providing that person’s email address will do.

Conference Service. You’ll need a conference service. Zoom and Sococo are great options.

Sococo provides a little map with different “breakout rooms” people can join, which turns out to be wonderfully intuitive. For our purposes, this is great because it lets people who want to have a conversation together wander off into a breakout room and chat away. They can leave the door open and let others join or close the door, leaving others to knock if they’re interested in joining. Sococo supports video conferencing natively, but also integrates with Zoom (and Slack!).

Zoom is the current go-to for many institutions. It’s robust against overload because the server handling most of your traffic can be installed locally by your institution. Zoom also has a feature that allows participants to raise their hands, making the chair’s job much, much easier, because they can simply unmute a participant when it’s their turn (…or mute someone when their turn is over).

Chat Tools. Zoom and Sococo have native chat clients (and mobile apps), so you could just stick with those. If you want something with a bit more flexibility and functionality, Slack is a great option.

Website Back-ends. There are a million ways to host a website out there, so I won’t spend much time on this, except to highlight three options:

  • Google Sites — Not very pretty, but free to everyone and easy to use.
  • Squarespace — Relatively inexpensive for a short-term conference website. Attractive and easy to use.
  • Your university’s tools — Your university may have a content management system like Drupal, Joomla, or WordPress that you can use for free. Work with your IT folks to get something rolling.

Digital whiteboard. Zoom has a native whiteboard function that participants can collaborate on, but if you want to use something else, InVision comes highly recommended.

Of course, online conferences will still have their drawbacks. There will be technical difficulties. Some folks will have a slow connection. If you’re cross-time-zones, people will make mistakes about the schedules. But, I think the online-first model can go a long way toward fostering and maintaining our academic communities, without forcing us to stare up anyone’s gigantic nostrils.

[art: René Magritte, ” La race blanche”]

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