Friday, April 15, 2016

Tips for Offering Virtual Participation for a Conference

Virtual conferences and virtual participation for face-to-face conferences are becoming more common. The UW System LTDC just put on the 3rd annual virtual showcase (entirely online), and I was super impressed with the organization and coordination involved from the perspective of a participant and presenter. The recordings are now available if you want to check them out.

Conferences that are both online and face-to-face at the same time are a challenge. I've been on both ends of this: as the facilitator of the face-to-face meeting trying to make things work for the online people as well as an online participant in a primarily face-to-face conference. I would like to share some tips to make this process more effective.
  1. If you're planning on having the online participants fully participate, hold the meeting in a distance education room that's outfitted with mics for people in the room and technology that allows participants to see both screen sharing and the presenter. I frequently use web conferencing tools in my office, and I admit I wondered why we even need these rooms because Skype is fine, right? Just set up a laptop and a Yeti mic and call it good. No. I was wrong. If you are dealing with a group of people in a room transmitting to online people, you should have a room set up to accommodate the situation.
    • On a related note, attempting to repeat questions/comments from the audience just does not work. People forget, and there's usually a lot lost in the summary. Plus the volume varies considerably.
  2. Involve a person who does web conferencing for his/her job. At least, have a person like this on speed dial, consult with him/her ahead of time, and do a test in the room. I thought that my personal use of web conferencing would suffice since I often hold and participate in online meetings, but it's a bigger deal when it's a whole room and you're flustered in front of a group. People specialize in this.
  3. Have a virtual participation coordinator (I just made up that title!). This is a person in the room specifically dedicated to the online people - kind of like the lifeline to the room. One person cannot do both the online technology and facilitate the meeting and/or present. 
  4. If you have breakout/discussion sessions, you might need to provide a little extra guidance to the online people because communication is less natural in a web conference. Distractions abound and people are reluctant to speak. The virtual participation coordinator should facilitate, not just make sure things are okay and leave.
  5. Be prompt or at least let the online people know if things are running late. The face-to-face group knows if lunch was late or some other distraction is delaying the start of a session, but the online people are left wondering.
  6. If you do intros face-to-face, include the online people too! Try to give them a comparable experience, or let them know it will not be if that is the case.
  7. Provide expectations up front. Are the online participants going to just listen in to a live stream without interaction or participate through chat only? Or are you going to want them to share their webcam and mic and interact? Prepare them, so they change out of their pajamas and have a mic ready if necessary. 
  8. Get the PowerPoints out to the online participants ahead of time in case the technology malfunctions. Then if you have to choose whether to show a video of the presenter or a screensharing of the PowerPoint, you can share the video because they will have the PowerPoint.
  9. Plan well and consider both groups. Some activities done face-to-face aren't going to work well with the online group. For instance, if you have different tables talk about different topics simultaneously, what do the online people do? How can they pick a table/topic? Can you have technology at each table so the online people can choose their table? Then how do you make it so the online people can see who is talking at the table? If you can't make it comparable, let the online people know and charge much less. 
  10. Try to create opportunities for the face-to-face people to interact with the online people if possible. I think the coolest way to do this is if you have access to a telepresence robot who can move around to different tables. These feel more person-like, but maybe a few iPads would do the job? Watch out for feedback, though, and someone will need to be on hand to orient them to see whoever is speaking if it's at a table. 
It is possible to offer both synchronous face-to-face and online participation in an event, but a lot of work is involved in planning and setting up technology. Be prepared! If you have additional tips, please share in the comments (comments are moderated due to spam but I'll release any that are legitmiate).

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