Adventures in Hybrid Conferencing

I’ve been to three hybrid conferences over the course of the last few months so I thought it might be interesting to write a bit of a reflection on my experience of being both a delegate and a speaker at these events, what worked, what didn’t, and what I learned in the process. 

OER22 Conference

The first event was the OER22 Conference run by ALT at the end of April. This conference marked a return to in-person events for ALT for the first time since the pandemic started, and I know that there was some understandable anxiety about bringing people together for a face-to-face event. The conference ran for three days; kicking off with a day of in-person talks and parallel sessions in London, followed by a day of recorded online talks, and finally a day of live online parallel sessions. About 80 people attended the in-person day of the conference, with around twice that number taking part online.  ALT have a wealth of experience when it comes to running both in-person and online conferences and, despite having a very small staff team, their events invariably run like clockwork.  As expected, ALT handled the logistics of bringing people back together with real sensitivity and empathy, with plenty of space at the venue so that people never felt crowded, and plenty of time in the programme for people to network and socialise.

For the online component of the conference ALT used the same suite of technologies that they’ve used for several previous online events, which includes Streamyard, YouTube and  Discord, all of which worked well. The programme was easily accessible and simple to navigate, and it was possible to move between sessions if you wanted to catch presentations that were taking place in parallel. I did have a bit of trouble getting into my own online presentation session, due to some technical weirdness, but ALT dealt with the hitch smoothly, and it didn’t detract from my experience as a presenter.  A Discord server provided a social space where delegates could share slides and resources, and meet and chat informally throughout the conference.  There was also a dedicated channel for help and support. I confess I was not enthusiastic when ALT first started using Discord as part of their online conference platform, primarily because it’s a channel I use a lot outside work, however I have to admit that it works really well and it really adds to the online conference experience.  I’ve written a longer reflection on the OER22 here: OER22 In Person & Online.

University of Edinburgh Learning & Teaching Conference

Like OER22, the University of Edinburgh’s internal Learning & Teaching Conference ran as a hybrid event after having run online for two years during the pandemic.  The first day of the event took place in the magnificent McEwan Hall and surrounding buildings, and consisted of an exhibition space, posters, keynotes and parallel sessions. The second and third days took place online and consisted of parallel tracks of online talks.  I don’t know how many people attended the conference but I’d guess maybe 60 – 80 people were present for the in-person day of the event.  The content of the conference was excellent, all the sessions I attended online and in person were really thoughtful and thought provoking.  The exhibition space in particular provided a great opportunity for colleagues to network and socialise after so long apart, and I appreciated that the breaks were long enough not to feel rushed.  

The conference platform was based on Eventscase and Zoom and this is where some problems crept in.  The platform could be accessed via the web, but we were also asked to download an app and a QR code to join the conference.  Normally I avoid loading work apps onto my personal devices, so I wasn’t mad keen on having to do this, however as it turned out, I didn’t need to use either the app or the QR code after downloading them. Navigating the programme on Eventscase was tricky; the schedule was available as a web page and in a calendar view, which also allowed delegates to book on to specific sessions.  However because the calendar view only showed sessions that had to be booked, you had to go back to the webpage to find information about keynotes and plenaries, so there was a bit of confusion about what was happening where and when during the first day.  Also while I appreciate the reasons for encouraging delegates to book onto online sessions, it didn’t seem to be possible to change sessions, to listen to different presentations running in parallel, even when there were still places available, which was more than a little frustrating.  Presenters had to book on to their own sessions in order to be able to present, but getting into the sessions wasn’t always straightforward, and in some cases session chairs had to e-mail speakers Zoom links instead.   The session chairs were unfailingly helpful though, as were all the conference helpers who directed delegates around the campus on the first day of the event. Although I really enjoyed the conference the Eventscase platform did feel unnecessarily complicated and at times seemed to be more of a hindrance than a help. 

ALT Scotland Annual Conference

The ALT Scotland Annual Conference was a much smaller event, which provided a really interesting opportunity to experiment with a different kind of hybrid conference; one where some participants attended online and some attended in-person simultaneously.  The event, which ran for one day, was hosted by City of Glasgow College, and brought together learning technologists and policy makers from across all sectors of Scottish education.  Again, I’m not sure exactly how many people attended, but I’d estimate there were c.20 people attending in person and perhaps the same number again online. The conference took place on the day of a national rail strike which meant that quite a lot of folk who had planned to attend in person, had to join online instead. The event was facilitated using Thinglink, Zoom, and a double screen and camera set up that had been donated to the college by a vendor whose name I didn’t catch. We had one person chairing the event in the room and another coordinating Zoom online.  The screens at the front of the room showed Zoom but unfortunately it was difficult to see the online discussion from where I was sitting.  Several of the attendees in the room also joined Zoom from their laptops so they could participate in the online chat with colleagues who were attending remotely.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get on to Eduroam so I wasn’t able to join the online interaction, and it did rather feel like I was missing out.  Several of the presenters joined remotely via Zoom which worked well for participants both online and in person.  I gave a short talk in-person, which was a bit of an odd experience.  Standing at the front of the room facing the camera meant that the screens were behind me, so I couldn’t help feeling like I’d turned my back on the online participants.  This also meant that I couldn’t see the Zoom chat which meant that some of the remote participants felt as though their questions were being ignored.  When I finished speaking, the camera stayed locked on to me and followed me all the way back to my seat, which was a little disconcerting! 

As a group of learning technologists, the conference gave us an excellent opportunity to experiment with the kind of technologies that might be used to facilitate hybrid teaching and learning, and we had a really interesting discussion at the end of the day about the pros, cons and practicalities of running hybrid events like this.  I think we all agreed that it’s not easy, and we need a lot more practice to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Joe Wilson, who chaired the event in-person commented that it would have been impossible to coordinate everything, online and in-person, without the help of Louise Jones who was managing Zoom.  Sheila MacNeill has written an interesting blog post about the ALT Scotland Conference, which includes some reflection on a questionable “attention tracking” feature of the conferencing system, which I hasten to add we didn’t experiment with during the event.

Reflection

In terms of my takeaways from these three quite different hybrid events I’d say that running conferences that have in-person and online components on different days is a good way to ensure that an event is accessible to as many people as possible.  I did really appreciate being able to get together with colleagues in person, and I wouldn’t want to lose that again, however there are many advantages to having an online component too.  Online events are generally more accessible, convenient, they reduce the necessity to travel and as a result they’re better for the environment.

In terms of the technology, simple is better. It’s often more convenient to have the conference programme available on a simple web page rather than in an interactive calendar that takes multiple clicks to navigate. Also requiring delegates to download apps onto their personal devices is not a good idea for numerous reasons. 

When it comes to running events online and in-person simultaneously, we still have a lot to learn. As is so often the case, it’s not necessarily the technology that trips us up, it’s the human interactions that really make a difference, and clearly we still need a lot of practice to ensure that simultaneous events provide an equitable experience for everyone involved. 

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