Three months ago, I had a busy schedule lined up through early summer. As a former education industry executive and current strategy consultant and analyst, conferences are my learning lifeblood: intense, compressed experiences for staying on top of edtech trends and companies.
I was set to attend ASU GSV Summit in late March, SIIA in mid-May, ISTE in late June, and was considering dropping in to SXSW EDU and a couple of others. Then COVID-19 came.
SXSW EDU and the entire South by Southwest conference slate in mid-March was the first on my schedule to drop. Then ASU GSV Summit and ISTE postponed to fall, SIIA’s EdTech Industry Conference moved from San Francisco to online, and a whole host of industry and association events began changing plans.
Since March 18—when EdSurge’s Tony Wan and I began unofficially tracking U.S. education association and industry conferences that were scheduled to occur this year—every in-person, pre-K-though-adult 2020 event on our list through September has changed plans, plus a smattering of conferences into October and beyond.
By Memorial Day, more than 60 percent of tracked 2020 events—77 out of a total of 126—were listed as having canceled, postponed or gone virtual. By far the most common shift was to virtual, followed by outright cancellation. Only two events, ASU GSV Summit and ISTE, were postponed to later in the year.
In early June, there was a noticeable slowdown in changes. It’s almost as if a wait-and-see attitude set in among event organizers to see if or where COVID-19 might flare up again in the fall. Some are looking at flexible online/in-person structures, such as OLC Accelerate in Florida in November. Others are surveying their likely attendees for their preferences, as EDUCAUSE began doing at the start of June for its large annual conference in Boston in late October.
But that shift to virtual? It’s been varied, and very uneven. In that respect, conference organizers and attendees share a small part of the pain felt by teachers and students abruptly turned into remote instructors and learners.
Now-online events are trying a variety of scheduling options: the same dates as the original in-person event, or short bursts of sessions over a handful of weeks, or a series of weekly or monthly webinars. Most rare is combining events. The Association of Test Publishers (ATP), which cancelled its Innovations in Testing conference set for March and faces an uncertain E-ATP event for late September in London, has merged both into a single virtual event starting September 14.
So I’ve sampled and learned. GSV Virtual Summit. SIIA’s EdTech Industry Conference. Various online events from CoSN, ATP and others. The benefit of the shift to online has been a low risk, and usually free, way to check out conferences I wouldn’t necessarily attend.
But the drawbacks go beyond internet bandwidth issues and hours of butt-in-seat immobility.
Here are three tips for virtual conference organizers to consider, based on hours of my life that I will never get back.
1. The moderator is everything.
Nothing exposes a moderator’s weaknesses more than the unwavering focus of Zoom. Sure, a good moderator must prepare in advance. But during the session, discussion moderators should remember three things:
- They’re the glue. A moderator’s role is to create a coherent whole out of disparate parts. Moderators are the audience surrogate, and always should bring speakers’ comments back to the session’s topic.
- They’re a metronome. They need to ensure the discussion tempo is right for someone sitting and listening amid home distractions. Politely interrupt. Keep things moving. Letting panelists drone on or make unchallenged assertions is surrender, not moderation.
- They’re not the star. A well-known moderator can be a draw—before the event. But the audience is there to learn from the panelists. That doesn’t mean moderators should be passive. But there’s a difference between creating a center of discussion and being the center of attention.
2. Leave participants wanting more.
Zoom fatigue is real. Generally speaking, the most effective virtual conferences I’ve attended either limit the number of consecutive online hours without a break to no more than two, or the number of consecutive weeks of scheduled sessions to no more than four.
After more than a couple of continuous hours, focus flags. And after more than a month of weekly or twice-weekly sessions, audience members start to wonder if what had been a special event is now a repetitive time suck that won’t end. While this is tricky and can vary based on the audience, don’t let a virtual conference drag on. Set an end date. Success is not excess.
3. Combine tools intelligently.
What suffers the most in a virtual conference is serendipity and networking. I’ve yet to see any virtual event do this well if it relies on a video conferencing tool’s chat function alone to replace casual interactions.
What has worked—to some extent—is creating dedicated “reception” times using Zoom breakout rooms or an equivalent. Even more useful is a parallel space for audience chat and networking that persists beyond the conference session. A dedicated conference Slack workspace combined with a video conferencing tool is a sign that event organizers want attendees to connect. The challenge is directing them to the right place and seeding the interactions. Otherwise, all you get is the equivalent of a “hey, I’m here!” message from individual participants as a virtual “don’t forget I exist!” wave.
Still, the best example of a virtual conference during this pandemic period that I’ve attended comes not from education, but from science fiction.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America moved its annual Nebula Conference for professional writers in late May online. Yes, it had good moderators, snappy sessions and well-oiled combinations of online tools over its three days. But it also had something that helped replicate the physical experience.
In advance of the event, paid registrants received an unexpected package in the mail containing a four-page color schedule, a printed name badge and a short tumbler glass etched with the name of the event. To make those post-session Zoom happy hours more … happy.
Now that’s an organization looking to the future of virtual conferences.
This analysis originally appeared on June 10, 2020 in EdSurge.