How to organise an online conference and live to tell the tale

Continuing our recent mini-theme of online conferences, Lluís Jerez i Bertolín, a PGR from the School of History and Cultures, shares with us his experience of organising one.

Lluís Jerez i Bertolín
Lluís Jerez i Bertolín

In late April of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc around the world, which was not good. I stepped from assisting the organisation of the Classics, Ancient History and Archaeology Colloquium (CAHA Colloquium) to being its sole organiser, which was also not good. As the Colloquium could not be postponed to the next academic year, it had to take place online, which at the time I saw as a complete disaster.

In this post I want to share three guiding principles that allowed me to navigate this situation and turn a perfect storm into an enjoyable conference. These principles are: communication, decision-making tempo, and accessibility.

Communication

Being able to communicate and gather feedback that informs your decision-making is one of the most important aspects in making an online colloquium work. Before taking a final decision, you should communicate not only with your fellow organisers but with anyone who has a stake in that decision. That may be your paper-givers, your chairs, the attendees, faculty staff, the finance office, or any other person that has some sort of stake in the conference. That doesn’t mean that you should tell everything to everyone, quite the contrary. When communicating information, try to get the relevant information to the relevant people. Try to send regular decently-sized e-mails instead of many short e-mails – this will improve the chance they will actually read them. In an online conference you will deal with issues that do not occur in face-to-face conferences, make sure that everyone who is involved with the issue at hand knows what they should do.

Decision-making tempo

When you organize an online conference you should be careful not only to make informed decisions, but to make them at the right time. Some decisions that are extremely urgent in face-to-face conferences can be delayed in online ones, and vice-versa. As a practical example, whereas in face-to-face conferences you should try to pin down a date as soon as possible to aid logistics and travel, you can delay that decision in online conferences, choosing a date after you get feedback from your paper-givers and potential attendees on what day is best for them. On the other hand, choosing the conferencing platform you will use should be dealt with as soon as possible. When beginning to plan the conference try to think which decisions will need to be made, but also when it will be most suitable to make them.

Accessibility

Online conferences place a technological burden on your paper-givers, as they are supposed to have a microphone, a camera, and a good internet connection (this also applies to you). Try to explore the range of possibilities that online conferences give you to be flexible and make your conference more accessible. Is a camera necessary for giving a paper? Can you use your phone to act as a relay in the Q&A session if they don’t have an internet connection? Try to communicate these possibilities to your paper-givers early on and hold a technical rehearsal before the conference to see what issues arise and how to solve them. Your attendees may not be good with computers or it may be their first online conference, try to communicate how they should mute themselves or how question-taking is going to work. Try to make your conference both accessible to anyone and shielded from malicious intents. Asking attendees to register and only distributing the access link to pre-approved attendees who provide their name, institution and research interests is a great way to do that.

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