Ten tips for organising an online conference

We are all learning to do more online, including conferences. In this post, Sharon Smith, a PGR in the School of Education, shares her experience of organising an online conference. For more detail, see Sharon’s full post on her personal blog.

Laptop screen showing faces attending an online conferenceAt the beginning of September, a friend and I ran an online postgraduate conference for students studying philosophy of education. We initially started thinking about the conference late Spring, but decided not to rush into hosting it, choosing a September date for the event to ensure we had sufficient time to plan for it. This meant that we could attend other online webinars and conferences to see what the common issues were, and to understand the experience from the perspective of the attendee.

Here are ten tips for anyone wanting to organise an online conference:

  1. Choose a broad theme for the event – so that the papers are all linked in some way but also there is a range of approaches and topics discussed.
  2. Decide on the ‘feel’ or ethos for the event and build this into your planning and communications. We wanted to offer a safe and welcoming space where students could share their developing thoughts and work in progress, and this was reflected in our approach throughout.
  3. Once you accept papers, ask presenters about whether there are any times of the day that are unsuitable for them.
  4. Also, consider different time zones if you have an international audience.
  5. We found that 5 minutes after each paper for questions was insufficient. Also, people wanted to discuss broader themes arising during the day. Suggestions to address this include pre-recording of papers in advance, so that people can watch them in their own time, and then the majority of the conference is dedicated to discussion, or building more discussion time into the schedule, maybe in small breakout rooms (which you can do in Zoom or Teams).
  6. Schedule at least 15-20 minutes break between different sessions, with a longer break for lunch. Some of our breaks were only ten minutes, and although we did keep tight control on session timings, even going over by a few minutes meant that there was little time for an actual break in between.
  7. Have a plan for what will happen if presenters pull out at the last minute – how will you use the empty space in the schedule?
  8. Have a Chair who leads the session and a room host/admin person who manages the chat room and any technical issues, and ensures that everything is ready for the next session.
  9. Have back-ups in place for the Chair and room host/admin roles, in case of technology issues. One of our session Chairs had Internet problems, so we quickly had to work out who was available to stand in for them.
  10. Run a practice session with presenters and chairs the day before, to iron out technical difficulties.

Additionally, it is worth looking at this blog post that I have recently come across about organising an online conference.

What has your experience of online conferences been so far? What tips would you add to Sharon’s list?

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Helen Kara

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