Major Conference Going Virtual? My Lessons From Co-Hosting #AEFP2020

Nine days before a conference for which 750 people had already registered, an education organization I’m on the board of decided to switch to virtual because of coronavirus. This was, as you can imagine, a pretty hectic choice, but one we’re proud of as we prioritized the health and safety of our members.

The Association for Education Finance and Policy (AEFP) is a nonprofit professional and academic association. At the annual meeting, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers share research and lessons learned about efforts to enhance student learning. Initially, my role was to chair a session and moderate a policy talk. The switch to virtual meant that I also served as host for seven sessions. 

Three computer monitors showing different concurrent sessions of @aefpweb virtual conference

Photo via @aefpweb on Twitter

Since many other conferences will be going virtual in the coming months, here are lessons I learned about the transition — as well as some unexpected upsides to going remote: 

Organize your team and provide clear instructions.

AEFP’s executive director, Lydia Ross, and IT contractor, Hiep Ho, arranged for all 126 sessions, four featured policy talks, the skills sessions, and the general session to be held via Zoom webinars. (Zoom has provided a helpful list of tips for setting things up in a way that minimizes party-crashers and other unwanted behavior.) In addition to the usual chair and presenters, each session had a host. Hosts were provided instructions on how to log into the designated Zoom room to start the webinar and enable panelists to share their screens during presentations. AEFP used Zoom’s branding capabilities to tailor the conference look by uploading the group logo and creating a custom URL. AEFP also created a Zoom page on the conference website with instructions and troubleshooting tips. Having this information accessible made it easier to support attendees. 

Do practice runs and organize backups.

Have hosts do practice runs in advance. In addition to ensuring that sessions start smoothly, you can see what others will see when your video is on, which is a great incentive to tidy up your workspace. Having a small and manageable number of hosts facilitates the preparation process and minimizes the amount of troubleshooting required during the event. 

Throughout the conference, Lydia and Hiep worked behind the scenes to ensure sessions were up and running and sent updated instructions to clarify the sign-in process for hosts. For most of the conference, just two people behind the scenes worked fine. But at the start of the event when hosts and attendees are getting used to the virtual environment, it’s a good idea to have additional support available.  

Hosts should be prepared to serve as backup in case session chairs have internet connectivity or childcare issues. In AEFP’s case, co-authors of papers backed each other up, too. In one notable case, a presenter’s power went out and her co-author seamlessly picked up where she had left off.

Provide virtual networking opportunities.

Thanks to AEFP members’ engagement on social media and generosity around time and mentorship, lots of people offered to host virtual networking meetings as soon as the transition to virtual was announced. After the general session, AEFP had a Zoom meeting with breakout rooms for three 15-minute networking sessions and four people per breakout room. I suspect this worked even better than an in-person meeting for newer members who didn’t know a lot of people at the conference and might have been shy about introducing themselves. I recommend building in interactive sessions throughout the conference.

During the in-person conferences, AEFP’s poster sessions (where researchers present their work on a paper poster) are typically well-attended and an additional source of networking activity. For the virtual conference, conference attendees were allowed to post comments on the poster online, and both the board and membership did so. Although I didn’t get to meet the researchers in person, my comments were probably more extensive than usual because I had more time to view and comment on each poster.

Consider the impact on interactions between panelists and attendees.

Zoom offers both meeting and webinar formats. In meetings, everyone who participates can unmute themselves and screen share, so meetings work well for interactive sessions (such as the networking session). In the webinar format, only panelists can unmute themselves and screen share. In either format, it can be helpful to have an “intro” slide that provides norms for the session, such as how to ask questions, and reminders for attendees. 

AEFP used webinars for sessions that involved presentations. The host can promote anyone to panelist, and can unmute any participant. I encouraged people to introduce themselves in the chat box. Additionally, hosts can give attendees the opportunity to speak. Some hosts did this for all participants during the Q&A, and doing so allowed people to see the names of others attending the session. Since the host still couldn’t see attendees, I recommend exercising caution in calling on people in case they had to step away momentarily. Attendees could also submit questions for panelists via the chat box. I did not see a single instance of “this is more of a comment than a question,” so that was a win.

Acknowledge that a rapidly evolving situation creates additional work-life balance challenges for attendees. 

Between when we voted to go virtual and the day prior to the conference, 38 states closed K-12 schools, making it challenging for parents to participate. AEFP messaged that it was fine if a presentation was interrupted by “future AEFPers.” Still, finding the time and space to present when kids aren’t screaming, crying, or threatening to burn the house down is no small task. I could hear my kid sobbing in the background during the last session, and he’s not even that young. Suffice to say, the mute button is your friend. 

Going virtual can have unexpected benefits.

On the plus side, people who would have found travel logistically difficult or cost-prohibitive were able to join us, and I got the distinct impression that people appreciated being able to wear “athleisure” pants for three days straight. Saturday sessions seemed to have better attendance than usual, possibly due to some combination of not having to catch flights or pay for a hotel to stay until the end. Saturday was logistically the easiest day for me to attend, since I have a school-age kid at home due to coronavirus closures and a partner who was working Thursday and Friday. 

Throughout the conference, we saw a very positive social media presence. On Twitter, people shared their conference experiences through various hashtags, including the official #AEFP2020 and less-official #DogsofAEFP, #PetsofAEFP, and #SocksofAEFP

Parenting challenges aside, I found the conference a welcome distraction from what is going on in the world. It allowed me to do social distancing without going stir-crazy. And I appreciate more than ever AEFP’s executive committee, my fellow board members, and the wonderful members of AEFP who came, saw, and conquered the virtual conference.

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