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Brave new world: five things to consider before going virtual

In this exclusive article for Association Meetings International, Jeanna Matthews, Crista Videira Lopes, and Benjamin Pierce, from the Association for Computing Machinery, take a high-level look at making the switch from in-person to virtual meetings….

With so many conferences switching to online because of COVID-related travel restrictions, many organizers have urgent questions about how to plan a virtual conference instead of a physical one.

A presidential task force from the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the world’s largest association of computing professionals, has assembled a practical guide to this brave new world of virtual conferences.

As heavy users of online technologies and as researchers responsible for developing them, the ACM community is especially well-positioned to offer advice to other groups dealing with the same challenges and has written a comprehensive guide on the subject. Here, we highlight five key ideas for organizers transitioning their conferences to a virtual format.

1) Shift the focus from reproducing an in-person meeting to doing what virtual conferences do best

Virtual conferences have unique advantages. For example, videos of presentations can be made easily available to review after the event. There may be more opportunity for presenters to engage with audiences in an extended online Q&A chat format than in a narrow window directly after the presentation.

Participants are not spending the time and expense of travel. And the carbon footprint of the event can be drastically reduced.

Organizers experimenting with a virtual conference format in the time of COVID-19 should embrace what virtual conferences do well. Organizers and attendees may even find the unique benefits of virtual conferences worth keeping in the future, perhaps augmented by reimagined in-person events specifically designed to fill in the gaps of what the virtual conferences don’t deliver.

2) Virtual conferences need active support staff just as much as physical meetings

Seasoned organizers know that it takes an army of people to make a physical conference a success: registration staff who welcome and direct attendees, staff to welcome speakers and prepare them to go on stage, AV staff to deal with projection and sound issues, someone to manage the microphone for audience members asking questions during Q&A, local arrangements staff to answer logistical questions, and many more.

It is important to recognize that a successful virtual conference also requires support staff, even if the exact jobs take a different form. People are needed to monitor the chat for common questions, to welcome late comers, and to post links to needed instructions. Breakout rooms are needed where attendees and speakers can work out issues with their audio/video without disrupting the main room. Organizers may need to task someone with muting/blocking deliberately disruptive participants. Expecting the speaker in a virtual conference to handle all of these side roles while presenting is a recipe for disaster.

3) Think carefully about the desired type of event before choosing a virtual conference platform or platforms.

Is a webinar-style event the goal? Is online chat between participants required or desired? What about enabling serendipitous networking opportunities? Virtual conference platform options can provide very different experiences. The ACM’s task force report includes specific bootstrapping recommendations for events of different sizes, plus a set of tables comparing and ranking numerous open-source and commercial platforms

along dimensions such as maximum number of users, cost, technical requirements, attractive features and limitations, and more.

4) Keep security and privacy in mind

With the rise of “zoom-bombing” and other attacks on virtual meetings, it is important for conference organizers to actively prepare to use platform features such as passwords, lists of registered users, disabling screen-sharing, and muting of disruptive participants. Organizers should practice using these features ahead of time. Depending on the meeting, it may also be important to develop a Code of Conduct that sets ground rules for participant conduct such as whether it is acceptable for participants to capture or distribute screenshots or other recordings, and whether participants need to disclose when there are other unregistered attendees listening. It is also important to disclose up front whether the host will be capturing recordings or other participant data and, if so, who will have access and for how long. For a list of important first steps to ensure a private and secure virtual meeting environment, check out ACM’s US Technology Policy Council’s (USTPC) statement on security and privacy principles for virtual meetings.

5) Plan to survey attendees about what worked and what didn’t work

For most conference organizers, this is a new experiment. Take the opportunity to engage attendees in a dialogue about the experience. Although this year’s virtual conferences are a temporary response to a crisis, there may be elements worth keeping. Make the experiment an investment in the future by actively surveying attendees — both about what they found missing from in-person meetings and what they found uniquely attractive in the virtual conference format.

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“Virtual Conferences: A Guide to Best Practices” is a living document. The ACM task force would love to hear from conference organizers and other users of the report.  The online report includes a link to a live version where readers can share their own best practices, comments or questions.

About the Authors: Jeanna Matthews (Clarkson University),  Crista Videira Lopes (University of California, Irvine), and Benjamin Pierce (University of Pennsylvania) are members of the ACM Presidential Task Force on What Conferences Can Do to Replace Face-to-Face Meetings.