Planning and running online conferences

Running an online conference requires careful planning, teamwork and different competences. Here are some ideas that may help you if you are planning an online conference or major webinar. The guide is based on a resource compiled by Mälardalen University.

For an overview, see out infographic:
Planning and running online conferences

Web-conferencing platforms

A web-conferencing platform is usually used for online conferences. The examples here are based on Zoom, but can easily apply to other similar platforms.

Two types of meeting in Zoom

There are two types of rooms in Zoom: meetings and webinars. Meetings are the most commonly used form and they have a capacity of 300 participants, whilst webinars can have up to 500 participants (standard version). The main difference is that in webinars only the panelists can speak, use their webcam and share screen. In meetings you can have more participant involvement and can divide the participants into breakout groups. Staff and students at Swedish universities generally have an automatic license for a Zoom meeting. To access your account you may need to contact the responsible person at your university.

Roles in an online conferences

Information for hosts and moderators
Information to presenters in online conferences
Information to participants in an online conference

Tips for planning and running an online conference

Don’t mix – Online meetings in Zoom are one thing. On-site meetings are another. Mixing the two in a hybrid webinar is very difficult to do well. If you do try you will need to carefully plan the technical set-up in the on-site conference room. In order to ensure that all participants feel involved in the meeting you will need multiple cameras, screens and microphones in the room and a producer to coordinate. Basically it is easier if everyone is online.

Work in a team – Planning a conference takes a lot of time. Build a team with clear roles and work collaboratively. This will involve conference organisers, administrators, IT staff, media production experts, educational technologists etc. Together you will create a better solution than one person trying to do everything.

Create a site for the conference – A web page where all information about the conference is presented (just like an on-site conference). Here you can create a schedule for the day showing clearly the times, the session topics and who will present. Links to the actual Zoom rooms should not be posted on a public web page (see more under Security below).

Careful planning – Online conferences require careful planning and a clear structure for all involved. Information to participants must be clear and well-structured. Try to include all necessary information on one conference overview page. Give clear instructions to organisers and presenters. Create an internal planning schedule with role definitions, who does what and when. Use a back channel (group chat in Zoom or tools like Slack or Teams) for easy communication between organisers and presenters during the event so that problems can be resolved efficiently.

Security – To prevent disruptions, there are several security functions in Zoom: ability to eject disruptive participants, mute all button, prevent screensharing for participants etc. It’s is generally a good idea to activate the Waiting room function so you can see who is waiting to join the meeting. You can also lock the meeting room when you are sure everyone is present. Check these settings well before the event and make sure all session hosts are informed. Do not advertise direct links to Zoom rooms in a public space and never on social media. Send conference links 1-2 days before the event only to registered participants (pre-registration is always strongly advised).

Divide the event into blocks– Each block has a specific function. An opening plenary session in a webinar room (with limited interactivity) can be followed by two parallel sessions in meeting rooms with breakout groups for increased interaction.

Share responsibility – Decide who will be responsible for each block or session and share the load. You cannot have more than one Zoom meeting in the same account at the same time. Instead you need a host for each session, especially when you have several parallel sessions. Let each host create the Zoom room for their session and help the moderator and presenters to make the session go smoothly.

Host and moderator – It is difficult to combine the roles of presenting and checking questions in the chat as well as noticing when someone puts their hand up. That’s why it’s good to have a moderator and/or host to deal with the practical running of the session so that the presenters can focus on their communication. The role of host and moderator can be combined but sometimes two people may be needed; the moderator introduces the speakers and fields questions whilst the host can check the chat and deal with any technical issues (creating breakout groups etc).
The role of host or moderator ->

Presenter – The presenter is the invited guest expert and has a central role in the session. Make sure the presenters’ profiles and photos are visible on the conference programme. Maybe even with a short recorded video teaser to attract interest. It is important that the moderator, presenter(s) and host have at least one planning meeting to establish the ”choreography” of the session. 
The role of the presenter ->

Pre-conference – What do the participants need to know before the event? A film showing how to use Zoom? FAQ? A checklist? Pre-conference questionnaire?  
More about the participants’ role ->

Helpdesk and lobby – Plan for how participants can get help during the event. Maybe a helpdesk Zoom room that is manned all day and where participants with problems can come for help. Gather participants in a lobby room before the event to check in, test audio and video and even mingle.

Parallel sessions? – Just as in on-site conferences you can create more engagement by splitting the participants into parallel sessions using several Zoom rooms. Here you can use ordinary meeting rooms with the breakout group option for small group activities.

Plan for sharing? – Do you want to encourage sharing of experience and promote discussion? Create a shared space for discussions, questions and ideas (discussion forum, Padlet, Miro, Google Docs etc) and encourage all sessions to continue the discussion there. Use such tools to collect the results of breakout group discussions. These can even be shared externally to expand the discussion.

Plan for social interaction – It may not be the same feeling as an on-site event but it is possible to include digital coffee breaks, lunches and even evening events. Participants who want to have coffee or lunch with a small group of colleagues can be divided into breakout groups. Create a lobby room where people can gather before the start of the conference to test their audio and video and maybe even try some speed dating in breakout groups. Remember to include some time for real world activities like going to get your lunch or coffee and visiting the toilet!

Accessibility – There are many ways to make your conference more accessible for those with hearing or sight impairment. Automatic closed captioning is available in some platforms (Google Meet) and is coming soon to others like Zoom. Consider hiring a sign language interpreter who can be spotlighted along with the presenter. Encourage presenters to prepare slideshows that are easy to read (text size), avoid colour contrasts that can hinder reading and not showing complex diagrams that are hard to interpret. Speakers should also speak clearly and at a reasonable pace.

Take a break – Remember that no-one can sit in front of a screen all day. Put in short breaks to stretch legs etc. Also try giving participants a few minutes to reflect individually. Suggest for example that they take a short pause to write down some ideas on a piece of paper (some non-digital activities can be useful!).

Plan for participation – Encourage participants to make sure their name is shown clearly, good to even add your organisation. When necessary (especially in smaller sessions) encourage them to switch their cameras on. Encourage interaction in the chat and use polls, questionnaires, collaborative working spaces etc to enhance participation. A nice way to get a good group feeling is to open all cameras and ask everyone to wave at the same time. Maybe a group photo (with permission)?

Widened participation? – Speakers from other countries can be difficult and expensive to arrange for smaller on-site conferences but it is much easier online. Participants who could never afford to come to a physical conference can easily participate online. An online conference can easily be global.

Social events – Why not arrange a virtual city tour in the evening or a study visit? In most cities the mobile 4G network is enough to film a guided tour. You’ll need a good video camera and wireless microphone for the guide. Maybe you could have a session where a few participants take turns to show how to make a local dish in their kitchens. There are many possibilities!

Practice makes perfect – If possible try to have a dress rehearsal with all presenters and moderators and go through the event as much as possible. If this is not possible then try to arrange planning meetings for each session. Try to use the same set-up as you will during the live event ( same physical room, Zoom room, computer, headset etc.).

Plan for evaluation – Plan well in advance. What type of evaluation do you want? How can you gather participants’ feedback as effectively as possible? How do you intend to follow up the evaluation?

Have fun! Test and experiment – Try out new ideas in internal meetings first but don’t be afraid to experiment during the conference. Try some fun elements to keep everyone in the mood. A short break for stretching, singing, meditation etc can make a difference!

More ideas?

Together with EDEN (European Distance and E-learning Network) we in ITHU ran a webinar about organising online conferences. Watch the recorded webinar here

ITHU 2020. Adapted from work by Lotta Fröjdfeldt, Mälardalens högskola