Best practices for virtual conferences

An essential guide from the world's largest computing society for different types of digital meetings

As with any social gathering, it takes organisation and effort to avoid dead space and stimulate interaction and conversation during virtual meetings. Credit: Getty images

USA - The Association for Computing Machinery's presidential task force members have assembled a practical guide for virtual conferences. As heavy users of online technologies and researchers responsible for developing them, the ACM community is well-positioned to offer advice that is helpful to other groups dealing with the same problems.

While ACM is a scientific society, the key practices outlined in the report can be applied to a wide range of digital meetings. We highlight some general tips for planners:

Assign different media requirements for different parts
In digital conferences, the participants' physical presence is established through a variety of media: video, audio, graphics and text. When making the transition, one might be tempted to organise a virtual conference as one big communal space, where everyone shares all their media streams with everyone else. However, this approach is both technically challenging and not necessary for a successful meeting. Keep in mind that the various parts of a virtual conference require different media for different groups of participants.

For example, in plenary sessions where everyone comes together, there is a clear separation between those on stage (one or just a few people) and those in the audience (possibly a very large group). Those on stage can be connected in a smaller, media-rich shared space that is then live cast to the larger audience - or even publicly onto the web.

Live casting is cheap and efficient, and there are plenty of options to choose from. But it is much more engaging when the audience itself also has a live presence when the communication goes in both directions: The speakers onstage feel like they have an audience, and the people in the audience feel that they are in a group, and not simply watching a video alone.

Establish group-chat channels and monitor feeds
Currently, one of the most effective ways to host very large groups of people in a shared space is using text messaging. The glue that binds participants together is text chat. Include several group-chat channels, including all simultaneous participants in the conference, session-related channels and smaller, specialised chat channels for smaller groups.

This makes all the difference between a person watching a video of a talk by themselves versus watching a talk together, at the same time, with a group of like-minded people. It is important that the text chat feeds are monitored by a designated person and that questions fed into the live session are appropriate, and that feedback is given to the speakers during live sessions, as they may not be able to monitor such feeds themselves while giving their talks.

There is a tension between too many channels (hard to watch them all, hard to get conversation going) and too few, unfocused channels. Besides a few public general channels (such as help and general), and a few private role-based channels (such as organisers, presenters, student volunteers), a good rule of thumb is to consider having one channel per sequence of sessions. The timing of the presentations will be reflected in the chat of each channel.

Session chairs can act as "channel facilitators," asking targeted questions to specific authors/presenters that get the conversation started. As with any social gathering, it takes organisation and effort to avoid dead space and stimulate interaction and conversation.

Create an online navigation system
In physical conferences, navigation is naturally supported by the layout of the conference venue via a printed or digital programme with the schedule and information about each session, including room numbers, venue floorplan, speaker information and more.

In virtual conferences, navigation is equally important. The live sessions must be easy to find and get into. The online programme needs to have information about when and "where" the sessions will take place, such as Zoom meeting links, webinar links and Slack channels, among others. All of this information should be presented through user interfaces that are easy to understand and with links that "teleport" participants to the "places" they want to go.

Crista Videira Lopes (University of California, Irvine), Jeanna Matthews (Clarkson University) 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. Access to the full and continually updated ACM report can be found here.

This is an abridged version of an original article that appeared in Northstar Meetings Group.

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