10 lessons I learned about online learning by running an online conference

The conference is dead! Long live the conference!

By Olivia Cracknell entitled ‘students experience with virtual learning’.

When we “volunteered” to organise the 2020 Bioscience Education Summit, there were grand plans to bring the learning and teaching community to Sheffield for a joint conference between the cities two Universities. COVID-19 changed our plans, the conference moved online, and we delivered two days of content to an international audience from our offices, spare rooms and kitchen tables. In doing so, we learned several lessons for online delivery that we can take into our teaching.

Everyone is aware of the conference format, you have keynote speakers to set the scene, you have shorter papers of recent ideas and work, and you have tea breaks to chat. In the online setting, we replicated this in Zoom with speakers presenting at fixed times and a Google site acting as the conference book.

Advantages: The format was accessible to larger numbers and in theory had no cap. Practically though, we were limited to one hundred registered attendees to manage interactions. Being online made it easy to dip in and out of the sessions, and although 100 registered, we had a maximum attendance of 69 delegates for the keynote speaker. What we did notice though was, in total, more than this number engaged with the conference over the two days, with attendees dipping in and out.

Lesson one: People come and go. Not everyone will be present for every session, but nearly everyone will be present for at least one session.

As we were delivering this conference, a living collection of shared resources was being created as we went along. Papers that were highlighted or websites mentioned in the chatbox were collated and shared via the conference book website in real-time.

Lesson two: Build the course materials as you go. The supporting material can be dynamic and modified on the fly, leaving a record of what happened.

Disadvantages: There was no food! It’s really not a conference unless the coffee can strip paint, the cakes have gone hard, and you have to ask the person in front of you what the pink stuff is. Lack of social spaces made interaction outside of the talks more challenging. We missed the informal chats between sessions, passing conversations just didn’t happen. The conference did feel like a community event, but this was more because we all knew someone already. A social event in the evening was only attended by a select few but did allow mutual colleagues to connect.

Lesson three: Creating a community online will be challenging, take time to talk about the small stuff. Established communities can build on what they already have, but new members will need to be introduced to each other. 

Visual and oral feedback is needed. The timing was tricky and it proved difficult to give the “you need to hurry up face”. Reiterating to the speakers to stay on time helped, but we still overran. We also missed the clapping and the faces listening to your talk. Speaking into a void can be lonely.

Lesson four: Presenting online can be lonely. Encourage people to use the reaction buttons to let you know there is a human there.

Things that went well
Everyone managed to give their talk and went to the right place at the right time. The room was opened up early to allow people to enter long before the talks. We put effort into ensuring that the attendees knew how to use the technology, creating and sharing support videos prior to the meeting. This enables everyone to concentrate on the content rather than wrestling with the tech. For a few individuals, a short one-to-one was all that was needed to get to grips with the technology. Having spent months now in video conferences and online Friday evening quizzes, everyone knew to turn off microphones when not speaking.

Lesson five: Master the tech. It’s worth making sure everyone knows how to log in and interact with one another before the real sessions begin.

Similar rules to presenting in person apply online. Using a pointer helped the audience focus on the correct area of slides. For text-heavy slides, it is best to pause, and let the attendees read the slide before summing up. We love the chatbox! Many questions were asked, comments made, and resources shared. People who would be normally reluctant to ask questions were able to interact with everyone.

Lesson six: Organise your chatbox. The chatbox can get rapidly cluttered so finding the key information can be a challenge. Ask people to start a question with Q, (or comment with C) to enable the host to locate questions quickly.

Room for improvement
We got tired. The conference was great, but we packed too much in and needed longer gaps between sessions. You don’t have to do it all yourself, we should have got more people to chair to spread the load.

Lesson seven: Many short breaks are just as good as one long one.  Concentrating on a talk is tiring, long blocks of content should be avoided.

Breakout rooms lead to more significant interaction between attendees. The groups were smaller, and it was easier to turn the videos back on and talk. We would recommend one session per half day to promote engagement. However, only the host could setup the breakout rooms and that took time to achieve. Not all attendees filled in the form stating which room they wanted to go to and then some changed their minds anyway. Random allocation was quick, easy and just as effective for short discussions.

Lesson eight: Interactions with your students and between students are better managed in small groups.

It is hard to teach and run the tech. In the conference, a person was required to set spotlights, cancel screen shares, mute mics, make people co-hosts etc.

Lesson nine: Keep it simple. Teaching first, then technology second.

Have a plan A and a plan B. Time was spent before the conference setting out who would do what job and when. We had a plan B for every situation. A WhatsApp group was running in the background for the organisers to talk and respond on the fly. This helped as the host’s WiFi crashed midway through a talk.

Lesson ten: Having a backup plan sets your mind at ease and makes for a seamless experience.

Final thoughts
The way you behave is a good reflection of your most engaged students.

  • If you are reading Facebook during a talk, so will your students
  • If you have a back channel WhatsApp group talking about the presentation, then so do the students
  • If you can’t read the slides of the presentation because there is too much text, then the students can not read your text-heavy slide either.
  • If you found it hard to interact online, so will your students.

Online conferences can be a cheaper and more time-efficient alternatives to live events. However, social interaction is a challenge and limited only to those that really wanted to. Remember what it’s like to be a delegate at a conference. It’s like that for the students except for them, there is no chance of coffee and only an assessment to look forward to at the end!

About the authors

Dr David Smith, Reader in Biochemistry at Sheffield Hallam University, National Teaching Fellow, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and recipient of the Royal Society of Biology HE Educator of the year award.

Twitter @dave_thesmith

Dr Liz Alvey, Director of Studies Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Sheffield, Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and Science Communicator.

Twitter @lizalvey1


Olivia Cracknell, Biochemistry MSc (University of Sheffield). Olivia is in the final year of her integrated master’s degree and is keen to go on to undertake a PhD in Immunology. Olivia created the image entitled ‘students experience with virtual learning’.

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