How to organise a successful online conference in a pandemic

Felix Bast*, who steered a science leadership conference in June 2020 with over 20,000 registrants, shares some expert tips.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2020.115 Published online 23 July 2020

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COVID 19 has driven most professionals online. For those of us in education and outreach, webinars have become more relevant now than ever in the history of mankind. Six months into the pandemic, however, one would have expected 'webinar fatigue' to set it.

So when 20, 205 scientists, researchers and students registered for a science leadership workshop (SLW) organised jointly by India's science academies, it was a pleasant surprise. The workshop, from 22 to 28 June 2020, turned out to be the largest science event anywhere in the world in recent times. 

To top it all, it was a zero-budget event with the organisers and speakers volunteering their time and energy without any honorarium. The Central University of Punjab, Bathinda organised the workshop with support from the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bengaluru, Indian National Science Academy, New Delhi, and The National Academy of Sciences, India, Prayagraj. With a team of two at the helm -- a coordinator and a convenor -- and 9 student volunteers to moderate online discussions, we learnt many new things about organising an online event of this scale. 

Based on our experience, here are some best practices to create a low-budget, high impact online event:

1. Get the very best speakers. We managed to get some eminent science leaders from across the world. Ensure gender diversity while selecting speakers and moderators. Out of 26 speakers in SLW, 15 were female. Each session had one male and one female moderator thereby conveying an implicit message on the importance of having more women among science leaders of the future.

2. Create an event web page with complete details of sessions, schedule, registration link and other details. This page should also serve as a noticeboard for participants. I created a no-frills web page at Google Sites and used Google Forms for registration. Use a URL shortener to shorten the web page address to something that's easy to remember and type in. For SLW, the event web page was shortened to https://bit.ly/Science-Leadership. I have seen many webinar flyers with long and complicated Zoom and Google Meet registration links, a sure way to deter a large number of prospective applicants.

3. If you have thousands of registrants, the best way to communicate with the delegates is through the Google Group email forum. Joining Google Group was part of the SLW registration process. On the other hand, bulk emailing has several limitations. For example, for paid G Suit account in India, the limit is set to 1500 emails per day. For free Gmail accounts, the limit is 500 emails per day. Bulk emails take a lot of time and effort, and mass emails risk classifying email ID as spam.

4. Advertise the event aggressively through emails and social media. This initial step requires substantial effort. I explicitly requested all initial registrants to re-share the event details on their social media and forward the email to their friends and colleagues. This simple practice caused an exponential chain reaction that resulted in a substantial increase in registrations to SLW.

5. Livestream the event on YouTube. Livestreaming dramatically increases public participation and completely opens the workshop for everyone (including those who have not registered). Some of the videos of SLW had been watched over 26,000 times. YouTube livestreaming also ensures automatic archival of videos so that participants who could not attend the live sessions (due to time zone or connectivity issues) are able to watch the videos later. As all videos of SLW are archived, these videos will continue to inspire viewers over many years. Usually, closed webinars conducted through Zoom, MS Teams or Google meet are not archived virtually. The professional versions of Zoom and WebEx cost money but support YouTube livestreaming. An alternative, albeit less reliable, approach would be using free opensource tool Jitsi that natively support YouTube livestreaming, or a free local streaming software like OBS Studio with free multi-streaming cloud-based service like Restream. Local streaming would require a reliable highspeed internet connection.

6. While deciding where to livestream the webinar, prioritise channels with a maximum number of subscribers to optimise outreach. There are several popular YouTube channels of science communicators with a large and dedicated subscriber-base. Streaming science events in these popular channels increase the outreach by several degrees of magnitude as compared to streaming in a recently created event channel or the channel of the host organisation. As the true impact of any event is in its organic reach (the reason why brands advertise in media), relaying official programmes in well-watched YouTube channels is highly recommended, even if the channel owners charge for livestreaming to their channels.

7. Make the sessions as immersive as possible by fostering two-way interaction. For SLW, we adopted a uniform format of 30 minutes-long presentation by speakers, followed by 30 minutes of questions and answer session where questions from viewers on the YouTube chat box were selected by moderators and presented to speakers. For chat moderation, we had a team of 9 student volunteers with YouTube moderation privileges. This step was crucial for them to block participants posting inappropriate comments. Chat moderators picked the most relevant questions along with the questioner's name from the chat box and pasted them in a shared Google document. Session moderators accessed this document to select the questions and posed them to the speakers. This made the process seamless.

8. To ensure maximum participation and immersive learning, offer certification after an exit examination. The prospect being recognised for their efforts boosts the morale of participants and an exit examination ensures dedicated participation to a large extent. The way final 'exit' examination was conducted in SLW itself relayed a message in ethics and integrity -- the certificates needed to be self-validated by the participants. Such an academic honour-code based exit exam in a virtual workshop was a rarity. The certificates also had a link for digital validation to ensure fair use. The strategy we adopted was issuing a generic certificate that required participants to write their names manually. The link provided in the certificate directed the inspectors to a public Google sheet with details of all the 20, 205 registered delegates, and those who passed the exit exam. This approach is much more effective than automatic certificate generation via Google forms add-ins (such as Certify'em), since such certificates can not be easily validated digitally. Besides, the limits on Gmail accounts also apply for Google forms -- only 1500 certificates can be generated per day with a G Suit account. Our honour-code based method bypassed all such restrictions.

9. Reach out to participants through multiple platforms. In SLW, other than via Google Group email, we reached out to participants via Twitter, Facebook, and Telegram. A student volunteer also created an Android app to facilitate live-streaming and offline access to sessions, downloaded by thousands of participants.

10. To effectively leverage the power of participation, ensure that it doesn't stop once the event gets over. Offer a platform for the participants to interact with each other for professional networking. For SLW, we created a Facebook group, on which many speakers and thousands of participants are now active members. Group members continue discussions on science leadership related topics even after the conclusion of the workshop.

11. Offer follow-up programmes. The SLW paved the way for two important extension programmes. The first is a country-wide virtual internship with science leaders through which students from school grade seven till Ph. D can find mentors from within national and international laboratories, organisations and universities. The internship is also open for the general public and other professionals such as musicians, artists and journalists and is completely free. The interns will work on trans-disciplinary projects with their mentors on a chosen research topic for two months to discover the joy of knowledge. The second extension is a talk series by young science leaders live-streamed on YouTube every weekend. The sessions follow the same pattern as the workshop and feature an extensive question and answer session on topics such as opportunities in higher education, career and research grants.With these two extensions, we hope to take the workshop to the grassroots, thereby creating a lasting legacy in science education.

Besides being low-budget, virtual events also have negligible carbon footprint since no one needs to travel. Virtual conferences might very well become the Zeitgeist in the post-COVID-19 era.

 (* The author is Associate Professor at the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, India. He tweets from @ExaltFibs.)

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