How to organise an online conference

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Or rather, how we (which is Karen Cropper and I) organised the OU online conference this year. You might like to take this as a template to use if you're thinking of running a similar event, although obviously you may want to vary the technologies, structure, etc. 

This is the first in a series of posts on the conference which will cover organisation, suggestions for improvement and evaluation.

Technology

We
used two main technologies: Cloudworks and Elluminate

The Cloudworks site acted as the main web site and the
asynchronous discussion forum. We set it up as an ‘event’, which adds in a button
‘Mark as attending’, so we had a means of recording who intended to come to the
conference (although as Cloudworks is separate from Elluminate, we don’t know
if they actually did). You can also send emails to all those who have marked as
attending, which was useful (see Communications below).

Within
cloudworks we created the conference as a ‘cloudscape’, which essentially is an
aggregation of separate elements, known as clouds. We created a number of
clouds, including ones for Programme, one for each of the sessions (see
Structure below), Your Contributions and Post-conference feedback.

Cloudworks
allows you to embed content from other sites such as Flickr, YouTube,
Slideshare, etc. We added in the talks that people gave us, contributions, and
interviews.

Elluminate: Although the OU has an Elluminate licence, we cannot use
this for open events (because access is via the VLE requiring and OU account).
Elluminate hosted it for us, setting up a different Elluminate url for each
session. In the Elluminate session we recorded the event, and were then given a
URL to use for playback, so people could access it after the event had
finished.

Other
technologies: These included
Twitter (we used the hashtag #OUConf10 to track conversations), twapperkeeper
which archives tweets (for the hashtag), SurveyMonkey for the post-conference
questionnaire, blogs for promotion, YouTube, Slideshare, Animoto &
Xtranormal (all for creating content).

Structure

The
theme of the conference was ‘Learning in an open world’.

There
were four live (Elluminate) conference sessions spread over two days. Each
session had the same structure of three OU speakers talking for around 20
minutes each, a 40 minute discussion session, and then an external speaker (you
can see the actual programme here: http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/2994

The
OU speakers were invited to talk as they were projects that fitted the overall
theme of openness in education (eg iTunes U, SocialLearn, etc). So papers were
not invited in the traditional conference manner. Instead we asked people to
create multimedia contributions, such as YouTube videos and embed them in the
Cloudworks space.

External
speakers were invited through personal contacts, and gave their presentations
from their own locations. Only one speaker was given a fee, the other talked
for no cost.

Each
session had 3-5 nominated ‘moderators’. These were usually ALs with experience
of Elluminate. The moderators handled questions, picking up questions from the
text chat window, or asking people if they wanted to ask a question over audio.

We
set up some breakout rooms within Elluminate for the discussion session, but
moving to these was problematic and so were only used for the first session.

There
was pre and post conference activity in Cloudworks, with interviews filmed with
the Vice Chancellor and others on the themes of the conference (see http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloud/view/3959) and a ‘multi-media poster’ session around the Your
Contributions theme on the Friday after the conference (see http://cloudworks.ac.uk/cloudscape/view/2012

Communications

News
of the conference was posted on the OU intranet site announcing the date of the
conference and inviting contributions, then four follow ups with reminders and additional news. It was also listed as an 'event' in the OU calendar.

It
was also announced on the TutorHome site in May and June and I did an
audio interview which was published on the OU student environment,
Platform

In
addition, an email announcement was sent to all Deans and Directors, to the
elearning community mailing list and two announcements made on the monthly
elearning email news digest. Emails were also sent to contacts in the faculties who
could promote the event and to faculty/unit contacts. The event was also advertised on the OU
screensaver and IET internet and intranet pages and Knowledge Network.

Prior to the conference four separate blog posts were also put out here, announcing the conference, asking for contributions, announcing the agenda,
and a final reminder on the eve of the conference. This was in addition to
numerous messages about the conference on Twitter both prior and during the
conference, using the hashtag #OUConf10. After the conference further posts
were written evaluating and reflecting on the conference itself.

Within Cloudworks there is the function to email all those who
have marked as attending an event. This was used to send five separate emails
to attendees: detailing the agenda; asking for contributions; a reminder of the
conference with practical advice on getting the most from it; a message on the
morning of each day, giving the agenda and URLs again. After the conference an email was sent asking
attendees to fill out the Surveymonkey questionnaire.

Planning

Two Stakeholder meetings were
conducted featuring those who had an interest in the conference including some
faculty representatives, communications, IT support, student services and
related projects.

An open practice session in Elluminate was held the week prior to
the conference, so that all speakers and moderators could check their settings,
upload their presentations and discuss the practicalities of running the
sessions. While all moderators joined in, only a few speakers ‘attended’.

The conference was mainly organised by one academic and one
project manager (with some administrative support), with initial meetings
starting in January, action review meetings every 2-3 week, and the final
conference on 22-23 June 2010.

On the day the organisers set up a ‘Conference HQ’ so they were
both physically located in the same room, and thus one could resolve any issues
‘in the background’ while the other continued in the virtual space.

Issues

  • There were some access issues around Elluminate, particularly on
    campus where the proxy settings on some machines meant it wouldn’t load. The resolution was simple enough,
    but may have put some people off from accessing (see http://olnet.org/sites/default/files/EllumFix.pdf)
  • Some speakers had poor microphone quality, which soon detracts
    from a purely online presentation.
  • Some attendees commented that they found it difficult to isolate
    time and space when at work, as people assumed if they were in, they were
    interruptible.
  • Communication could have been better and more joined up in various committees.

If you do organise an online event and use any of this (even as a model of how not to do it), then do let me know. You might like to look at the next post too, which suggests things we'd do differently next time.

One Comment

  1. The importance of good audio us often forgotten when it comes to online presentations (and podcasts for that matter).
    Not everyone has perfect hearing, but also any kind of background noise or hiss can be very off-putting to the listener.
    I remember trying to record a podcast using Skype and one participant was in a server room which made the recording sound like it was recorded in a hurricane!
    Great post, lots of useful stuff in there.
    James

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