Last month, at the end of 2020, I was involved with hosting an online conference. The conference was called China and Higher Education: Navigating Uncertain Futures, and it was the third annual conference in the China and Higher Ed series. In the previous 2 years we hosted the conference in Manchester, but with Covid-19 and the many restrictions that followed, we decided to host #ChinaHE20 online.
So what are the pros and cons of hosting a conference online?
First of all, an online conference is essentially free! Since ChinaHE has always been a free conference to attend, in the previous two years we located funding to provide food and refreshments for participants, pay for venue costs, and also provided travel subsidies to speakers. This year, we didn’t need any of that, which meant that money was one less thing to think about.
An online conference is much more inclusive. It allowed for flexible attendance by anyone from anywhere. As long as they had internet and an electronic device, they could join and listen in. People could choose which sessions they wanted to attend and there was no expectation to attend everything.
The conference was spread over a week, Monday to Friday, with sessions from mid morning to early afternoon each day (UK time). We did this to try to include as many people from different time zones, but of course not all the sessions would be possible for everyone.
There were a few technical issues that came up but luckily with we were able to sort them. For example, we learnt on the first day that only two Zoom sessions could be opened at the same time, if they were created by the same account. If a third was then opened, Zoom would ask you to end the other sessions first. This resulted in the parallel sessions ending quite suddenly on the first day, but luckily they were due to end anyway, and we spent some time after the first day working this out and making sure it didn’t happen again! I think with most of the world getting used to Zoom and other online platforms this year, everyone was used to the connection issues and were very patient and understanding. It was also important that we were a team of 4 which meant that we were always able to spread the work and cover hosting while someone else worked on a problem.
As someone who hasn’t had to teach, or attend daily zooms throughout the pandemic, I hadn’t realised how mentally straining it was to be in zoom sessions all day. I was exhausted by the end of the week!
Overall the conference was a great success and we are very pleased with how it turned out! I did however miss things about having a face to face conference. Conferences are as much about networking and informal discussions as they are about the sharing of ideas through presentations. I missed the coffee breaks, and catching up with colleagues from other institutions, and the ongoing discussions which were sparked by a presentation, and making new contacts, and the conference dinner! But since, none of this would have been possible during the Covid-19 pandemic anyway, the online conference was a great option was us!
For more information about the conference, visit our website: chinahe.wordpress.com