In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often askew,
- Robert Burns, from 'To a Mouse' (translated to English from the original Scots)
We recently held the much anticipated 10th Annual UC Davis Health Quality Forum. To give you some context, we had been planning a festive birthday bash for the past year, complete with cupcakes and streamers—and of course, the requisite panel presentations, keynote speakers, and poster session.
The festivities were all set for mid-March and then COVID-19 struck. Like other events across the globe, our event was derailed as well and we had to make some quick decisions about ways to keep our speakers and attendees safe and socially-distanced.
A Wikipedia page titled ‘List of events affected by the COVID-19 pandemic’ states, “Among the most prominent events to be affected were the 2020 Summer Olympics which has been postponed to 2021, and the Eurovision Song Contest 2020, which was cancelled entirely.” The same fate tragically befell Google I/O, San Diego Comic-Con, and Coachella.
Optimistically, the page also listed events that were modified to eliminate a live audience or held over teleconference. And so, after our plans of rescheduling our gathering to June was thwarted, we along with hundreds of other conferences planners across the world, decided to move our event to a virtual format.
Turns out that converting an in-person conference into a virtual one is not as straightforward as one might think. What makes a conference a conference is the real-time social interaction among attendees. To help conference organizers pivot at short notice, the Association for Computing Machinery convened a task force on What Conferences Can Do to Replace Face-to-Face Meetings. The group issued a report titled, “Virtual Conferences:A Guide to Best Practices,” that talks about ways to replace face-to-face conferences with virtual ones during the COVID-19 pandemic. ACM calls this document, “a practical introduction to the brave new world of virtual conferences”.
Here are some tips from their best practices guide:
- Various parts of a virtual conference may require different media for different groups of participants. The types of media you may choose to use include video, audio, graphics and text. Playing a prerecorded video or live-casting can be combined with the audience having a live presence, so that communication goes in both directions.
- Make a nice navigation page to help attendees find sessions and people who interest them. Include meeting links, chat info, schedule, information about each session, speaker information, and attendee list in the program.
- Set up several group-chat channels, such as one that simultaneously includes all participants, and smaller session-related or specialized chat groups. Designate a person to monitor chat feeds and facilitate channels to help get conversations started.
- Increase the time set aside for virtual poster sessions, so that attendees can wander around and gather in small groups to discuss posters displayed in the virtual space.
- To increase social interaction, organize virtual lunch or coffee meetups where a senior attendee is placed in a virtual room and more junior attendees sign up to meet over a socially distanced lunch for a certain length of time. Or you could randomly assign attended to a room and have different groups for every meal.
My daughter graduated from high school this year and her in-person graduation ceremony was one of the many casualties of COVID-19. Her virtual graduation ceremony actually turned out to be fun and uplifting for the whole family. As an added bonus, we could get up from the couch to stretch our legs, get a snack or beverage, and do what we wanted without fear of embarrassing the graduate.
- Ulfat Shaikh