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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2021 / Winter 2022)

Colleague 2 Colleague, Author
Cover, page 12 of 23


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Getting the most out of a virtual conference

By Shalin Hai-Jew, Kansas State University

In this time of the pandemic, many of us have had to go to virtual conferences (and pre-recorded social media) for professional development.  

Purposes for attending virtual conferences in a time of COVID-19

It has been so helpful that various corporations and organizations have hosted such virtual conferences for free or very low-cost.  We attend to see what new technologies or technological features are emerging.  We attend to connect with fellow professionals.  We attend to find solutions and workarounds to problems.  We attend to heighten our skills, by watching how others express theirs.  We may find out about the state of the art, such as updating on accessibility practices as an instructional designer.  

We attend to find out about free resources.  And maybe, sometimes, we attend because of the swag.  (Swag has become more compelling for me for online conferences than they ever have been for face-to-face conferences.)  

I also attend because I like to hear people’s stories about their own work lives and experiences.  I like to hear from those whose work is so different from mine that everything that the presenter says is revelatory.  

We are now coming up on the end of the second year of the SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 pandemic.  And I am now attending the second virtual versions of various conferences because of biosafety concerns, even in a time of vaccinations (because so many people have not yet decided to receive the vaccine).  As I’m coming up to a season of more virtual conferences in my profession, I thought it would be constructive to consider how to get the most out of a virtual conference.  

So how can one get the most out of a virtual conference?  

Before signing up for any conference, one usually has to review the organizer’s background to understand what they might bring to the table.  Community reputation is important.  Sometimes, colleagues recommend particular conferences.  The amount of time that people have affects what they can take on, and justifying work hours for a conference can be difficult unless there is some clear ROI.  Even if the conference is free, one’s time and expertise are not free, and participating can incur costs to the institution (or workplace).  By “get the most out of,” I mean to make the best use of the time and the event for the learning, by acquiring the necessary KSAs (knowledge, skills, and abilities) and professional connections that best apply to my work.  To achieve this outcome, I have to achieve particular things in the three general phases:  (1) conference lead-up, (2) conference, and (3) post-conference.  

(1) conference lead-up

In the lead-up to a conference, it helps to peruse the website and review the themes and other organizing elements.  It helps to read the provided objectives and other formal statements.  It helps to read the directions for how they want participants to interact.  It helps to read who the event sponsors are.  It helps to better understand the tone of the conference, set by its organizers.  I usually do this perusal once when I sign up for the conference and then again closer to the event (when more information becomes available).  

One of the most enjoyable activities in a conference lead-up is to pre-plan the sessions I want to attend, along with secondaries, or backups, in case the first preference somehow becomes unavailable.  I make decisions based on the presentation titles and the presentation descriptions, less so on the presenters themselves.  (I generally assume that the quality of the presenters are fairly equal given the vetting that many go through.  Also, I am less entranced by personality and more entranced by information and skill.)  

Also, I start a Word document for notetaking and for receiving screenshots.  If I have time, I will make up some questions to be answered during the conference.  If the organizer has held prior conferences, I may even go back and review the former notes and downloads to catch the vibe.  Also, I start a folder for downloads from the conference.  Oftentimes, conference organizers make digital handouts and notes available.  Others enable the download of digital goodies, like digital posters.

If swag is available, at least of late, I have put in to receive these.  If we can’t all be there in person, then having a piece of the conference that one can hold and use (think plastic water bottles, think shirts) is sort of the next best thing. 

Online conferences would not quite be a full conference if vendors are not reaching out prior to the event with various pre-conference emails introducing their products and services, inviting you to join their presentations, and starting games.  If a few cases, if there is something of interest, I will reach out.  In general, I do not provide staff contact information to a vendor unless that staff person has agreed to let me do so.   

Some conferences require making accounts on new technologies.  I do this prior as well and record the particular log-in and other details, so it’s easier to get started once the conference has started.  This is not to say that preparation always ensures that the technologies work during the conference or after the conference, but it helps to dry run as much as possible because once the conference starts, there is less time to troubleshoot.  

(2) conference

There really is an excitement that builds prior to a conference.  This comes from anticipation of the learning. It also comes from the hype by the organizers.  

Some conferences start right on the dot with the keynote or the CEO or the person heading the ceremonies.  Others open up meeting rooms to talk to vendors…or to socialize with other conference-goers prior.  I have tried a few of the open social sessions, and most of these are fairly laid back.  It is hard to make small talk in chat.  However, such connections may be positive to redirect some of the initial energy. In live face-to-face (F2F) conferences, it helps to hang out and socialize initially over coffee and a breakfast fruit plate.  There are some good conversations to be had, some technologies to chat about, and some shared colleagues.  There are recognizable people to say hello to during the several days of the conference.  

I have seen some virtual conference organizers suggest stocking up on snacks and drinks prior to a virtual event, as if we were in a watch party or a sports competition or a movie.  For some reason, that ruins the mood for me.  A cup of peach black tea or coffee helps me focus on the work.  

During a virtual conference, I activate my plan and show up at the sessions I’d committed to.  If I’d misread the presentation description, I move on until I find a session with new learning for me.  

During the session, I listen closely.  When necessary, I take down notes and grab screenshots.  If there is a name I need along with their contact information, I screenshot that as well.  I will highlight the names of technologies to follow up on.  Taking good notes is harder than it looks.  Each person has to decide what is relevant in real time…and then best how to capture that information.  [Or one can take a note of the time stamp and return to the session to re-review a part.]  The general idea is to be as efficient as possible.  Even screenshotting takes a bit of practice, for the proper resolution…and the areas of focus…and so sensemaking later.  

I will download all the notes and slideshows that are related to presentations of interest…and any others available, in case there is something that might be useful for my learning.  

Sometimes, I am taken by a story or a joke or a witticism, and I’ll have to write that down.  These elements are not often directly related to work, but they help with recollection, and they help with keeping the talk going.  These are often worth a second look and another laugh or smile of appreciation.  I can’t say what makes a comment strike me as insightful, but occasionally, a comment does.  

In one recent conference, a presenter was asked how he could tell if a person’s idea was original or novel for a particular problem-solving context.  He said that it’s not usually a whole proposal or idea that is novel but a part of it.  That answered something in me although I can’t articulate why his insight was so powerful.  Maybe it’s the humbleness of that truth that a competitive advantage can be a piece of a person’s suggestion.  Certainly, originality itself is a high bar.  In another presentation, the presenter mentioned that when he designs learning, he asks what he wants learners to remember in “10 minutes, 10 months, 10 years,” and then he designs accordingly.  One of his points was that the learning should be coherent and relevant over various time spans.

If presenters ask for participation, I will engage.  I like the cascade of messages from people from all over the world that fills the chat just prior to the start of the presentation, and I’ll jump in there as well.  If I have questions, I will ask them.  I know enough not to be offended if my question is not taken up.  And I do not ask questions in order to hear that question asked.  I actually do want an answer, if available. As I am listening, I will jot down some questions.  Part of this is to fill “dead air” if that arises.  But I also know that people can just end a session early if there are no questions, and it’s fine to have dead air if that is the place that a presentation has arrived at.    

What I don’t do is hound presenters with one question after another, which I’ve seen some people do.  That behavior is not about actual learning but something else.  If conference organizers ask for reviews of public speakers, I actually do not usually respond.  Most do high quality work, and I do not think it is beneficial to nit-pick.  If one was extraordinary, I will say so though.  In every conference, there are a few speakers who are spectacular.  

Then, the conference pace depends in part on the scheduling and the sequence of the events.  With some, I am hopping on and off.  I try to stay engaged while doing double duty with troubleshooting tickets or advancing other work.  If I can only participate in several days of a long conference, I still will sign up because there is learning to be had.  

(3) post-conference

After a conference wraps, many organizers render their videos and enable access to the archived site to watch the videos and download the slideshows and see the chat.  Some people may miss the liveness of the events since one is only watching recorded videos now.  For me, since I am only looking for information and methods and techniques, going to an archived site with no one else present really does not bother me.  

Some conferences enable post-conference posting of chat messages, which I got a kick out of recently.  [It almost felt like tagging artfully with graffiti.]  In some cases, I will go back to the conference site and watch videos that I did not have time to participate in.  (One international conference had a track for Asia and then one for North America, and I doubled-back to watch some videos about art making in Japanese, a language which I do not understand.  It was so cool just to see the different aesthetics and the visual elements acting as language.)  

In terms of the professional development aspect, I try to apply the new learning as soon as possible after the conference (sometimes even during the conference).  This is especially true if the learning is about applying a technology in new ways.  I want to make sure it works as advertised.  

Shortly after a conference, I trawl through my notes to find out what “action items” I had to follow up on.  I follow up on those and then update my notes with what I found.  I do keep my notes because I do not know when the information might be relevant.  The cost of maintaining the notes is negligible.  When I go through notes, I will add some additional information in various locations. This helps ensure coherence even as more time has passed.  

Usually, within the few months after a conference, I will return to review the notes because I have a direct need for some information from the conference.  For example, I had attended a conference on accessibility. The conference itself was wide-ranging, with a variety of insights and expertise.  Some half-year after, when I was putting together a slideshow on accessibility, I worked out my draft first.  Then I doubled-back to the notes to fill in some gaps to the accessibility slideshow.  

Post-conference, some of the participants will reach out.  Sometimes, some of the vendors will reach out.  The first group may have propositions for shared projects, both funded and unfunded.  Vendors will have ideas for the sale of their technologies and services.  

One question that always arises is whether a conference was worth my time and effort.  After all, a conference can displace other work into the nights and weekends.  Can I get the information from any other source?  Is the other available information as timely?  

Insights for a presenter at a virtual conference

Considering how I try to get the most out of a virtual conference, I have also gleaned some insights on how to make the most of a presentation or a training when I am the presenter.  I try to develop informative downloadable digital resources because the time of the presentation itself is so short.  I try to start the presentation off fast and keep a fast pace so as not to lose the attention of the participants.  I try to plan some interactivity in chat or in speaking during the session, with varying levels of success. 

About the Author

Shalin Hai-Jew works as an instructional designer / researcher at Kansas State University.  Her email is  
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