Creating a Successful Virtual Conference during COVID-19

30 July 2020:

By Kate Chadwick:

When people think about an academic conference they imagine a leading light giving a keynote address, people sitting in rows yawning through PowerPoint presentations, interesting conversations over cake at morning tea, and perhaps the boss making merry and breaking into a song at the conference dinner.

Initially, the plan was to hold the 2020 CNBP Conference at the Institute for Glycomics at Griffith University on the Gold Coast.  Think resort accommodation, a visit to Sea World, and a Spanish Paella night.

When the COVID-19 pandemic put paid to that, the organising committee had to put their thinking caps on.  The goal was to create a virtual conference that wasn’t second-best; it might not be the Gold Coast, but it could be great in its own way.

The outcome was a virtual conference held over 8 Friday afternoons.  All presentations, including the keynote address from Prof Mark von Itzstein, Director of the Institute for Glycomics, were run virtually via ZOOM.

Adelaide node PhD student Pat Capon, who was both chair of, and a presenter in, the session on ‘Nanomaterials into Biology’, felt that ZOOM worked well as a conference platform: ‘It was great to be able to see the questions coming through the chat live and what people were thinking.  It made me more confident to ask my own questions.’

Virtual poster sessions were held on dedicated SLACK channels that permitted ongoing interaction over the whole 8 weeks, not just the 2 or 3 days of a physical conference.  Motivation was provided by a prize awarded for the most interaction on SLACK over the entire duration of the conference.

While many people missed the social aspect of conference participation, others felt that SLACK brought unexpected benefits.

Dr Simone de Camillis from the Macquarie node felt that ‘our choice of a parallel, on-going, open channel like Slack successfully contributed to our purpose. It attracted people to the different topics of the conference, to host the poster sessions in a diverse way, and to facilitate conversations within the CNPB community.’

And for Dr Shuo Li from RMIT, who chaired the final, fabulous session on ‘The CNBP Experience’, what made the conference great was the CNBP itself.

‘The online format somehow flattened the conference structure and extended it into a wider network, covering both current and former CNBP members. In fact, we enjoyed more freedom and concentration on the topics covered, given the use of online platforms and time flexibility. The thing that didn’t change was the support from the whole CNBP. Best community ever!’