Running an online Doctoral Consortium

Following COVID-19, last week I co-chaired the LAK20 Doctoral Consortium as an online 1-day workshop. This followed the tried and tested format we’ve developed since 2015/2016 and have used fairly consistently for the face-to-face events. The question was, would this work 100% online?

Following acceptance, the doctoral researchers populate the Google Doc program with their websites/papers/posters/slides, with specific instructions also to prepare feedback for their colleagues in the breakout sessions.

The shift online led to the following adjustments, which may help anyone else running a DC, or indeed, any online workshop where you want to combine conference + unconference mode.

Program sequencing

We were now covering 8 timezones. Frankfurt (the intended location for the conference) just happened to be the central, most convenient timezone, but it might not have been. World Clock Meeting Planner gives you a nice calendar to help everyone coordinate:

Vancouver to Sydney timezones chart

So instead of the usual thematic clustering of talks, presentation sequencing now had to ‘follow the sun’ through the 8 timezones. So the biggest hit of moving online is that you don’t have everyone there all the time. Oceania had to go first, then Europe, and then North America. This meant that Australians, for instance, dropped out at lunchtime (their midnight), and the US joined around then. The only way around this would be to chunk the day into 2-3 smaller sessions that are tolerable for all timezones.

Logistical implications:

  • You need co-chairs spanning the timezones so they can pass the baton. We had 6 academics covering, which worked well (1 AUS, 3 EU, 2 US).
  • Prior to the decision to move fully online, this was being planned as a hybrid event, which just imposed lighter scheduling constraints since the co-present students could be slotted in anywhere.
  • The plenary room with student presentations was recorded, so that all talks could be replayed (pause and resume recording during breakouts). With Zoom handling unprecedented load, it took 7 days to receive the link to the 2Gb recording. Then you need  to split the video file up into each presentation, which is pretty simple in iMovie etc, and a channel to upload to.
    • Option: You could set up each plenary session as a separate room (or even for each talk) to keep recordings shorter, but just a bit more hassle to create and navigate.
  • We might possibly have used a Zoom Webinar, designed for large audiences (like the LAK main program), but this  drastically restricts participants’ ability to engage fully (use video; share screens) which would impact the small workshop feel.
  • Dropping thematic clustering in fact meant that students who would otherwise have been in parallel breakouts on the same theme, were now able to use the breakouts to give feedback to colleagues in their area of expertise, an unexpected benefit. Normally, they would have chatted informally outside the formal sessions.

2 private programs for students and chairs

A clone of the public program was made for all participants, where we provided additional instructions, Zoom links (it’s an invitational event only) and recordings for those who missed sessions, and feedback boxes for everyone to share ideas:

In turn, the chairs had a clone of this which they could privately annotate with other org stuff, e.g. who is going to cover which breakouts, backup Zoom rooms (see next).

Breakout groups that students and chairs can roam at will

Zoom provides a breakout groups function which is great if you (as chair) want to do all the assigning of students to groups (Zoom supports automated or manual assignment of students to groups). Either way, however, students are then stuck with that breakout group — which may of course be entirely appropriate, depending on the students and learning design.

For our consortium, however, while each breakout had a designated focal student (the one getting feedback on their presentation and paper), everyone else operates in ‘unconference‘ mode, choosing which group(s) they join, switching to another at will. This is obviously designed to give students more agency, and Doctoral Consortium students who have prepared in advance can of course be trusted to make those calls.

Flexible breakout group instructions

This meant creating different Zoom rooms, which we discovered needed to be created by different hosts – the same host can’t be running and inhabiting multiple Zoom rooms.

If this had run as a hybrid physical+virtual event, co-present students would be asked to join their breakout Zoom room with their laptop, so that remote participants could tune in.

Plan B in case your planned videoconference tool fails

We used Zoom, which worked great overall. But whatever your platform, it’s good to know that if it goes down, you can hop into another one.

  • Find out which chairs can launch their own Zoom rooms, Google Hangouts, etc. at short notice. We had backup rooms linked in our chair’s version that we ended up calling on.

Finally, if someone can’t make attend live, the CHI guidelines on preparing a recorded research presentation are handy.

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