2020 has become the year where we all develop expertise in areas our late 2019 selves would have never imagined adding to the resolution list. Barber? Check. Sourdough bread baker? Check. A facemask fashion designer? Check.
At over the halfway point of the year, many of us have made peace with how to navigate life with a newly expanding, appropriately socially distanced six-foot personal space bubbles. And yet, some (or, let’s be honest many) things still feel plain weird and potentially impossible to reimagine.
A huge thing, especially for an education-centric audience, is the conference. Summer and fall are affectionately known as “conference season “a delightful time where you can justify visiting fun new places, staying in cool hotels, and eating great food. Oh, and of course, being inspired and learning new ideas from peers. I am a conference travel junkie and gladly jump at any opportunity to pack my suitcase (and my little Yorkshire Terrier Ruby, who is in it for the room service) and learn something new.
Unfortunately, it seems that the things that make everyone love a conference are still too risky in pandemic times. Many organizers are choosing to embrace a virtual format.
What follows are five tips for virtual conferencing. Though I love traveling to conferences, in the not too distant past, I was a doctoral student with little funding thus spent a few years “attending” larger conferences exclusively via social media feeds and hangouts put on by Virtually Connecting (http://virtuallyconnecting.org). These tips are things I learned through that process. A virtual conference will never be just like a face to face conference. However, if you are prepared, adjust expectations, and have an open mind, I am convinced you might be surprised at how fun and enlightening the experience can be.
Know your time zone.
Nothing derails good conference intentions faster than realizing that you missed most of the first day because your time zone is actually behind rather than ahead of the organizing committee. From the beginning, know what time zone you are in, the conference is in, and how to make the calculations. Put it all onto your calendar (with alerts!) to know when sessions are going to begin and plan accordingly.
Inserting conference sessions into daily life means you have to split your time and attention way more than when you attend face to face. Use all the reminders you have at your disposal. You can most likely always re-watch sessions if necessary, but there is a freshness to seeing things when they come out the first time that is hard to match.
Create a sacred space.
As we have all no doubt told our online learners, just because pictures show people going to school while sitting under a tree or lounging at the beach, all environments are not conducive to learning. The same is true for a virtual conference. Instead, set up your space and make it somewhere comfortable, cozy, and relatively private. One of the indirect things I think makes a face-to-face conference so dynamic is that all participants commit to being present and together for a few days. Being present looks different when everyone is online, but if you make that commitment, you are sure to take more out of it than if you keep dipping in and out of the experience.
You do not have to break out your power outfit or the extra fancy shoes (though I’ve done both while attending a virtual conference and recommend it!) but wear actual clothing that is not workout wear, pajamas, etc. Putting on real clothes, just like creating your space, helps you mentally transition to being present at the conference.
Follow the socials.
In many ways, conferences are places to see and be seen. It’s no shocker that most people say the conference’s best thing was not any individual session but was all the interactions that happened outside of the main events. Though it once again is not a direct matchup, many of these serendipitous encounters can still occur in online conferences via the conference social media feed or hashtag. Whether you actively participate or not, it is always valuable when attending a conference to have social media open and keep your eye on the hashtags and mentions to see what others are saying. Bonus: it tends to be easier to reach out to speakers and authors via Twitter than trying to flag them down in the cocktail reception after a keynote.
Take breaks. Eat snacks.
Now, this may go against tip two. Still, I think it is good to step away periodically and do a few real-life things, mainly if it contains long periods of synchronous presentations. These breaks are somewhat akin to stepping out and taking an extended lunch or early dinner at a face to face conference. During these short breaks, you can mull over and process things you have been learning. I take periodic breaks to walk Ruby and find that these short ten minutes are the perfect way for me to begin thinking about how I can get more practical with all I have been learning. Taking periodic snack breaks, too, is an excellent way to ensure your brain stays fueled and attentive.
In closing, if you have never given virtual conferencing a try, I would highly recommend it. It is different from its face-to-face counterpart, but it has a charm and appeal all its own, and I believe it is entirely valuable. So create your space, get dressed, and sit down and do it! You never know who you might meet or what new ideas might spark and surprise you.