Online conferences: different desires, various virtual fields
Online conferences are here to stay. Over summer, when the pandemic had taken a turn for the better, people were quick to dismiss the idea of online (or even hybrid) conferences. Nothing could beat in-person meetings, networking and the conference ambiance; not even the many advantages of going virtual. Now that new virus variants are popping up and R-rates are rising once more, online and hybrid conferences are back with a vengeance. This also brings back the question: which platform to use? To help you along, we discuss some of the most popular platforms used in the realm of (academic) conferences in this blog.
Effortless & elementary
The first group of platforms can be typified as effortless and elementary. These platforms offer a way of broadcasting your webinar at a certain date and time. Interaction is often limited to asking questions or raising points for discussion during the presentation, be that in writing (YouTube) or with audio and video (WebEx, GoToMeeting). Some platforms (Google Hangouts, Zoom) allow for the creation of break out rooms: splitting up the audience in smaller groups for better discussions. What most of these platforms have in common is their easy accessibility: most of the time, a link is enough to gain access to the seminar. WebEx forms the exception to this, as sessions are protected with two-step verification. Additionally, all these platforms are single-session-based: links are created for single sessions. If our conference has multiple (parallel) sessions, multiple links need to be created and you need to make sure your audience does not get lost in all the links.
Example of GoToMeeting. Source: GoToMeeting.
The second type of platforms can be typified as simulating spaces. These platforms make use of an important difference between virtual and physical conferences: virtual conferences are not time and place bound. Of course, sessions still take place at set times, but why should participants be held back from interacting with each other outside of this formal structure? This is why these platforms go beyond the single-session focus, as they provide a virtual space in which (parallel) sessions can be held and participants can contact each other during and after the event. Some platforms are focused on stimulating participants to meet each other and network (Networkapp); other platforms are focused on holding (group) meetings (MS Teams). There are also platforms (Canvas) focused on exchanging documents. Although these are great features for a conference, these platforms are often more intricate. They require registration and some skill in navigating through the platform.
Example of Networkapp. Source: Networkapp.
Creating a cyberworld
The third type of platforms, are the platforms that create a cyberworld. These platforms go beyond simulating a digital space by setting up an immersive environment. Some platforms (Hopin) simulate a physical conference by having a reception, center stage, and expo room, as well as options for networking and parallel sessions. Other platforms (Gather.town) mimic a physical conference, by constructing a world in which participants can walk, meet and work, using an adjustable avatar. These fun characteristics do, however, come with a prize: participants might get lost in the virtual world, experience difficulty finding, hearing or seeing each other, and for those participants who have steered clear from (online) gaming the controls are not always intuitive.
Example of Hopin. Source: Tim Bradshaw.
Example of Gather.town. Source: Gather.town.
The ultimate platform?
As you can see, many platforms have popped up as alternative conference sites. All platforms have their unique characteristics and it is impossible to dub one platform as the ultimate solution. Whichever platform you select, it is important to ask yourself (1) what are absolute crucial features for my conference and (2) what can my audience handle? The answer to those two questions should give a basis on which you can select, or scrap, some platforms. Happy conferencing!