Recording the conference, accessibility and sharing

Most online videoing platforms, including Zoom, have a record function and during these unprecedented times, institutions and organisations have taken advantage of the feature to solve a variety of accessibility issues. Drake Music recommends recording meetings to allow attendees to listen to important sections again. Similarly, ClickMeeting propose recording meetings to share with staff who were unable to attend. Brianna Beehler and Devin Griffiths even suggest putting the recording on a platform with a comment feature so that the synchronous questioning can continue asynchronously. Maximising accessibility was the driving force behind the Spheres of Singing conference team recording all panels, workshops and keynotes. Here are a few of the reasons why:

Concurrent panels

Each of these points are really important to consider when running any online conference or event. In some cases, they actually solve commonly occurring issues indicative of the in-person conference. Most large, in-person interdisciplinary conferences will run multiple concurrent panels but rarely will have recording facilities available to capture and disseminate them to all delegates. As such, delegates must choose which panel they wish to attend. Some delegates may try to hear different papers in different sessions, but this depends on the venue and if it is possible to move from one room to another in time and without disruption. An online conference with a recording and sharing plan allows delegates the opportunity to watch as many panels as they desire.

Asynchronous attendance to open access to those with caring responsibilities

It has long been acknowledged that in-person conference present barriers, particularly for delegates who have caring responsibilities (see Amber Pouliot, 2018). As such, the online conference is more accessible to those who might not have been able to come. However, we have to acknowledge, simply moving the event online does not entirely open access without implementing other interventions. Some delegates still have caring responsibilities at home and may not be able to watch, disseminate, interact and engage with panels synchronously. Recordings take the pressure off delegates to come to the live panel, but still enables engagement at a time that suits.

Captioning

Just like in-person conferences, audio quality may not be the best, and unless a live captioner or sign-language interpreter is employed for the live event, the conference is limiting its access. Though I would argue sign-language interpreters or live captioners should be prioritised, most conferences do not have the finances. Zoom has a built-in captioning function, which appears on recordings and could go some way to offering a more accessible experience. It should be noted that this function is only available if recordings are saved to the Cloud.

Pre-recording talks

Some conference organisers, such as Martina Cicakova, view recordings as a useful way to ensure panels run to time and papers are of sufficient quality. Indeed, Spheres of Singing did give speakers the opportunity to pre-record their talks, mainly if they felt uncomfortable to speak live. There are certainly advantages to pre-recorded papers. In 2010, Nelson N. Gichora et al. recommended pre-recording papers to avoid internet lag and technological glitches. The internet has become a lot more reliable in more countries across the world in the last ten years, but it is not infallible. The difference in 2020, primarily as COVID-19 has forced many educators to move to online teaching, is that speakers may expect they will deliver their paper live on camera. This is more aligned to the in-person conference experience after all and does not assume a speaker will have the time, skillset or technology to pre-record ahead of the conference taking place. As such, they should be given the opportunity to choose their preferred method for delivering their paper. We would also recommend streaming a pre-recorded paper during a live panel so the speaker can receive live-feedback from delegates.

Further considerations

While recordings are very useful and enable a more accessible experience, there are also ethical considerations to ensure these recordings are made and shared appropriately. Here are a few key points:

  1. Inform all speakers and delegates that panels will be recorded.
  2. Give the speakers a choice to have their talks recorded.
  3. Give delegates time to protect their anonymity before switching on the recordings.
  4. Only make the recordings available for a limited time.

TAGC 2020 note that transparency is essential and should be defined in any code of conduct, particularly if the conference is making recordings. Recordings certainly enhance accessibility, but speakers may feel reluctant to share their work-in-progress, particularly if there are no plans to delete the recordings after a period of time. Similarly, delegates may dislike appearing on recordings, though they can switch off their camera and change their name to protect their identity. In general, the Zoom meeting/webinar should be set up to ensure recordings can only be made by the meeting host, whether that be the conference organisers or an appointed person and clear ethical guidance should be thought through and articulated to all attendees before any recording is made.

Spheres of Singing scripted an introduction, which was read at all panels informing delegates about the plans for recording and outlining what they could do if they did not want to appear on video. Similarly, speakers were asked for consent to have their session recorded. We only made the recordings available for 48-hours, though, in hindsight, a longer period of time would have given more flexibility to those watching back at a later date. Limiting the time recordings were available certainly relieved some anxieties, and most speakers recognised the recordings were an aid to accessibility and not intended as a permanent document.

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This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.


Scheduling and planning, time zones and breaks

Abstract submissions

Scheduling and planning really require time and careful consideration. Spheres of Singing invited abstract submissions through the Easy Chair submissions portal. This free website was useful as all the abstracts were kept together, and we could easily facilitate a blind peer-reviewing process. Easy Chair keeps the author information separately from the abstract, and it allows abstracts to be allocated to external peer reviewers. This was beneficial as we were able to recruit reviewers to look at the topics that the committee did not have the expertise to assess. Easy Chair allows reviewers to give comments and feedback to the author as well as providing confidential feedback to the organisers. Reviewers give the abstract a confidential score for accepting the abstract (e.g. strong accept, weak accept, reject) and the reviewers can also score level of expertise when assessing the submission. The system then ranks all abstracts to give a list of the strongest to weakest papers based on reviewers’ feedback. Overall, this allows for a more objective rejection of abstracts if there are too many to be included in the schedule or if there are papers that do not meet the standards for submission. We gave authors an opportunity to resubmit their abstract based on reviewers’ comments.

Once all the abstracts are in and approved, scheduling became the priority. Keywords provided by the authors during the submission process aided the scheduling and, in this case, were vital as Spheres of Singing covered a variety of disciplines, practices and topics. Key words helped us to group together talks that corresponded to each other, and from here, we were able to establish sessions that ran by theme or topic.

Parallel sessions

A decision needs to be taken as to whether the event will run with parallel sessions or without. This will depend on how many talks and workshops are planned and how long the days are going to be. Parallel sessions are possible online as multiple Zoom links can be sent to delegates. This is useful for large events as delegates are dispersed over different rooms and so there is less risk of overloading the system. Equally, plenary sessions that bring all delegates together into one stream can be useful and play an important role in the cohesion of your delegate community. Spheres of Singing organised sessions by theme or topic and parallel session ran based on these themes. We attempted to pair parallel themes that would have as little conflict between them as possible. Our schedule had two parallel sessions running on days one and two, and three panels on day three. At the end of day one and two, there was a plenary keynote that complemented some of the themes explored throughout the day. Day three concluded with a plenary Q&A with members of The Sixteen, followed by practical workshops.

Scheduling

When planning any conference, putting the schedule together takes time and often many drafts. One of the reasons for this is the availability of the speakers. However, it is perhaps even more critical for an online conference to check in with speakers to ensure they are free to present at the scheduled time. After all, the speakers are at home and may also have caring responsibilities or maybe attending the conference around their other work commitments. Patience and understanding can go a long way to building a good relationship with the speakers, mainly if they are dealing with challenging circumstances.

It is essential to consider the tools for scheduling and how you will map out your drafts together as a committee. We found Excel and Google Sheets were useful in planning each session because the spread sheet format was visually clear, and it was easy to edit as needed. We used the spread sheet to colour code the schedule by sessions, type of talk, plenary, and breaks. This aided with the visual clarity of the schedule. When transferring the Excel document into the final PDF version, we ensured that the colours we used for sessions enhanced the readability of the document. It is vital to include a key that explains what the colours represent and that the colours are accessible to colour blind readers.

Socialising on the online platform

Online spaces can easily lack the networking and socialising typical of an in-person event. To this end, it is important to consider how socialising can be facilitated and how many social events the conference might include. In lieu of a traditional reception at the end of Spheres of Singing, we scheduled an informal closing ceremony followed by a ‘BYOB’ drinks reception. Using Zoom’s breakout room function, attendees joining from across the globe were able to meet and chat in an informal and relaxed space. This worked well as it facilitated discussions between delegates about the sessions. Most delegates in attendance noted how much they enjoyed having a space to reflect on what they had learned at the end of the conference. On reflection, though we only scheduled one social event, we could have scheduled more informal sessions throughout the conference. Social sessions would have worked well as lunchtime meet-ups or at the end of each day. As such, this would have made the social events more accessible to those who were unable to attend on the last night, or who were unable to stay late into the evening.

Time Zones

One issue unique to the online conference experience are conflicting time zones. This post by Owl Labs provides useful suggestions for managing time zones and includes a ‘cheat sheet’ of key meeting times that are ideal for people meeting up across the globe. Spheres of Singing had several presenters from North America, and so we decided that our event would run from 1pm until around 7pm BST. This meant that the event started in the morning in North America and ran too late afternoon. Of course, the time change did not suit everyone. For example, the conference started in the evening and continued on late into the night in places like Australia. As it was recorded, we were still able to facilitate attendance, but it is worth discussing this issue with presenters if there are people presenting from different time zones.

Breaks

Conferences can be exhausting, whether in person or online, so it is really important to schedule enough breaks. Most of our breaks were 20-minutes long and were scheduled roughly every hour. Breaks also play an important practical role in the running of the event. In Spheres of Singing, breaks were used to set up the Zoom room 10-minutes in advance of the session beginning. This time was spent ensuring presenters could test their presentations and iron out any technical difficulties with audio or video before audience members were admitted from the waiting room. This was especially important to facilitate presenters who were unfamiliar with Zoom and who were not confident with the technical side of the software. It was the role of a committee member to host and set up the Zoom sessions. As such, the breaks allowed the committee member to start the Zoom meeting and ensure it was secure before the session started. 20-minute breaks allow just enough time for all of this checking to take place.

It should be noted, being responsible for starting and stopping the Zoom meetings on time was quite stressful for committee members, especially when they had to end sessions before the speakers had time to answer all of the questions. Initially, the committee was a little more lax about sticking to the schedule, but it became clear it was vital to keep strict timings (more so than an in-person event). Also, since committee members had to start the meetings during breaks, they often had no time to stop. This makes the day extremely exhausting, so do bear in mind that 20-minute break is a suggested minimum length.

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This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.


Why an online event? Accessibility, inclusivity and finances

Spheres of Singing was initially planned as an in-person event; however, it was reconceived as a virtual conference just before lockdown was announced in March 2020. This format has proved to be incredibly successful for a number of reasons, and we would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what we have learned and recommendations for organising large-scale online conferences in the future.

What was Spheres of Singing?

Spheres of Singing 2020 was a free, 3-day interdisciplinary conference on singing hosted by the University of Glasgow and co-organised by students and staff from the University of Glasgow, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and University of Edinburgh. It provided a unique space for practitioners and academics to share their research on singing. Practitioners and researchers were encouraged to share their practice, and we used the conference to capture this vital information and share it with the wider academic and practitioner community. Further information about the conference can be found on the website: https://spheres-of-singing.gla.ac.uk/.

How many presenters?

Hosted on Zoom, the conference featured contributions from around the world, including 45 presentations, seven workshops, six open discussions and four lecture-recitals. There were contributions, participation and people tuning in live or asynchronously from the UK, US, Canada, India, Ireland, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nigeria, Australia and New Zealand. The full conference programme can be found here: https://spheres-of-singing.gla.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Spheres-of-Singing-3.pdf

How were attendees able to sign up for the conference?

We aimed to make the event as secure as possible. Even though attendance was free, we asked attendees to sign up via Eventbrite. Tickets were released 2-weeks ahead of the event. Attendees could also sign up for asynchronous attendance. This was made available 3-days before the event. There was no option to attend for 1-day as we didn’t feel this was necessary given the event was online.

How many were in attendance?

Initially, this conference hoped to attract approximately 100 people (speakers and attendees). Figures were modelled on previous conferences on this topic. When the conference moved online, we optimistically elevated the number to 150 people. Our Zoom-capacity allowed for 500 attendees, so we initially enabled 500 available tickets on Eventbrite, with no expectation we would sell out. Within 24-hours of the tickets going live, the conference was sold out.

Breakdown of overall sign-ups:

  • 500 people signed up to attend some of the conference live (including speakers).
  • 270 people signed up to attend the conference asynchronously.

Accessibility and inclusivity

Cost

An online event has the potential to impact accessibility massively. For example, delegates and speakers may struggle to attend an in-person event for a variety of reasons but are able to follow an online event from the comfort of their own home. Barriers to conference attendance is not a new discussion, as noted by Robb Travers et al. in their 2008 article ‘Increasing Accessibility for Community Participants at Academic Conferences Delegates’. Throughout the Spheres of Singing conference, delegates and presenters from across the globe, were able to attend freely. The fact we were able to attract delegates from eleven countries illustrates the scope of geographical accessibility an online event fosters. It is also important to acknowledge the positive environmental impacts of people attending from across the world without the carbon emissions of flying. we also provided an option to view the presentations asynchronously, which meant people could more easily access the event in different time zones (more details of planning for time zones is in section 2).

Removing the cost of travel and accommodation has visible positive impacts. As the Times Higher Education notes, the cost of conference attendance is a huge barrier to participation, especially for those who are not reimbursed for their travel and registration fee by an institution. This issue is also reflected in the feedback gathered from Spheres of Singing participants, where many delegates indicated they would not have been able to afford the travel and accommodation if the conference had gone ahead as an in-person event in Glasgow. Furthermore, we were able to offer the event for no cost. As such, we were able to reach a more diverse audience, including practitioners, researchers and interested enthusiasts who might not have been able to afford, or even justify the cost of attending. The conference was always planned as an inclusive event, where academics and practitioners could come together and discuss issues related to singing. The online structure allowed for a greater diversity of practitioners and researchers to be included.

Conference format

What the Spheres of Singing conference team have learned is that the format for academic conferences is not particularly inclusive. This article by Wired explores the issues with inclusivity and the overall experience of attending a conference, highlighting delegates can often feel exhausted and overloaded with information delivered in the “dry” conference format. In bringing together practitioners and researchers, it was vital to foster a space that was inclusive, and that offered an interactive experience. The feedback we had from participants, both informally and as part of a post-event survey, indicated that many people who had never attended a conference before, and who did not think a conference was ‘for them’ felt comfortable to enter into discussions, ask questions, or to simply be included in the online space through watching the presentations. This meant that we reached many practitioners and community members working and practising in singing, and ultimately, we met our goal of achieving practice and knowledge exchange between practitioners and researchers.

Academic language

However, it is essential to note that a conference taking place in a primarily academic space makes it more challenging to facilitate inclusion, particularly from those who do not think of themselves as belonging to the academic community. Moving to the online space and removing the costs associated with conferencing did not, in all cases, eliminate all barriers to participation. For example, it is important to acknowledge that the language used in academic conferencing, such as a “call for abstracts”, and “presenting papers” are not widely known or understood and are, therefore, not accessible. At Spheres of Singing we recognised that we needed to reframe this language and provide alternative methods to writing a 300-word abstract, or giving a 20-minute PowerPoint scripted presentation. To increase our accessibility, we gave speakers the option of talking through their proposed submission with a member of the organisation team over a phone call or on Zoom meeting. We allowed delegates the option of alternative formats for presenting, such as recording a short podcast or even videoing their presentation. One delegate used the alternative format to their advantage, by inviting the audience to look away from their computer screen, so they had a more immersive experience while listening to the recording. These recordings were played synchronously so that the delegates could still be asked questions in real-time. Going forward, we will look to further our use of non-academic language in our call for submissions and allow participants more flexibility in the format of their ‘abstracts’. The online sphere allows for this flexibility to be incorporated into proceedings and also removes an element of anxiety around presenting in an unfamiliar context.

Emails, website and Twitter

To ensure inclusivity through our use of language, we worked hard to set a friendly tone via our email correspondence, website and Twitter. The Twitter account was used to showcase our speakers, engage with our delegates, but also to reach as many people unconnected to the conference as possible. Tweets were informal in tone and engaged with the audience by inviting delegates to tag conference-related tweets with #SpheresofSinging. This built an online community who could share their experiences of the conference, but also created a positive space for delegates to interact. Some examples of Tweets that show the use of language to set a positive tone are found below:

 

Conference finances

There are lots of cost benefits to running an online event, as laid out by Inside Higher Ed. While online conferences avoid accommodation, travel, catering, and expenses associated with hiring a venue, there is still a cost in hosting an online event. The Times Higher Education points to this issue, stating it is not a guaranteed ‘cheap’ option. Hosting platforms and tech support, as well as fees for invited contributors, need to be budgeted. Spheres of Singing was awarded funding from the University of Glasgow to cover the cost of Whova, a platform on which the event was hosted. Furthermore, we were able to use the University’s Zoom access to facilitate sessions (more information can be found in our section on technology). The rest of the budget previously earmarked to cover travel expenses for our invited speakers and room hire was repurposed to cover the cost of our online overheads. Furthermore, since this was a music conference, invited practitioners giving workshops also needed to be paid. In this regard, our conference was unique as we were mitigating the difference between academics, who wouldn’t typically be paid for the contribution to a conference and practitioners do expect payment for their services since this is frequently their primary income.

While putting on the event for free did increase the reach and accessibility of Spheres of Singing, it is worth bearing in mind that a free event incurs a large number of ‘no shows’. While 450 tickets for the live attendance sold out, in reality, a maximum of 80 people attended the live sessions, though many more watched the recordings.

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This guidance material has been prepared by Brianna E. Robertson-Kirkland and Sophie Boyd.