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