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