Technology woes and technology benefits

Technology has become an invaluable tool, and conference organisers pulling together a virtual event expect most delegates will have the relevant skillset and tools to take part. However, this does not necessarily mean delegates can troubleshoot technical difficulties quickly and without assistance. During the first few hours of the Spheres of Singing conference, a few delegates experiencing difficulties continuously posted in the public chat, partly out of desperation to get the issue resolved quickly. Unfortunately, even though there were a small number of people experiencing problems, their public posts gave the impression these issues were wide-spread. From that point on, the team set up a tech support email and directed delegates to email in their queries. This gave us a better understanding of how many people experienced problems and the commonality of these issues. Here are three additional recommendations to help with technical complaints while keeping the event running smoothly.

    1. Ask one team member to manage the technical support email instead of attending panels. This ensures delegates are receiving support quickly. The technical support person may also have to meet via video chat to resolve certain issues, which is why it is useful they do not attend panels that day.
    2. Within panels set a protocol for who will manage technical issues/comments in the chat and let that single person take care of it.

Conference teams want to make sure the event runs smoothly, but six people answering one technical query is not helpful for the delegate. Assigning one person in each panel, who can direct the delegate to the technical support email ensures they are getting the support they need without receiving an overwhelming number of messages.

  1. Provide a drop-in session (or online registration desk) for delegates before the conference begins.

It is easy to assume all delegates will have a similar technical skillset, but this is not the case. Some delegates may feel very uncomfortable with technology and want to relieve their anxieties. Others may have very specific technical issues that can be resolved in a drop-in session. If anything, it is a nice opportunity for delegates to meet with a member of the conference team and ask any questions.

Creating barriers to access to prevent Zoom-bombing

Zoom-bombing has become a concern during the COVID-19 lockdown and can be really detrimental to any event. Zoom has updated their security in response to these threats, including recommending sessions are password-protected, a waiting room is enabled, and links are not shared on public social media platforms. However, there is always the concern a savvy hacker will manage to break through and interrupt an important event. Additional apps, such as conference planning apps can be used as another barrier to access.

We decided to use a platform called Whova to prevent Zoom-bombing attacks and to improve networking during the conference. Whova is an all-in-one event management app that promises full functionality for networking and Zoom streaming. All delegates needed to download the app to attend the conference, which added another barrier to access. We also realised with the numbers that had signed up; it would have been too time-consuming to check each person before admitting them into the sessions.

In terms of networking, Whova is an excellent app. It facilitates messaging and posting similarly to Facebook (posting questions, thoughts, queries to all delegates as well as private messaging participants). It also allows presenters to upload abstracts, videos, papers and slides and Zoom links can stream through the app. Whova worked well facilitating discussions, but some delegates had difficulty with the Zoom/Whova integration.

While the conference team had a positive experience with Zoom, we also recognise some delegates do not like downloading multiple apps onto their devices, particularly unfamiliar apps. Rumana Rahman, who posted on the Women in Academia Support Network Facebook group, commented:

Figure 1: Permission was granted from the original poster. The post was placed on WIASN 27 June 2020.

With so many apps available to facilitate video conferencing and networking, delegates can quickly become overwhelmed and confused. It is worth considering if a smaller, more manageable online event that does not require an additional app would provide a better experience for everyone involved. Alternatively, if a large-scale event is necessary and requires the use of an unfamiliar conference app, it is important to be transparent with delegates and explain why the app is being used, how it works and if it is integrated with software that is commonly known, such as Zoom. Just a little more context can help delegates realise why a specific form of software or hardware is being used and the solutions it offers as a result. This kind of transparency removes confusion and improves the delegates overall conference experience.


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