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Higher education events postponed or shifted online as pandemic bites

A growing number of higher education conferences and events are being postponed or moved online in response to the Coronavirus restrictions.

Organisations are marshalling their digital know-how to try to ensure a programme of events runs this spring, from small seminar to substantial two-day gatherings. But many have been unable to avoid pushing conferences back until later in the year or even next year.

A total of 63 events listed for the next three months on HEi-know’s regularly updated HEi-planner have been postponed so far, while 20 have been moved to online delivery and many others are under review. Only 13 have been cancelled. Most organisers of events planned for July onwards are awaiting developments before deciding how to respond to the situation.

Some organisations, such as Westminster Higher Education Forum, have moved the bulk of their events online for the foreseeable future using facilities such as Zoom and Teams and more dedicated platforms including Zoom Webinar, Adobe Connect and Webex. Other bodies, such as Universities UK, have cancelled or postponed spring events but are still exploring the online options for some.

According to James Clay, head of higher education and student experience at JISC, one of the common mistakes in online delivery is trying to replicate the original format. Without the visual and verbal cues that come when people are in the same physical space, it can result in a frustrating and disappointing experience.

“It’s one thing to sit in a conference hall for an event, it’s something else to be sitting at home for a whole day with a headset on listening to speakers,” he said. “It’s like a Netflix binge, but a lot less entertaining. In these critical times there can be online conference and event overload. Everyone is running online webinars and events, and people are also being forced to use video conferencing to stay in touch with family and friends.”

Online delivery necessitates important adjustments. Keynote presenters need to be more dynamic as presenting to a webcam can flatten their performance. Good audio is critical: so speakers need decent microphones, as most viewers may put up with poor video but will switch off if the sound is poor. Sessions should be shortened from their offline version, as attention spans suffer when viewing an online event.

Technical support for “attendees” is critical, said Clay. Helping delegates to access the platform and making sure they can hear the speakers are essential considerations. Questions and answers work best if they are restricted to textual questions: “Avoid opening up the microphone, no matter how tempting it is,” he warned.

One advantage of the online option is asynchronous discussions, where participants can access and participate at different times and at their convenience. In times of poor bandwidth or low-powered equipment, delegates can view at another time, and possibly when they are doing other unavoidable tasks, such as childcare. They are also able to view workshops that may have run concurrently at a traditional conference.

Clay points out that enabling asynchronous discussion may mean moving a one-day conference to a one-week conference, to allow for reflection periods and other life commitments.

Online does have limitations. Some of the cut and thrust of panel discussions and questions from the floor can get lost in translation and these events require an experienced online chair who is prepared to mute speakers. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has decided to postpone the majority of events for the time being rather than go down the online route wholesale.

Rachel Hewitt, director of policy and advocacy at HEPI, said: “We felt that lots of our events involve panel discussions and back and forth and this doesn’t feel like it is something that lends itself to those sorts of platforms. They probably work better for one main keynote with a few questions.”

For HEPI, one of the vital components of their face-to-face events is networking and it was felt that this would be much more restricted in online delivery, even with the use of substitutes such as visual coffee bars or Twitter hashtags.

One of the issues that may arise in the coming months is the rescheduling of events for the summer when traditionally many in the higher education sector are less available. Alternatively, September and October could be overloaded with events at a time when employees have to get to grips with their day-to-day work after a long absence.