July 14, 2021

Blending the Synchronous with the Asynchronous: Strategies for Planning a Successful Conference Program

About this series: The 2021 Virtual Library Publishing Forum was a huge success, combining excellent content with smooth facilitation and a liberal dose of whimsy and care. We decided to pull back the curtain on how it was run to support other organizations that are interested in hosting thought-provoking, humane events on a shoestring. Because we have a lot to say, we are publishing a series of daily posts, each with a different theme. The series was created by the group of Educopia staff and LPC Program Committee members listed above, but the guide is written in first person and each section is written from a different perspective. Authors listed above who aren’t credited on a particular section helped with planning and editing this series.

The Program Committee aimed to deliver a virtual experience to the widest possible global audience, while maintaining as much of the “feel” of a live conference as we could.

One of the first considerations necessary to strike this balance was determining how to deliver the conference programming. Some virtual conferences require presenters to prerecord their sessions and attendees are able to watch those recordings asynchronously as their schedules allow. Other conferences stream each session live and encourage conference goers to interact during the session and/or Q&A.

Both approaches have benefits and drawbacks. Asynchronous delivery of recordings provides the most flexibility for attendees—who may be in nearly any time zone—to watch the conference content during normal waking hours, and presenters are given an opportunity to rehearse and edit their recordings before they are broadcast. Opportunities for direct engagement between presenters and attendees, however, is greatly diminished, and without a scheduled time set aside for watching presentations, attendees are more likely to put the conference on the back burner for the week or skip out on viewing the recordings altogether. Completely live delivery addresses many of these engagement issues, but inevitably means that some attendees must either watch sessions at odd hours, or miss them altogether. Live delivery also presents logistical challenges for presenters and organizers, who may waste valuable conference time troubleshooting connection, bandwidth, and usability issues.

Our approach, first applied to the 2020 Library Publishing Virtual Conference and refined for the 2021 event, was a hybrid of the above approaches. Long-form presentations and panels were given one hour of live delivery time, enabling use of interaction tools such as polls and Q&A to guide discussions. Shorter sessions were combined into hour-long blocks, and each presenter was required to submit their recorded presentation before the conference. The recordings were broadcast to the audience during the scheduled session, ensuring that each presentation kept to its allotted length, which in turn meant that each presenter had some time available for live Q&A with attendees. A third session type, lightning talks, followed a similar prerecorded format, with recorded sessions required to be under 5 minutes and time allotted for brief, live Q&A after the broadcast of each.

The result was a conference that definitely felt like it was happening live and required attendees to set aside time on their calendars to engage. It also encouraged engagement beyond the live and broadcasted sessions since presenters and attendees could continue conversation on the conference Discord channel or on Twitter during, or directly after, each session. The concentration of tweets about each session around a particular hour also helped those who might wish to follow sessions on social media better capture a range of opinions and reflections.

Scheduling, however, remained a challenge. Not only is it impossible to find a single block of time when everyone in the world is available, but even with scheduled programming, presenters and attendees alike naturally have competing demands on their attention when working remotely (and nobody wants to sit in front of Zoom for hours on end).

Our schedule, then, was set from 12 noon to 5 pm Eastern Daylight Time, providing a semi-reasonable schedule for most of North and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, but making attendance a real challenge for community members in Asia and Oceania. (Future committees may wish to try splitting the day to better accommodate these participants.) Still, the days were limited to 5 hours of conference programming, and breaks of at least 15 minutes were provided between sessions.

Another way we approximated the live conference experience was by beginning each day with a dedicated hour of keynote or invited-plenary programming (the rest of the conference schedule was divided into two tracks so that attendees could choose between programming). This enabled us to establish a tone for each day among all attendees, and carried a communal, shared experience through the entire week of the conference. Daily dedicated programming also enabled us to distribute updates, reminders, and a friendly welcome at the beginning of each day, much like we would have done at morning coffee at an in-person Forum.

We also made several other efforts to encourage a collegial vibe before and during the conference, including:

  • Reminding attendees of the LPC Code of Conduct at the start of each session 
  • Reminding attendees of the importance of self-care and encouraging them to disconnect and stretch, or take walks during longer breaks 
  • Ensuring that Program Committee members and conference staff were at every session to provide introductions, keep time, help with Q&A, and generally host the room 
  • Asking Program Committee members to use the same specially designed virtual background in order to give everyone an easy visual way to recognize who to go to for help and establishing a consistent brand for the conference 
  • Assigning Program Committee members to connect with the plenary speakers a week or more before their talk to help them feel comfortable, confirm how they would be presenting and distributing their content, and provide guidance on technical issues

Planning programs for both in-person and online conferences is challenging, but with good planning, transparent conversation and decision-making, and a strong existing framework and support to build on, it is educational, satisfying, and fun!