Tech in a Virtual Conference—Fourth Day

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Day 4 of a 10 day Academic Conference in 2020

I responded to a request to serve as “tech assist” during the virtual conference. This meant that I attended a handful of sessions as a volunteer representative of SBLAAR. Today, I am hosting two sessions, one was luckily in my field of study. Here are a few things I have noticed about managing a Zoom meeting.

Webinars & Virtual Meetings

There is a major difference between a “webinar” and a “meeting”. A webinar uses a setup where select individuals are assigned as “panelists” and all others are “attendees”. Only panelists are displayed on the viewing screen (even in “gallery view”). It is possible to completely close all interaction between attendees in the webinar setting, allowing attendees to only enter questions directly to the panelists. It is possible for the host to select “allow to talk” for attendees, which invites them to speak or address the panel. They can then be easily “disallowed” after their engagement. It is also possible to promote individual attendees to panelist status, which can be done temporarily or for a group discussion at the end of a session. Even without extending video or audio access, webinar settings can open up a decent level of engagement, if the host adjusts the settings of the chat and Q & A to allow attendees to comment and upvote questions. When the Q & A is functioning for scholarly conversation, the chat is then available for greetings, email address exchanges, and supplemental link posting.

There has been some expression of disappointment that the webinar format does not allow a mass gallery view of attendees, like the meeting format. At first this seemed like a major disadvantage, as social interaction is a value for most of us. However, after viewing a number of webinars and meetings (both as a host and as an attendee), I realize that the webinar format can still be made very interactive. It is a matter of adjusting the proper settings. Unfortunately, it seemed that some presiders were not familiar with these functions, or maybe did not know to ask the tech assist for direction.

The Zoom virtual meeting operates more freely. Everyone who enters the session has access to chat, and there is no specific Q & A channel. The format allows for all attendees to freely unmute themselves and show their video at any time. The format is conducive for large group discussions and easily transitions to and from breakout groups. However, it is sometimes difficult to monitor and can invite unwelcome distractions.

While the virtual meeting format is more social, it is also more open in communication. The lack of Q & A channel means that questions are either posted in chat (along with other ‘chatter’) or by raising a virtual hand to signal the moderator. This requires more careful attention by the moderator. This format also allows for attendees to unmute at anytime, and if screen sharing is not monitored, to screen share. This can be constructive, but it also means the schedule can be overrun.

Specific Designations

Creating titles and categories for participants with various roles helps with organization and directing the flow of a session. The following are roles assigned in this year’s virtual conference. Some of these assignments extend from the Zoom app, but the categories are applicable to any virtual conference session.

Attendee/Participants—Attendee is the designation made in a Zoom webinar for those who are not part of the presenting panel, and participant is the label for everyone in a Zoom virtual meeting.

In a conference where those logging on are previously registered, there is less risk of unknown public viewers. Still, a virtual conference host might consider sending out some protocol instructions to participants and attendees. First on that list might be requesting their profile features a full name for uniformity and recognition. This is especially helpful for managing questions and conversation in a meeting.

Presider—It is smart to have a presider overseeing the mechanics of the presentations and monitoring panelist responses. This helps with the flow and making sure that questions are answered in turn. The best presiders monitored the Q & A (in a webinar), immediately responding that the question was seen and would be answered in time, acknowledging the attendee as a participant in the session.

Panelist—A key part of the session is a presenter who is showed on screen in a webinar. The panelist has access to screen sharing and responding to Q & A.

Tech Assist—It is helpful to have someone manage the technical flow. This person is the first to log on and open the meeting. They can watch for unexpected sounds or out-of-place screen sharing interruptions. This frees up the presider to manage the flow of the meeting.

Host/Co-host—The host has the most power in a meeting. The tech assist will have host abilities. The presider is a natural choice for co-host. This allows either one to respond to raised hands by promoting attendees, and also gives control over technical settings in the presentation.

Personal Experience

I am glad that I have taken on this role of “tech assist” during this year’s virtual conference. It gave me an opportunity to experience managing the technical aspects of a virtual meeting.

The reality is that virtual conferences are here to stay. Even as in-person conferencing becomes available again, the ability to invite participation from people who are unable to participate due to reasons economic or other cannot continue to be overlooked by conference-providers.

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