COVID-19: Rethinking face-to-face conferences

Five strategies for pivoting to virtual events
By: | April 13, 2020
University of North Georgia administrators designed a virtual showcase to honor and celebrate student research when COVID-19 canceled the in-person Annual Research Conference (pictured, 2019 event).University of North Georgia administrators designed a virtual showcase to honor and celebrate student research when COVID-19 canceled the in-person Annual Research Conference (pictured, 2019 event).
Anastasia Lin is assistant vice president of research and engagement at the University of North Georgia. 

Anastasia Lin is assistant vice president of research and engagement at the University of North Georgia.

Each year, the University of North Georgia hosts the Annual Research Conference on one of its five campuses. The conference is typically held on a Friday in March, as students from across our campuses and disciplines converge to present their research in front of colleagues, mentors and the local community.

Students depend on the conference to network, professionalize and improve their résumés for future opportunities. In addition, for many students, the conference represents the culmination of several years of preparation and countless research hours. Therefore, when COVID-19 abruptly canceled this year’s Annual Research Conference, we immediately began designing an alternate approach to honor and celebrate our students’ hard work. Following are five strategies we gleaned from the process.


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1. Reflect on event purpose

We began planning the online event by reflecting on its purpose. As we know from the research on high-impact practices, students who participate in undergraduate research tend to experience greater gains in deep learning, critical thinking and persistence. In addition, the conference is an optimal way to recruit new students to research; audience members who wander in, come to support a friend, or receive extra credit for attendance often realize the positive impact undergraduate research can have as they watch other students present.

2. Boost interactivity

Bearing all of this in mind, we began researching ways to make the conference interactive and accessible. Because our schedule was already set and designed around student class schedules, we decided to use the original conference schedule, just at a later date: April 17. Next, we decided combining a mostly asynchronous poster session with a synchronous oral panel would be flexible enough to meet student needs.

We collaborated with Information Technology Services at UNG to run the panel sessions through the university’s Visual Huddle, an online meeting platform. A staff moderator and IT professional assigned to each panel would manage the room, troubleshoot technical issues and assist with student questions.

When COVID-19 abruptly canceled this year’s in-person event, we immediately began designing an alternate approach to honor and celebrate our students’ hard work.

We also realized our existing Digital Commons platform used for conference schedule dissemination was robust enough to handle an asynchronous poster session. To mimic the vital conversations that happen in face-to-face sessions, we asked each student to upload a video (no more than five minutes long) detailing the contents of their research poster, and opened up our chat feature on Digital Commons. We also suggested that each student use PowerPoint’s narration feature to record their research pitch since most posters were drafted in PowerPoint.

We have encouraged student presenters to be online during the original poster session time to engage in chat conversations in real time with conference visitors. To increase access, we plan to keep the videos up and chat feature open for a week after the conference.


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3. Consider participant accessibility

While some students jumped at the chance to add some structure to their day, others have been overwhelmed by the transition to online classes and responsibilities such as jobs, families and health challenges. To democratize the process as much as possible, we allowed students to switch from an oral presentation to a poster to better suit needs. Because getting responses from original presenters proved challenging due to these issues, we asked faculty mentors to email their research teams individually to check in.

4. Ramp up marketing efforts

We also ramped up publicity for the event by leveraging social media, institutional news outlets and coverage from local newspapers. And four days before the event, we planned to email all UNG faculty, staff and students directly.


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5. Leverage new opportunities

The pivot to a virtual conference has birthed unexpected lessons and benefits through new opportunities.

First, the local community has embraced the event as a means of providing some normalcy during a tumultuous time. The chance to celebrate student excellence even amid a pandemic seems a hint of good news in a time of crisis.

Second, the online format opened up more space and time, which allowed us to invite our senior student researchers who had external conference plans upended by COVID-19. Many students—especially seniors—jumped at the opportunity to present their work.

Third, in moving posters online, we also solved the issues of our typically busy, packed poster session. Because we do not have the same time or space limitations online in Digital Commons, students and visitors will have more time for feedback and discussion. We hope to shift to a hybrid online/in-person poster session next year.


Anastasia Lin is assistant vice president of research and engagement at the University of North Georgia. 


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