Running seminars and events online; what we’ve learned

As Covid-19 brought with it lockdown and social distancing our research support community leapt into action, exploring new ways to allow the science to continue as unimpeded as possible.

One of many challenges was figuring out how we could maintain the networking and knowledge exchange, which is vital to the dissemination of research, ideas and inspiration.

As teams began to work remotely and interact online, Sarah Tolland began work on how we could use online platforms to facilitate larger meetings and events including our iconic Friday Seminar series.

We asked Sarah what she has done, what the challenges were and what advice she would offer people looking to run larger events online.

“We have moved a wide variety of events online, including department and ISP seminars, the Friday Seminar series and larger events planned for later in the year such as the Women of the Future event.

The first, and biggest, challenge was to find a format that would encourage scientists to attend and engage at a time when everyone’s lives had been turned upside-down by the COVID-19 crisis.

Finding the answers involved talking to colleagues about what it is everyone wants to achieve, particularly those who are already engaged and interested.

For example, with our Friday Seminar series we wanted to retain the most important elements of the weekly event; the main seminar, group and 1-1 discussions. However, we needed to deliver this for scientists (attendees and speakers) in different time zones, many working remotely and additionally dealing with other family responsibilities.

We realised we couldn’t do this properly if we tried to do it all at once. For example, many of our Friday Seminar speakers are based in other countries and therefore in other time zones, so a speaker from say California, who are seven hours behind us in Norwich, would be asleep at our usual 11.30am time slot. So, we devised a new format;

  • Pre-recorded seminar released five days before a live Q&A: this was to try to accommodate the time zone difficulties and give those juggling other responsibilities the time to watch when they wished
  • Live Q&A (normally 30-40 mins) set at a time that worked well for the speaker
  • Individual and group discussions scheduled over the following 2-3 days: to accommodate time zone differences and limit the amount of time each day that the speaker was in virtual meetings

We chose to use Zoom for the Q&A as it allowed the speaker to see all the participants, people could ask questions live and could also submit advance questions and we were delighted that the in-depth nature of the discussions was well received.

We delivered the seminar recording using Zoom webinar, but I would not use this format going forward. In our experience, it is much better suited to a live seminar and needed a lot of work behind the scenes to place a pre-recorded seminar onto the platform. The quality of the recording was also automatically reduced which I was not happy with, particularly for a detailed science seminar. That said, if we need to deliver a live Friday Seminar in the future, I would consider using Zoom webinar.

The registration side of the system worked very well, so I will be using Microsoft forms in future for registration and then provide a link to Vimeo, which has password protection and excellent quality.

We also looked at Teams Live Event to deliver the seminar, but the system is much more anonymous, working well for a team/company update but feels rather impersonal for delivering a seminar.  There is a lot of control available to the organiser when using Live Event and this works well when there is a panel of presenters.

For our 1-1 and group discussions, I used one perpetual virtual meeting room with one link. The advantages were: the speaker did not have to switch between different links for each meeting and if a meeting ran over the appearance of the next person on the programme in the virtual room reminded the participants it was time for the next meeting. However, one disadvantage shared by a meeting participant was that they arrived early for their meeting and interrupted the one scheduled before them, which was slightly embarrassing.

Having now run a few Friday Seminars, I think I can say with some confidence that there have been some real positives to the switch.

For example we now have the opportunity to be able to invite eminent scientists that had previously had to turn down our invitation for travel reasons. We have also been able to open up the seminars to colleagues working in China in Beijing and Shanghai and to our alumni around the world.

There are downsides too of course, and the experience for the speaker and audience is certainly limited virtually so when we are able, we will definitely be bringing back the in-person seminars.  There is no real substitute for a live and in-person event and discussions.

I can see the future format becoming hybrid and when the original in-person seminars can be run again, I am sure we will retain some elements from the virtual version and occasionally a fully virtual version may be run when travel is not practical for the speaker.

We have learned a lot through this experience and I would offer anyone thinking of doing the same the following tips;

  • Be clear about who your audience will be and whether they will want to engage with the virtual format
  • Make it as easy as possible to sign up as an attendee and be as clear as possible up-front regarding how the event will run
  • Practice, practice, practice. I can’t stress this enough – testing is so important. Try to recreate as many of the scenarios that you expect to be dealing with as possible so that you can pre-empt and solve problems before they show up live. Also ask colleagues to help you with testing if possible. I owe huge thanks to many of my fellow administrators for the time they have given up helping me to test out different platforms
  • Once you have chosen your platform, take the time to delve into the advanced settings. For instance, there are a lot of really useful elements buried in the settings in Zoom. Examples include customised recording settings to allow you to get exactly what you want in your recordings and the ability to customise the waiting room for your meeting
  • Be careful to check your settings before each event
  • Provide guidance to your speakers and give them the opportunity to do a test run before the live event
  • Be flexible. If something doesn’t seem to be working, don’t be shy in changing it. One of the advantages of the virtual format is the opportunity to innovate as you go along. We made quite a number of small changes and learnt on the fly from one event to the next.
  • Ask for feedback from speakers and participants, both of which was very valuable to improve our processes

Setting up this new process has been a fascinating challenge.  There were quite a few bumps on the road but, in the main, we were pleased with how things worked.

If anyone has any questions or wants more detail regarding how we are running the seminar programme, email me, because I would be delighted to answer them.”