Virtually Connecting: an innovative initiative to enhance the virtual conference experience [Interview]

Maha Bali (@Bali_Maha), Associate Professor of Practice, Center for Learning and Teaching at the American University in Cairo, MOOCaholic and writeaholic and Rebecca Hogue (@rjhogue), an unaffiliated scholar, innovator, and educator met during the #rhizo14 MOOC last January 2014. Together, they founded Virtually Connecting, a project that connects virtual conference participants to onsite attendees via video conferencing tools.

The Conference Mentor interviewed them to learn more about this innovative initiative and how it enhances the conference experience.

Virtually connecting_Maha_Rebecca

Can you tell me a bit more about Virtually connecting?

Rebecca: The purpose of Virtually Connecting is to liven up virtual participation in academic conferences, giving access to the social parts of the conference, making for a deeper conference experience for those who cannot be physically present at conferences. It also has a side effect of helping the person onsite reach out and connect with people they otherwise would not have. It provides a reason to reach out to thought leaders and engage in meaningful conversations.

Using emerging technologies, we connect onsite conference presenters with virtual participants in small groups. This allows virtual conference attendees to meet and talk with conference presenters, something not usually possible. Each session is recorded and, whenever possible, live streamed, to allow additional virtual attendees to participate in the discussion by listening and asking questions via Twitter. So far, we have been using Google hangouts on Air, which livestreams and automatically records conversations between up to 10 devices.

What led you to start this project?

Maha: This year, I wasn’t able to attend #et4online. While I managed to participate in sessions I was co-presenting, I really wanted to participate in the social aspects of the conference, particularly because I knew a lot of people attending the conference.
Rebecca came up with the “buddy” idea and offered to connect me with people I was interested in meeting. Partway through planning this, we decided to open up the meetings so other virtual participants could join in and meet onsite presenters. This is partly because of my role as social media committee member and responsible for virtual unconference at #et4online.
The #et4buddy experience, as we called it, was particularly successful because we both knew so many people at the conference, most of whom were interested and even excited to participate. When we came to expand it to other conferences with other onsite buddies, we decided to keep it to just 1-2 hangouts per conference and to focus on inviting virtual participants in.

Rebecca: I live in California but I’m a member of several committees in Ottawa and I’ve had friends bringing me into meetings using Facetime or other video conferencing tool. I found this experience almost as good as being physically present.
When I learned that Maha wasn’t able to attend #et4online, I thought I could do the same for her and become her buddy for the conference. She really wanted to meet some of the attendees, so I brought the social aspects of the conference to her. The experience helped me as well, because it encouraged me to approach other people despite my shyness, and I met people that I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise.

What’s the typical content of the google Hangouts?

Maha: It varies. In its most generic form, we ask onsite presenters to discuss what they’ve been talking about at the conference, and invite virtual participants to join the conversation, asking questions but also adding insights. Occasionally there will be a very social/fun aspect when people know each other well. Sometimes virtual participants will continue discussion after the onsite participants leave the hangout.

What do the roles of “Onsite buddy” and “Virtual buddy” consist in?

Rebecca: To be a good “onsite buddy”, you need to be willing to approach people onsite such as keynote speakers and other presenters, and find a suitable time and place to hang out. It can be quite exhausting because you need to be “on” during breaks or time when you can normally rest.

Maha: For “virtual buddies”, their job is to support the onsite folks at the conference. They do most of the leg work during the session – managing the Hangout on Air and sharing links to invite virtual participants to join the conversation. Ideally, the virtual buddy should be a relatively well-connected person who can convince onsite presenters to take time during the conference to do a hangout. They’re also in charge of the bulk of the marketing for the event and of inviting others to join the hangout virtually.

How is this initiative enhancing researcher’s experience of conferences?

Maha: Many educators (particularly graduate students, adjuncts, women with children, etc) are unable to travel frequently to conferences, if at all. Virtually connecting enables them to get a sense of what it might feel like to network at a conference and, for others not on the hangout but watching, to vicariously enjoy this. It can also be a tool to help decide which conferences you might wish to attend in the following year.
Our sessions encourage participation and connection. Even though it all happens virtually, there is actually a lot of spontaneity which brings the same kind of experience than bumping into someone at a conference.

Virtual connecting sessions also enhance the quality of conferences. Andrea Rehn, an onsite buddy in two conferences wrote it well in a blog post: “beyond fun, this kind of informal, small group chat between live and virtual attendees has the potential to transform conferences in dramatic ways”.

Why should organisers encourage having Virtually Connecting sessions at their conference?

Rebecca: One of the benefits to including Virtually Connecting sessions is the promotion of the conference itself, as the public Google Hangouts allow others to get a sense for what the conference is all about.

Beyond that, it’s also about embracing the power of new technologies and the positive impact they can have on conferences. We see how the use of Twitter has matured and is now impacting the experience of attending a conference. Virtually Connecting is about leveraging the power of new technologies to enhance the attendees’ experience and open the access to conferences to more and more people.

Are there requirements for conferences to host Virtually Connecting sessions?

Rebecca: Virtually Connecting sessions can happen at any conference, but it’s better if the conference organizers are involved in the planning and implementation of the sessions. The one solid requirement is that there needs to be some form of reliable internet connection – either through mobile technologies or the conference WiFi. In general, we try to keep the sessions informal, and as such, they do not require any specialized cameras or microphones. A SmartPhone, Tablet computer, or laptop will work.

It is, however, important to note that the virtually connection sessions happen as a result of a partnership between the onsite buddy and the virtual buddy. It is highly recommended that the two key players test the technology in advance of the session and agree on how the session will work.

So what’s next for Virtually Connecting?

Maha: We’ve brought Virtually Connecting to over 6 conferences now with different onsite buddies. However, the virtual buddies have always mainly been me or Rebecca or both.

Rebecca and I built a very strong bond since we launched the programme and maybe that’s why this experience has been working so well. Would it be as good with different pairs? The next step for us is to to try with different pairs and without either of us.
We’ll be trying this at an upcoming conference #dLRN in October 2015 where the organizers have agreed to make virtually connecting an official part of the conference as a way to deepen interaction and access for virtual participants and also enrich the experience for onsite attendees.
We’ll also be presenting vconnecting at the OLC conference in October. We want to implement it for more and more conferences. We are also doing research on how to make conferences more hybrid and accessible.

What to do if you’re interested in participating as:

An Onsite Buddy
Interested in being an onsite buddy at a conference? Start by sending us an email at info@virtuallyconnecting.org. This will help us keep track of the various activities and provide you with support during your event. We recommend that you read Rebecca’s tips for onsite buddies.

A Virtual Buddy
Start by sending us an email at info@virtuallyconnecting.org. This will help us keep track of the various activities and provide you with support during your event. We recommend that you read Maha’s tips for virtual buddies.

A conference organizer?
If you want to integrate a Virtually Connecting program at your conference, contact us at info@virtuallyconnecting.org.

Curious to learn more about Virtually Connecting? Head to their website for more info and testimonials or watch some of the sessions.  To connect on Twitter: @VConnecting.

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