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Virtual Reality: Grad Student Perspectives on Taking Conferences Online

Reflections by Kayla Hamelin, Caelin Murray, and Shannan Landovskis

Advantages of Online Conferences – Shannon

As a Masters student during the COVID pandemic, the majority of the conferences that I have attended have been virtual, excluding one in-person conference, the Canadian Conference for Fisheries Research (CCFFR), in January 2020. As someone new to the world of conferences, it has been fascinating to see how different conferences approached the transition to virtual and what I found beneficial as a student.

The most obvious benefit is accessibility. Virtual conferences have lower registration fees and no travels costs associated with them, which means students are able to attend more conferences or higher cost conferences (i.e. international). Being able to attend more conferences means students are able to gain more experience and attend more diverse conferences, broadening our minds and networks.

Once you are ‘at’ a conference, there are benefits to the virtual format as well. Typically at a conference, presentations are split into different themed sessions. Often, there may be more than one talk you want to see during the same timeslot but in a different session. In-person, this means leaving the room in the middle of presentations to rush into a different room, but virtually, it is very easy to jump back and forth and make sure you don’t miss anything! As well, some virtual conferences, such as CCFFR 2021, had all of the recorded talks posted in advance, making it very easy for attendees to watch every single talk they were interested in. Another benefit to virtual conferences is pre-recording your own presentation. While pre-recording does present its own unique set of challenges, it can reduce stress and nerves on the day of your presentation. Instead of trying to listen to presentations, but secretly stressing about my own later that day, I have been able to really focus on what I am listening to because I know my talk is already ‘done’.

Some of the different approaches that conference organizers have taken when making the switch to virtual work better than others. Pre-recording talks is a great way to ensure fewer technical issues throughout the conference, while allowing for live question and answer sessions to ensure there are still interactions between presenters and attendees. Using CCFFR 2021 as an example again (there was a lot that they did very well!), instead of 3 minutes of questions following each presentation, all presentations were watched in advance and then there were live 1.5 hour question and answer sessions with multiple presenters. This format allowed for presenters who spoke under the same theme to engage with each other while answering questions, which was led to some fantastic discussions! This did work differently depending on the number of presenters in the session, but from my own question and answer  session, it definitely brought out conversations that may not have occurred during a 3-minute period following the presentation of one individual. Finally, CCFFR 2021 also included poster presenters the question and answer sessions. I have found that posters can easily be overlooked in a virtual setting and those presenting them often do not get the same feedback and interest as they would have in-person. By including poster presenters in the question and answer sessions, attendees were able to engage with them easier and the virtual experience gained by the presenters was enhanced.

Disadvantages of Online Conferences – Caelin

As a Master student who began their degree just 2 months before the COVID-19 pandemic I have been strictly limited to virtual conferences. While online conferences have provided many opportunities to students during the pandemic, I have identified some areas where they may have been more stressful or could be improved. 

Virtual conferences during the COVID-19 pandemic presented some challenges for students: 


In some cases, virtual conferences increased stress for students more than non-virtual conferences. For example, some online conferences allowed for pre-recorded talks in efforts to meet the needs of attendees working from home. However, prerecorded presentations increased pressure on students who felt compelled to create an absolutely perfect presentation for submission. Second, student attendees felt pressure to maintain a normal workday during the conference period, especially when conference times were outside of their time zone. Finally, online conferences that did not play pre-recorded presentations during regular conference times involved an elevated workload relative to in-person conferences because there was a need to watch pre-recorded presentations in the online gallery before attending the live sessions, doubling the time spent in “conference mode”. Furthermore, larger conferences that held many talks devoted entire days to the question-and-answer periods which demanded a greater time and energy commitment of attendees and presenters. 

Less networking opportunities and engagement

In some instances, virtual conferences resulted in less networking and engagement opportunities for students. For example, whether a presentation was pre-recorded and played live during conference time or archived to watch at your leisure, the online platform did not provide the same networking experience for students. Online socials were less engaging as there was no need to travel and create separation from our regular workday which allows students to be fully present and engaged in the conference and networking opportunities. Additionally, online socials often had lower attendance or were too late in the evening if they occurred outside of our time zone. 

Posters may get less attention virtually than in non-virtual settings

Students with poster presentations faced challenges in sharing their work and engaging with others compared to students delivering oral presentations. In some cases, poster presentations were shared in live 10-minute sessions with a total of 4 posters which made it difficult for viewers to read font or see certain figures and pictures at a reduced size. Additionally, poster sessions often experienced few if any questions in most live sessions.

Time zones

Time zones calculations made it more challenging to plan session attendance and maximize participation.

Putting It Into Practice: Planning an Online Conference – Kayla

After several years of attending in-person conferences, and transitioning to presenting at and attending several virtual conferences this past year, I set out to plan a symposium myself, along with a team of fellow biology grad students at Dalhousie. Our event – the annual Lett Symposium – was a 1-day event for biology grad students to share their work and celebrate research achievements with colleagues and faculty. In the past, the symposium took place in person on campus, so we had to get creative to come up with a plan that would allow for a smooth-running event and foster a supportive, collegial atmosphere.

Although there are mixed opinions on the benefits of pre-recorded versus live talks in a virtual conference setting, the planning team decided to accept pre-recorded talks that would be shared during the conference sessions, followed by short periods of live Q&A. This allowed conference organizers to have all of the materials prepared for the day ahead of time and may have reduced anxiety for students who struggle with public speaking or presenting to a live audience. However, the live Q&A following each video still allowed for some interaction with the audience and there was no added workload associated with browsing a library of videos in advance of the conference day. Furthermore, the Lett Symposium typically involves awarding prizes for student work, and pre-recorded talks allowed the judging team to get a head start on reviewing the submitted materials. Although most students seemed satisfied with the pre-recording protocol, on the day of the conference, sharing the videos and associated audio created its own suite of technical challenges for the session moderators. Troubleshooting was relatively quick and simple, and both the moderators and attendees handled glitches with grace, but it highlighted that there is no perfect recipe for a virtual conference format without hiccups!

Another challenge in this virtual world is how to handle a poster session. We decided to offer a graphical abstract gallery in lieu of a poster session. Graphical abstracts are often requested by academic journals these days, and are designed to largely “stand alone” as a communication tool. This seemed like a great option for students to practice their science communication skills, while at the same time accommodating more projects than our oral presentation sessions would allow and offering flexibility in how students preferred to share their work. To encourage engagement with the graphical abstracts, and attendance of all presentation sessions (plus, to offer more rewards for student presenters!), we offered “People’s Choice Award” prizes in addition to awards chosen by faculty judges. We offered the link to the graphical abstract gallery in the conference “chat” throughout the day, along with links to polls to vote for favourite presentations and graphics. This seemed to be an effective and fun way to ensure attendees engaged with the full range of content offered.

Finally, perhaps the most difficult aspect was fostering a social atmosphere. We began the day with a Code of Conduct, which set the tone for the level of respect, tolerance, and kindness we expected from all participants. While webcams and microphones were expected to be turned off during presentations, we encouraged attendees to come on screen to chat and “hang out” during breaks and over lunch hour. Granted, with a relatively small group of ~50, this was more feasible than it would be for a large, national (or international) conference. Finally, rather than arranging a separate social event to follow the conference, we allowed attendees to once again socialize within the existing conference platform following the awards ceremony to celebrate with their colleagues. Keeping the day relatively short (1 day, with programming 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, a 1-hour lunch, and breaks between every session) helped to ensure that energy and enthusiasm levels remained relatively high for many attendees.

To say this past year has been a learning experience, for conference planners and attendees alike, would be a huge understatement. Hopefully lessons learned during this transition to virtual meetings will yield future (hybrid?) events which offer more connection and collaboration than ever before, while incorporating the attention to accessibility that the disabled community has been demanding for years. For the time being… see you on Zoom!



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