- On Organising an Online Teaching Conference: Reflections on the First International House Bielsko-Biała Online Teacher Training Day
On Organising an Online Teaching Conference: Reflections on the First International House Bielsko-Biała Online Teacher Training Day
I’ll never forget the date of the first lockdown in Poland. It was the 13th of March - a Friday, no less. I’m not superstitious, though. The date is easy to recall because I was meant to be travelling up to Toruń for the International House Toruń Teacher Training Day.
That event didn’t happen the way its organisers - led by Glenn Standish - had intended, but it did still happen. The day’s sessions were moved back to November, and from being face-to-face it was shifted online.
The Torun conference was not alone in making this shift. One by one, all of the other conferences that I was due to speak at moved online as well. IATEFL Poland, then IATEFL Hungary, and then another, and another…
It was then that I wondered what was stopping IH Bielsko-Biała from running their own conference. I approached the Director of Studies, Elżbieta (Ela) Chudoba, who immediately saw the possibilities. Though neither of us had ever run a conference before, our excitement was enough to carry us beyond any worries that the challenge might prove too great.
And so our own conference was born, and on the last Saturday of November we hosted a conference featuring eleven different speakers, and attended by over eighty participants.
In this article, I would like to go over the different stages involved in organising and running the conference. While we all hope that the pandemic is entering its final stage, the online world is here with us to stay, and there may be very good reasons for running online conferences. I hope that the following description of the whole conference process - including our justifications for the decisions we made - will help others to run their own online conference.
The first thing Ela and I did was to decide what kind of conference we wanted. Would it feature workshops, seminars, lectures, or presentations? How long would each talk last? How long did we want the day to run for, from start to finish?
We decided this all fairly quickly. Some of what we opted for was mandated by the choice of platform, which for us was Zoom. What we didn’t initially realise was that our free version of Zoom, based on the use of an educational log-in, carried with it a number of small but crucial limitations. The first of these was the fact that you could not nominate a co-host for the meeting. Breakout Rooms, a crucial feature in our online teaching, would be made much harder to organise unless each presenter was made the host, and making another person host meant losing the ability to record the sessions - which was something we decided very early on was important to us.
Since there would be no Breakout Rooms, and since we could not guarantee either how many people would turn up for the conference nor how they would join (on a computer, on a tablet, on a smartphone, or any of those three but via the browser-based Zoom interface rather than the stand-alone app) or even how tech-savvy they would be, we thought it would make the most sense to have each speaker talk to the audience. Some interactivity would still be possible, we figured - from my experiences at other conferences, participants are reluctant to speak openly, but have learnt to make as much use of the chat features of Zoom as possible. Still, without being able to send the participants off to talk among themselves, we thought it best to limit how long each talk would last.
Each speaker, then, would be granted thirty minutes; there would then follow fifteen minutes that might serve either as a break (to allow the host to get the next speaker ready and for the participants to, well, take a break) or to give the participants a chance to ask a question or two of the speaker.
One of the great things about online conferences is, of course, that you don’t have to physically attend the event. But since that then means that people from anywhere in the world might wish to take part, choosing a good start and finish time became more important. Eventually a compromise was reached - we would start the day at eleven o’clock local time (GMT +1) to accommodate participants joining us from a couple of time zones either side of our own. We didn’t want the day to last for too long - we would be asking a lot of whoever ‘ran’ the meeting if we did - and scheduled the last talk to come to a close at around half-past four. This end time was later extended until past six in the evening when we were approached by Ricky Bland, of English Wizards, who asked if we would like to add an online quiz to the schedule. Since all good conferences end with a bang, we readily agreed.
Choosing the speakers
One of the most exciting aspects of organising a teaching conference is imagining who one might recruit to speak at the event. Elżbieta and I have built up a good list of contacts over the years, and now a major obstacle appeared: how would we keep from inviting everyone to come and speak for us? This is one of the greatest charms of the EFL world - there are so many people out there who are willing to spend their free time helping out their fellow teachers. It is an industry, to my mind, unlike any other, and since we were organising the conference as a kind of pro bono event the positive response we had from those we approached was very uplifting.
I had an idea of who I wanted as a speaker, and so too did Elżbieta. When we compared lists, we discovered that we had about twice as many speakers as we could accommodate. Fortunately, adding a second ‘room’ to the event (in other words, by opening a second Zoom meeting) we could almost double the number of speakers.
I should at this point pause briefly to consider the different platform options available to the conference organiser. Different conferences have taken different approaches, and the approach chosen will have ramifications. We had not even considered the possibility of using an actual conference platform - something like that offered by Adobe, for instance, and that I have seen being used to great effect by the bigger conference organisers. The costs involved were simply too great (given the budget we had set for ourselves of zero), though the way that participants are able to seamlessly move from room to room at such events is a real plus. It wasn’t until just before our own conference that we began to consider Zoom Webinars, another paid option but one that would have allowed us to separate the Speakers and the participants. This was the platform chosen by IH Torun for their Teacher Training Day, and for them, it was the right choice. For us, however, we decided to stick with what we knew, and simply to have two Zoom meetings running concurrently. There was a danger here, however; participants who opted to move between the rooms would have to type in the meeting number and password as they went from one to the other, and there would inevitably be some technical hiccups that would prevent this from working as well as might.
With the choice then made for how many speakers we wanted, we then sent out messages either on social media or by email inviting our selected guests; I can happily report that all of those who were available on the date we had chosen were keen to take part, and within a few days of knocking up a simple timetable in Google Sheets (shared between Elżbieta and myself), almost everything was finalised.
A theme for the conference
It was around this time - only three weeks before the date of the conference; we had planned a very quick turnaround - that one of our speakers asked the blindingly obvious question, “What should I talk about?”
In our enthusiasm to get the ball rolling, neither Elżbieta nor myself had really given this any thought. Many conferences lack a unifying theme and are none the worse because of it. The IATEFL conferences don’t usually have such a theme, or if they do this is often only loosely interpreted.
It was Elżbieta’s idea that our speakers should talk about something they cared passionately about. Passion is an important aspect in teaching, especially online - without passion, you cannot hope to enliven your audience, be they your students, or even your fellow teachers. As Elżbieta told me, we were organizing the conference “From the heart,” in that we wanted to share something with our colleagues around the world. And what better slogan could we ask for? Though hardly original, it was certainly easy to remember, and seemed to satisfy those speakers who were unsure what to focus on in their talk (among whom I must count myself).
Everything was coming together nicely, but now I began to worry that we had scheduled the conference too soon - had we left ourselves enough time to spread the word? We had chosen the November date - the 28th, to be exact - because it avoided a clash with the other conferences we knew about (though not those we didn’t know about, and we were lucky not to lose Glenn Standish, one of our ‘big hitters’, as he was also scheduled to talk at the Trendy English conference in Russia on the same day. Fortunately Glenn was happy to attend two conferences back-to-back, and again we were reminded of the advantages of online conferences).
But we had almost everything we needed, and despite working remotely, Elżbieta and I were able to share documents with ease, all through Google Drive. We created a shared folder, and a template speaker form to share with our speakers. From the information we gathered there, it was relatively easy for me to start producing the marketing material with which to raise awareness of our conference.
To make the posters advertising each speaker, I used the online service Canva (http://www.canva.com) - a very powerful but enormously user friendly app with a drag-and-drop interface that made building the posters a breeze. I decided on a template and a colour scheme, and then made duplicate versions, just changing the speaker photo and the talk details as I moved from one to the next. All of the posters looked and felt similar, and carried the crucial information - the date of the conference, the fact that it was free, and the link to the registration.
Registration was also very simple, though it was made all the more so by the fact that it would be free. Paid conferences are more complicated to organise because you need a way to handle the transactions involved; there are ways of doing this, but none of them are as simple or cheap as the alternative - which is to have none at all.
Elzbieta and I put together a simple Google Form that fed into a spreadsheet in our shared Google Drive folder. We needed very little in the way of data from our prospective participants - just their name and email address, in fact, though annoyingly I forgot to set the email field as a special ‘Email’ field (this is an option in Google Forms), and that meant that the one or two participants who failed to complete the form properly never received the log-in details for the event. If they are reading this now, I hope they can accept my sincerest apologies.
All of our marketing was handled in one of two ways - via social media, and by word of mouth. I saved all of the Canva-generated posters in the shared folder, and these were uploaded individually by the school to our Facebook account. We encouraged our speakers to share these posters as widely as they could, and we also looked at posting frequently in the many Facebook Groups that cater to EFL teachers. If we had decided to invest in our marketing plan, we could also have made use of Facebook’s Targeted Ads program.
However, that proved unnecessary. Glenn Standish, who I have already mentioned, was a massive help in marketing our teacher training day, and again I must credit EFL professionals like Glenn for how unselfish they are. Ours truly is an altruistic field. Two weeks prior to our own conference, Glenn hosted the IH Torun teacher training day mentioned at the start of this piece. I was a speaker at the event, and Glenn invited me on during two of the breaks so that I might plug the Bielsko conference.
By the end of that day, we already had over sixty participants registered; when we finally closed the Google Form two days before our conference, we had in excess of two hundred registrations.
The approaching Conference
Elżbieta handled the final preparations with aplomb. She coordinated the final release of the speaker posters, and helped the speakers prepare for the technical side of the day. Through our use of a shared folder and WhatsApp for communication, we were able to keep track of developments and solve issues as they arose.
Everything seemed to be in place. The speakers were all prepared, and we knew as hosts what we would do when each arrived in their session. Our Zoom plan did not allow for co-hosts, as I have mentioned, and we had to trust that nobody else in the conference would think to try sharing the screen without permission - this was an option that had to be turned on to allow the speaker to share their presentation independently. Fortunately, by sticking to a familiar platform, the amount of help we needed to offer the speakers was minimal. Everyone seemed already to know what to do.
I started the first Zoom meeting at about 10.30 in the morning. Elżbieta and I went over the plan for the day - I would host the first room, and after the opening plenary, Elżbieta would open her room, ready to receive the participants who wanted to switch to that side. There was still time to attend to a few last minute ideas: firstly, to have a picture ready showing the timetable of events along with a reminder to stay muted with cameras off, with this being shown in the gaps between sessions; and secondly, to knock up a simple virtual background with the school’s logo on. Elzbieta and I both used these and I feel that they added a good degree of branding to the event.
We also spent a few minutes coordinating with the several volunteers from the school who had offered to join the sessions and help with any technical issues. What they could actually do was somewhat hard to say for the most part, but when it was my turn to speak later in the day I did need to hand the host privilege to Nicholas Zelazek. This was an important point: the host had several responsibilities, and these could not be done simultaneously with delivering a talk.
The first duty of the host was to introduce the speaker before they gave their talk; at the end of the talk the host would then ask any follow up questions they had, or would read these questions from the chat; the host would then share the screen with the image showing the timetable for the conference, and remind the participants of what was coming up next in each of the two rooms.
The second duty of the host was to admit the participants into the room. It was important here to select one of the suboptions in the Participants panel in Zoom - it is possible to admit people to the room with their cameras off and their microphones muted. I neglected to do this at first, and this meant the first speaker was interrupted slightly by the noise coming from one of the participants. Again, I am glad that Nicholas Zelazek was on hand, this time to send me a private message in the Zoom chat reminding me of this feature.
The third duty of the host was to record the sessions. This can be done within Zoom very easily, using the Record function. But since the conference was a high-stakes affair, I decided to run a screen capture program in the background as well. This took a toll on the computer I was using, as did running a meeting with sometimes in excess of fifty participants. The video files generated by the program took up nearly 15Gb on hard disk space, and making the recordings twice over, coupled with running Zoom, meant that my computer was using nearly 8Gb of the 16Gb RAM then available. I cannot stress enough how important it is that the hosts of these conferences - if they adopt the same approach that we did - have capable machines. We often think of Zoom in terms of the internet bandwidth we need, but there is more to it than that, and having sufficient hard disk capacity and RAM are both just as important.
Aside from a slight problem with our opening plenary speaker’s computer crashing moments before the start of the conference, the day ran surprisingly smoothly. All of the speakers were ready with their materials, and there were no problems with sharing the screen or presenting Powerpoint slides to the audience. Aside from Elżbieta and myself, Nicholas Zelazek, Ryan Carlton, and James Buttenheim from International House Bielsko-Biała were all on hand to assist with any problems, but these were superficial at most and were easily overcome.
After the Conference
The day itself passed as if in the blink of an eye, but our work was not yet finished. First, the video recordings we had made needed to be edited, with the ‘empty’ space at the start and end of each talk trimmed out. This was done, and the videos are now available on the school’s YouTube channel
and Facebook page.
Elżbieta also suggested that we put together another Google Form, to be sent out to those who had registered for the conference, asking them for feedback. We had not been able to keep track of who had actually been present on the day - of the two hundred plus registered, approximately seventy or eighty were in attendance, but we had no way of knowing who was and who wasn’t. Elżbieta designed the Form to include questions on a Likert scale about each of the presentations, and to ask those who participated if they would like a certificate of attendance for the event - a question we had previously been asked on Facebook, but for which we had previously not had an answer for. We decided that offering a certificate would be good in terms of extending the IH Bielsko brand - and this proved to be the case, as several people have posted on Facebook and LinkedIn to show off their certificate.
One other question that Elżbieta posed is of particular relevance looking ahead. She asked if participants would be happy to pay a nominal fee - she suggested 50PLN - should the school host a similar conference next year. 73.5% of the respondents said that they would.
This is an important point, because we have been very fortunate in this, a most terrible year, to have the kindness of strangers to rely upon. The free Zoom account had previously limited the number of participants in a meeting, and the length of that meeting could extend no longer than forty minutes. Neither of those conditions applied when we ran the 2020 conference, but who is to say what the reality will be come November 2021? If there are additional costs involved - the basic version of Zoom Webinar allows 100 participants in a room and costs 37USD per month, and to repeat what we offered in this conference, we would need two such accounts - they need to be covered somehow, and in the present economic climate it is hard to see many schools being willing to run these conferences if they come at such a high cost.
In other words, for anyone who is thinking about running an online conference, there really is no time like the present.
The Google Form that Elżbieta sent out revealed much that was interesting.
Almost all of the participants felt that they had received enough information leading up to the conference. The only areas where we could seek to improve were in communicating the link to the registration - this was presented as a bit.ly shortened link on the poster, and some participants might not have realised what this was for - and in communicating how access to the conference would be managed. We sent out the Zoom room number and passcode to the conference participants on the day before the conference itself, but from the private messages I received it is clear that some were expecting - or would have preferred - a direct link to the Zoom meeting itself instead. This would certainly be easy to remedy next time around, as it is perfectly possible to send both sets of information to the participants.
The majority of the respondents (81.6%) suggested that the talks were the right length. 4% thought they should have been shorter, and the remainder said that longer talks could easily be justified. One respondent said, “The whole session was sophisticated and holistic. It targeted not just our minds but also our hearts. It nourished our perception of what a teacher should be and of what a teacher could do to make a difference. The session itself is full of positive emotions, authentic ideas, and wisdom minds. That’s why it should have been longer!” Another respondent rightly pointed out that some kind of break, perhaps for lunch, should have been included, as the talks tended to run fairly closely together. As one of the hosts for the day, I can certainly sympathise - bathroom breaks are never as stressful as when you know you might be needed online at any moment.
The feedback we received for each of the talks was overwhelmingly positive. This is particularly gratifying considering how each of the speakers was working for free, taking time out from their already busy schedules to offer their insights into EFL teaching. I am also glad that the talks were so well-received since at least one of our speakers could be considered new to the world of EFL conferences, and so a certain amount of performance anxiety must have come into play.
Some of the respondents left specific comments, and these are heartening to read now that winter is upon us and the conference begins to recede in our memories. I include a few below to serve as a conclusion to this piece, and I would simply like to add that hosting this conference proved to be an enormously worthwhile experience, a ray of light in the gloom of 2020.
“All are EXCELLENT!!”
“I was inspired by all the speakers!!!”
“A wide range of topics, many of which were quite fresh and exciting.”
“Overall, it was a great conference. Learnt some new ideas.”
If you're curious about the talks themselves, they were all recorded, and can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4yhBFMwyTSUUU6cskPJyAg/videos
Please check the The Art and Skills of the Humanistic Teacher Trainer course at Pilgrims website.
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