The inevitable three words we have all become accustomed with; ‘you’re on mute’, the all-too-common connection failure and endless opportunities for technology malfunction while running an online conference. Initially frightening. Ultimately rewarding.
I joined PESS as a Research Assistant on the Irish Physical Activity Research Collaboration (I-PARC) project at the end of September 2020. The I-PARC project was established in 2018 when researchers and knowledge users came together to apply for the HRB applied partnership award, led by principal investigators Prof Catherine Woods (PAfH) and Dr Fiona Mansergh (Dept. of Health). The project was funded for an initial 2.5 years and the grant is due to end this week. Fortunately, the knowledge user partners have been successful in securing funding to sustain I-PARC further.
To date I-PARC has hosted three public events; 1st I-PARC symposium (June 2019), 2nd I-PARC Symposium (January 2020) and the I-PARC inaugural conference (January 2021). I joined just in time to help Dr Joey Murphy (former I-PARC Project manager) plan the recent I-PARC inaugural conference. Luckily, I had opportunities to experience online conference world, thanks to our good friend coronavirus, having attended and presented some research from my Masters degree at the Irish Osteoporosis Society and the Royal Osteoporosis Society conferences late last year as well as attending regular webinars as part of my new role.
Nevertheless, the admin and organizational aspects of a conference/online event was a completely different ball game. Thankfully, between the Physical Activity for Health Research Cluster at UL and the I-PARC project team we were surrounded by colleagues always happy to lend a helping hand.
On first impression, there were so many stress factors; ‘will the breakout rooms work?’, ‘will we be able to launch the polls?’, ‘is my connection strong enough for the zoom recording?’. Trust me when I say the relief that hit after the first two-hour session was like a weight being lifted from your shoulders, as far as technical difficulties go there was nothing we couldn’t handle with a little bit of patience, deep breaths and LOTS of communication. Which leads to my first recommendation; if you are running an online event set up a WhatsApp group with the main hosts/co-hosts to allow for quick communication which saves the hassle losing messages or dreadfully writing to the wrong person in the zoom ‘chat’.
After the first two days it felt as if we were completely natural at running online events. As I said it was very much a team effort between Joey updating the I-PARC twitter feed, Blathín monitoring the waiting room and chat while I was frantically assigning each person (~180 each day) to the breakout sessions that they had chosen at registration. Another piece of advice; in the likely event that something goes wrong remember to stay calm, everyone expects some degree of technology malfunction when it comes to online meeting platforms, although it may feel like an infinite amount of time has gone by it is likely to be only 30 seconds in the eyes of the audience.
Needless to say, I learned a lot from this online experience, personally the highlight for me was the final ‘speed networking’ activity where everyone was randomly assigned to rooms with 3-4 people which allowed the natural flow of conversation to take over between attendees. But does it compare to the face-to-face interaction we never thought we would be this long without? As an early career researcher beginning their journey in today’s online world, my answer is no.
I simply cannot wait to get back to in-person events, conferences, meetings and let’s not forget where all our daily interactions used to take place; the office.