In addition to their regular tasks around planning an event, project staff now have the additional responsibility to make sure that an online event can take place technically and run smoothly. In the analog world, a lot of details can be handled quickly in person immediately prior to or even during the event. For example, last-minute changes can be agreed upon with speakers on the spot or participants can be spontaneously divided into breakout groups. All of these options are not present in online events where speakers, organizers and participants are at different locations. The digital literacy of participants and speakers is very diverse. Whereas some people have substantial experience with virtual collaboration, others might need instruction or support in participating in a virtual meeting. In addition, the internet connection as well as technical tools used in the events can be unreliable. As a result, the technological aspect of the organization of virtual events can be a source of anxiety for staff who all of a sudden find themselves in the position to run such events.
Area of application:
all virtual events
Below is a checklist of questions that event organizers have to consider in planning their event as well as some points that can guide them when making their decisions.
Choose / agree on a hosting platform for the event (e.g. DFNconf, Tixeo, BigBlueButton, etc.)
- Is the platform accessible for all participants? Is it functional with low bandwidth? Is the platform in conformity with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)? If installation is required, are participants allowed / able to do so?
- What are participants likely to be familiar with? In case of a series of events, try not to change the platform and technical tools, unless necessary to reach the event objectives.
- Is the platform free or paid? Does the platform limit the number of participants for the event? Does the platform have all the features planned in the event design (e.g. how easy is it to form breakout groups? Is there a polling function?)
Think about how and when to communicate the access information for the event to the participants
- For public events, the link and, where applicable, guest pin/password can be included in the agenda or on the event website, in addition to being sent per email to those who explicitly registered. For closed registration-only events, the link and pin/password can be shared per email only. The host pin for speakers and moderators may need to be communicated to them separately.
- It is generally a good practice to send an email with the link and instructions on how to access the event (and the agenda), a few days prior to the event. Then send another (shorter) email with the link on the day of the event. In this way the participants have the email with the link on top of their inbox.
- Again, depending on the type of event or the settings of the platform, a password might be necessary to access the event. In general, there is a tradeoff between on the one hand, making the meeting more secure and, on the other hand, risking that people will have difficulties joining. Expect less people will manage to join a meeting, if the access is complicated.
Limit switching between different virtual rooms
- To avoid “losing” participants in the switch between the main meeting and breakout groups, make sure you provide clear instructions before and during the event, e.g. display the new link and password in the invitation and the PowerPoint together with the time allotted for the breakout session and post the link in the chat.
- Plan for the instructions and the “transfer time” in the moderation script.
- If there is a team of moderators, a simple communication tool (chat app , Slack, etc.) should enable quick coordination during the event.
- If a comfort break is planned during the event, make sure you provide clear instructions on whether participants should disconnect and re-connect or simply disable mics and camera, but stay connected.
Interaction with speakers and key participants:
- Be aware that depending on the platform, you might need to communicate a separate event link and password with a separate set of instructions to the speakers and moderators.
- Have a technical check with the speakers several days prior to the event and brief them about the agenda, the presentation order, other logistical details, etc.
- Ask all speakers to send their presentation slides in advance. If there is a bigger number of speakers or if the speakers do not feel comfortable with the videoconferencing platform, the presentations might be centrally shared by the moderator. However, letting the speakers navigate through their own slides gives them more control and provides the moderator with time to keep an eye on the participants. Have all presentations and videos with one more backup person as well as in the cloud so they can be shared with a link if the speaker encounters a technical problem.
- Ask speakers to access the event at least 15 min before the actual start of the event for any last-minute briefings and to see if the microphone and video is working and if the PowerPoint and videos can be shared.
Ensure access of participants
- Include basic instructions on the use of the videoconferencing tool with the invitation (e.g. recommended browser and technical requirements).
- Open access for participants 15 min before the start of the event and encourage them to join earlier (as opposed to last minute) so that there is time to troubleshoot any technical difficulties with the participants and the event can start on time.
- Provide a phone number or an email of a technical contact person, should participants have problems accessing the meeting. A co-moderator might be responsible for supporting participants.
- Give a short introduction to the functions of the platform (e.g. how to mute the microphone or how to use the chat) and introduce some basic rules (e.g. sound off, camera on) in the beginning of the virtual event. This information can also be visually displayed on the cover slide that is shown when participants access the event.
- For new or more complex videoconferencing tools or whiteboard tools such as Conceptboard, offer an introduction to the tool for the participants before the event.
Tools and technical aspects
A great variety of technical tools is already available (Whiteboard, Screensharing, Wordcloud, Mentimeter, etc.) At the same time, using a large number of tools in an event can be a source of technical difficulties and thus distracting and counterproductive. Therefore, additional tools should be used judiciously and only when they are necessary to achieve the event’s objectives. When starting a new group process, use a maximum of one external tool and, if necessary, add more options gradually. Active participation often depends on creating a positive atmosphere and guiding members toward a cooperative mindset rather than the tools used.
It is important to keep in mind and comply with the data protection and privacy regulations in the location of all partners. The software applications mentioned in the Capacity Development Online Navigator serve only as examples. Before use, users should check whether they comply with the General Data Protection Regulation and other applicable legislation as well as meeting IT security requirements.
Experience has shown that the preparation and conduct of a virtual event is best done by a team rather than a single person. Therefore, a general rule for avoiding technical difficulties is “Never host alone.” In addition to the moderator (process host), it is a good idea to have a tech host and a tech support person.
It is important to take into account both the level of digital literacy of the participants and the technical skills of the organizers when designing the technical aspects of the event.
As the use of cameras consumes a lot of energy, it is advisable to define a rule of use which, on the one hand, allows participants to establish a good contact and, on the other hand, limits its use to the minimum necessary. For example, all the members only turn on their camera at the beginning and at the end of the event and in between whenever they are involved in a discussion.
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