Reflections on Online Conferencing 2020 – VAF


I recently attended the Vernacular Architecture Forum’s conference, which moved online for one Saturday in May 2020. Typically, the conference offers a variety of site visits and just one day of traditional-conference-style in-person presentations, and so they were able to pack quite a lot of their planned schedule into this one-day online conference. Here are a few observations about the things that I think the VAF hit out of the park:

Registration: After refunding the in-person registration fees, the VAF charged only $20 in registration for the conference, making it fairly reasonable and affordable for people to attend. This opened up registration to those who hadn’t planned to attend in person, but could now attend remotely.

Conference Schedule: They created a simple straightforward schedule on their website – three sessions with three panels per session, and one session of poster panels. Each session and each poster had its own zoom link on the web-based schedule, making it easy to navigate from session to session as long as one was comfortable using zoom.

Materials available to participants prior to the conference: The VAF made a variety of materials available to participants and presenters prior to the conference. Posters were available to preview on the website, and a variety of instructions for participants and presenters could also be found on the conference website (accessible by login for those who had registered). Conference chairs also released video introductions to these sessions on the website.

Conference Sessions: Each of the traditional conference sessions followed the same format — this helped each panel chair to introduce the session clearly, while also providing continuity between sessions throughout the day. In each of the panels I attended, the panel chair introduced the panel at the beginning. Most allowed each panelist to say a few words live before their prerecorded paper presentation began. Each session had a host who managed the technical components of the zoom session – muting participants, troubleshooting issues, and playing the videos. At the end, a live Q&A allowed participants and panelists to interact in real-time.

I found a few signifiant benefits to this model. The structure of the panels made the process clear, minimizing interruptions. The host/tech wizard ensured everything ran smoothly, allowing the chair or panelists to carry the conversation while they were troubleshooting (or so I assume, I never saw anything go amiss!). Prerecorded papers meant that presentations ran the correct amount of time and there were no technical issues sharing screens or other media. The prerecorded presentations also ensured that most panelists provided a smoother, more engaging presentation of their paper. Some edited out their “ums and ahs,” giving really polished presentations. The live Q&A provided space for clear and exciting engagement to take place (and, here is where the only technical hiccups came, as some questioners struggled to turn on their cameras or mics, causing a brief delay). In conclusion, this model upped the production value of presentations while minimizing opportunities for technical delays. Kudos to the VAF for figuring all of this out and getting this live in time!

Poster Session: For the poster session, all participants submitted a digital poster to a google drive folder prior to the event, and we each generated a zoom link to our own poster session. Organizers shared links, posters, titles, and abstracts on the conference page. Each of us received a “ray of sunshine,” a volunteer who could help problem solve or keep us company while we waited for people to show up. All of the poster sessions were open for about an hour and participants could drop in at different sessions and ask questions. During my session, I gave a short 5 minute presentation, and then spent the rest of the time answering questions asked through the chat and video/audio of zoom. It went extremely smoothly and provided a great opportunity to test out a new research project.

Overall, I’m incredibly impressed by the implementation of this conference online, and the organizers pivoted quickly and smoothly to a digital format. I can’t wait to attend this conference in person someday (hopefully in 2021), and I was honored to be a part of it.

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