Hybrid Conference: Questions to think through

Kristin Stephens-Martinez
8 min readMay 28, 2022

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Here is the first in my reflection series on running our first hybrid SIGCSE TS 2022. In this post, I’ll cover a more organized version of the questions I’ve sent to those who’ve emailed me directly about running a hybrid conference. I did my best to cluster them so it isn’t an overwhelming laundry list of questions. But, to be honest, it is still an overwhelming list. Hopefully, the added context and extra ideas will help.

Disclaimer: Opinions are my own.

[This article is also posted on my personal blog.]

This post is broken down into the following sections:

  • Overall Experience (5 questions)
  • Nuts and Bolts (3 questions)
  • Videos? (2 questions)
  • Hiring Help (2 kinds)
  • Platform (1 question)

Overall Experience (5 questions)

Question 1: What kind of interaction/experience do you imagine for the hybrid piece?

One person’s hybrid will not be another person’s since we have all experienced it differently. The organizers must be all on the same page. The only way to be on the same page is to articulate it so everyone can see it.

Question 2: How will you engage those participating online, so they don’t feel like second-class citizens?

Giving online participants an in-person presence and integrating them into the in-person experience must be done deliberately. Being in person is a richer experience than online. There’s body language, a sense of place that provides context for conversations, serendipitous encounters that don’t require scrolling through a list of participants, etc. We’ve also been practicing in-person interactions all of our lives. Online is different. So do not assume a vibrant online engagement will happen just as naturally as in-person.

I don’t know the best practices for doing online experiences well. It likely depends on the context, and this is a new world that we are all figuring out. However, we do have the tools and frameworks to at least attempt it. Hopefully, our/your community will give the organizers grace to try and sometimes fail. The dream is to iterate and try new things, reflect on what happened, and try again.

Question 3:Does it make sense to create things only for those participating online?

Are there things you could create for the online participants that are equivalent? You may find that some events can only be experienced in person. Or you simply can’t afford to integrate fully. However, I don’t think we should strive for full integration. Making things hybrid means your conference is now both in-person, online, and hybrid. How can you take advantage of this new “dimension” to make your conference even better?

An example of an online-only event for SIGCSE TS 2022 was the Authors’ Corner. It was for any paper author that would not be at the symposium in person and provided a place for all attendees to have a question and answer session with the authors. I’ll go into more detail about the Authors’ Corner in another post.

Question 4: What events will only be in-person?

Consider if there are events that make sense to only be in-person. For example, we tried to keep demos in person and only added online demos when the authors simply could not make it. In retrospect, it might have made more sense to simply cancel the demo, just like we would have before the pandemic. In my opinion, the demo experience just didn’t seem to work online yet. I’m not willing to say “demos should never be online,” but I think there are “lower hanging fruit” we can focus on before adding demos to some kind of hybrid or online experience.

Question 5: The “online, in-person, or hybrid modality” is a check all that apply question, not multiple choice. So for each event type in your conference, which is it?

This question extends the previous one, except it points out that your conference can be more flexible than just “this kind of event type must be only modality X.” For example, at SIGCSE TS 2022, all panels were hybrid, but papers were online, in-person, and hybrid. We had in-person and online poster sessions and Birds of a Feathers.

We’ve figured out how to do online events more than hybrid ones at this point in the pandemic. I think it’s okay to punt some conference events’ hybrid versions to the future. Get a subset of things done well and then expand to other events if it seems appropriate to the community.

Nuts and Bolts (3 questions)

Question 1: After figuring out each event type’s answer to “online, in-person, or hybrid modality (check all that applies),” what is the decision tree for deciding which presentation goes where?

You will need this decision tree for event types with more than one modality. This tree needs to consider the presentation’s modality and any other factors such as the likely popularity of the event (to account for “room” capacity). Also, notice that I said presentation, not author. A paper, for example, may have multiple authors, but likely only one of them will present. Moreover, this means you will need to collect this information from your presenters and be very clear on the expectations for modality change requests.

Question 2: How will you handle modality change requests?

Speaking of modality change requests, they will happen, so it is better to make clear up front how presenters can make that request and convey (1) the deadlines for such requests, (2) if and how well you can handle the change, and (3) why. First, you do not want to keep changing your program last minute. So set a deadline, stick to it, and explain what will happen after it. I think we could have handled the post-deadline consequences better, but that’s for another blog post if there is enough interest. As for the how and why, both are important because otherwise, your presenters will wonder why two things that “seem easy to change” are being handled differently (your presenters are not children, they can handle the truth).

For example, as I mentioned before, I don’t think demos, right now, work very well online. So it would have been better to simply say in-person or not at all and explain that our current setup for online demos makes the probability of people coming to see the demo very low. So we will do what we did before the pandemic and simply cancel the demo. Remember what you did before moving the conference to be hybrid is still an option. You do not need to move everything hybrid on the first true! Start smaller. At least in this case, if they have a video (see the section below), it can still count as a presentation rather than never happening.

Also, if possible, you need to make the modality and change request decisions before collecting modality information from the presenters. Otherwise, you will cause confusion and discontent. For example, we collected presentation modality expectations before knowing what modality each event type could/would have. Collecting modality then caused confusion when that modality wasn’t an option when we finally made the decisions. Moreover, we did not clearly convey how to change their modality and the consequences, resulting in some presenters assuming we knew from their registration they had changed to online and others making changes very last minute.

Question 3: How will the in-person room be set up for hybrid? Will you get a professional AV company to do it? How many rooms will be hybrid? The more rooms, the more $.

This question is very much the devil is in the details. How many cameras will be in the room? Where will they be pointing (Presenter? Stage? Audience? Audience microphone?)? Who connects to the online platform? Who/what computer screen shares if there is a presentation? Where will the audio from the online participants come from? How will the audio in the room be sent to the online participants? Will the video feed from the online participants be “present” in the in-person room? How?

Mix into this how to handle the presenter’s modality. Will you do a universal setup for any presenter modality? Or, if that costs more, will you need to have only a subset of rooms set up that way?

Videos? (2 questions)

Question 1: Are you going to require videos?

We required videos by track (i.e., if it’s a paper, it must have a video, if it’s a birds of a feather, it does not have a video, etc.), which reduced confusion. However, the ACM Digital Library’s willingness to archive videos added confusion because now the presenters had to submit that video twice to the library and us.

Question 2: If you require videos, who will manage the content?

Just like how authors will need reminders about submitting the camera-ready, they will need it for the videos. Who will do this? In addition, you will want to add captions to the videos. Who does that?

Hiring Help (2 kinds)

One of the “triangles” you will have to grapple with is the balance between cost, quality, and volunteer time. This triangle is especially relevant around hiring help. To lower cost, you will likely need to lower quality and/or increase volunteer time. To increase quality, you’ll need to increase cost and/or volunteer time. While decreasing volunteer time (because you don’t want to burn out your volunteers, they have mental health needs, too) will require increasing costs and/or lowering quality.

Production companies — Different production companies, do different things. Ours focused on both video and online experience. So they helped manage the Audio and Video (A&V) team. They logged into every zoom meeting as tech support. And for many zoom meetings, the tech person was in the background the entire time. They also shepherded all the videos through the process of collecting, captioning, and uploading to the platform. On the platform, they uploaded the initial version of the agenda. We lowered the cost by providing volunteers to do a quality check of that upload, resulting in lower quality because the volunteers didn’t necessarily know what to look for in every agenda item.

Audio and Video (A&V) team — I honestly can’t imagine doing a hybrid conference without some local A&V team. It seems very unlikely you will have enough volunteers who know how to use a decent camera, handle multiple audio streams into a soundboard, and record things happening live (assuming you are doing that). Not to mention the cost of renting or already having all of the equipment. In addition, our production company was invaluable in articulating to the A&V team what we wanted. It wasn’t until we were on-site that we learned the A&V Team didn’t understand we wanted the hybrid rooms to be two-way and that the live recordings should record to the cloud and have a local backup.

Platform (1 question)

Question 1: What platform are you going to use?

A conference’s size will, in part, dictate the platform that it can use. Which one you use will be informed by your online/hybrid plan, along with some back and forth iteration as you learn what is and is not possible on the platforms available to you. I recommend a needs, wants, and wishes list to help you think through which platforms to consider.

The sooner you get bids and see demos, the better. Knowing the platform before the submission deadline for your conference will help your participants better frame their submissions. That assumes you have more than just papers, like workshops, special sessions, etc. SIGCSE TS has a lot of different kinds of tracks.

Conclusion

And that is a much longer blog post than I thought this would be. I hope this was useful and suspect it’s still not as organized as it could be. If any of this sparked more questions or things you’d like me to elaborate on, leave a comment or reach out!

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Kristin Stephens-Martinez

Assistant Professor of the Practice in Computer Science at Duke University