Marlene Johnshoy (University of Minnesota)
Jonathan Perkins (University of Kansas)
Dan Soneson (University of Minnesota)
Shannon Donnally Spasova (Michigan State University)
With shrinking travel budgets and difficulties taking extended time away from work, many language faculty and staff find it increasingly difficult to find professional development and networking opportunities. Regional conferences provide a greater degree of access, but too often they are not of adequate size to draw people from much of a distance. In this article, we will outline the procedure we used to hold a hybrid conference at four sites connected through teleconference. We do so in the hope that other groups will be able to benefit from our experience if they wish to adopt the format for a similar conference.
The Midwest Association for Language Learning and Technology (MWALLT) is a regional affiliate of the International Association for Language Learning Technology (IALLT) that encompasses twelve states, from Ohio in the east to Kansas in the west. Although the organization has attempted to hold conferences annually, the large size of the region has meant that a conference that was held in one state generally attracted only people from that state or adjacent states; attendees from one year were thus unlikely to attend the next year if the conference moved any distance at all. The result has been a very small, but friendly conference where people could make face-to-face connections with colleagues within a very limited geographic area. Several members of the organization, therefore, wanted to find a way to expand the number of people participating in the conference by utilizing video conferencing technology, while preserving the less formal interactions offered by a face-to-face conference.
The hybrid conference format, which was in part inspired by the professional development program for language teachers hosted by FLAVA, was to connect several campuses via video conferencing. Participants were encouraged to attend one of three campus host sites, but virtual participation was also made available. This new model expanded the number of presentations at the conference and created a much-needed opportunity for graduate students who might otherwise have been unable to participate. The multi-host model also greatly increased the number of people who could participate, essentially tripling the effect of a standard regional conference in terms of presentations and attendance. Participants had the ability to engage face-to-face with colleagues and also to interact with attendees and presenters at the other sites, expanding the geographical reach of the assembled expertise.
The three conference hosts were at major universities located 500-750 miles apart: the University of Minnesota, Michigan State University, and the University of Kansas. This wide distance provided a much greater opportunity for those in the region to attend in person. To be able to provide the most effective technical support, we decided that we would require all presenters to present from one of these three host sites. As part of the proposal submissions, presenters were required to indicate which host site they would attend.
To increase attendance beyond these three hosts, we also put out a call for other institutions to serve as receiving “hubs”, providing a face-to-face component for other parts of the region. People could participate in the conference from hubs, but anyone who wanted to present was required to physically attend at a host site. Our call for hub proposals was put out at the same time as the call for papers and resulted in the University of Iowa joining as our fourth partner on the conference. Ironically, it turned out that a presenter from the state of Iowa had also applied to present at the University of Minnesota; but as she was located so much closer to the new hub, the University of Iowa graciously agreed to support a presenter in addition to its original receiving-only plan.
Since the MWALLT conference is usually held in the fall, one of the factors that we had to consider in planning the date of our conference was conflicts with the football schedule. All three host sites envisioned major difficulties hosting a conference on a football Saturday, so we had to start by finding dates that none of the three sites had a home football game. Only two dates passed that test. We also had to contend with the fact that our host/hub sites were not all in the same time zone. We found a compromise on the scheduling for the conference that kept the start and end times (as well as the lunch break) manageable for everyone. The conference ran from 9:30-5:30 at Michigan State (in the Eastern time zone), and 8:30-4:30 at the other three sites (in the Central time zone).
One of the clear desires of our group was to keep the price of conference registration low enough to make it affordable to graduate students, but not so low that people would register and then not show up. MWALLT conference fees had not been very high in the past, basically covering the cost of the host campus facilities and a meal or two along with refreshments. Since we anticipated that some attendees would attend virtually, and to further encourage registration, we decided not to include food in the conference registration fee. The issue of how to deal with issues of food, however, still remained one of the main challenges that we faced in planning the conference: having four host/hub sites meant that we had to balance the unique needs of each campus. While some of the campuses had plenty of food options within easy walking distance, others did not, and so each campus needed to come up with a suitable solution and communicate with its group of attendees separately.
We created a GoogleDoc to coordinate most of our conference planning, from early brainstorming, to our call for proposals, to the final conference schedule. We also met regularly via Zoom to discuss issues of logistics, including how best to deal with multiple streams of content being sent from the four sites. We decided to have two simultaneous presentations for each session, with each campus running sessions in two rooms and some alternation of receiving and sending among the host sites to avoid the appearance that any particular stream “belonged” to a particular host. This encouraged everyone to attend some mix of local and remote presentations without things being too overwhelming with regard to facilities and technology. Since the conference was held on a Saturday, we were all able to hold the conference within our respective language centers. We were somewhat concerned about whether the receiving hubs would be able to offer two streams (two different rooms with the appropriate technology), but that did not prove to be an issue.
One essential part of our preparation was the practice session that we held on the afternoon before the conference. This allowed us to test out microphone and camera configurations and to make sure that everyone felt prepared for the technological challenges of the next day. While we did receive enough submissions to run two streams, we asked one of the organizers to hold a presentation “in reserve” just in case a presenter was not able to attend. This did come in handy to round out the schedule at the last minute.
With groups on the four campuses and individuals participating online, MWALLT had 74 people registered for the conference, which was about twice the attendance of recent years. There were a few people who traveled some distance to attend the conference at a host/hub, but most of the attendees were “local”, with only 11 registered as virtual attendees. Some of the virtual attendees were surprisingly from the host/hub sites, but had chosen to participate online because of child care or other scheduling challenges.
From a technological standpoint, the conference was quite successful. We used the Zoom teleconferencing platform to connect the sites, and experienced few technical glitches during the event as we had carefully choreographed responsibility between the institutions. Zoom proved to be robust and reliable for transmitting presentations and for the fostering inter-institutional conversation and discussion that we sought. To encourage further inter-institutional interaction, we also suggested that people log onto the live stream for a back channel connection with people at the other sites, but most of the interaction still occurred locally. We will definitely work to foster more cross-campus interaction at future conferences, perhaps holding some joint panels and some kind of incentive for participating in virtual conversations with participants at other sites.
Perhaps predictably, people tended to attend the presentations that had live local presenters rather than remote presenters, and there were numerous observations from the attendees that it is far easier to engage during a face-to-face presentation. Some attendees did express a desire to hold fully face-to-face conferences from time to time. Still, the majority of the attendees felt that it was a worthwhile endeavor because many more people were able to participate and that broadened the choice of presentations. In addition to financial savings, some cited environmental reasons as another motivating factor for continuing with this kind of conference model.
Planning a conference held simultaneously at four different sites necessitated a lot of coordination and communication. It was helpful to have several “partners in crime” but it also was hard to keep track of what had been done and what still needed to be done. This was especially true with issues like advertising the conference, where there were both regional and local constituencies to keep in mind. Based on our experience, we feel that it may still be useful to appoint one person as the overall conference coordinator, even if there are people involved from each campus in overall planning.
In the future, we will be sure to make the call for hubs before the call for papers, and to identify which hubs might be willing to send presentations as well as receive them. Identifying the hubs prior to posting the call for papers would allow local people to know their options in presenting a session, and would allow us to identify concentrations of presenters that might be better served by converting a hub site that only receives presentations into a host site.
Throughout the conference there was a big need for communication, not only among the planners/hosts, but also with possible hubs and virtual attendees. Once the logistics were set and registrations started coming in, there were still many questions from presenters and attendees about the novel format and how it would work. While focused on the overall conference, each host also had to send out separate emails about the location and food options, as well to provide information on technical infrastructure and support. And as we balanced people at four sites and online on the day of the conference, we learned that a central email address and/or phone should be posted with someone tasked with answering last-minute questions at each site and for those online attendees.
MWALLT is planning to repeat this experiment at our next conference on February 8, 2020, so please put it on your calendar now! We are looking for additional host sites to join with us, particularly schools in Ohio and Illinois (but other midwest states are invited to participate as well!). If you are interested in being a host site, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We may also be open to joining with other regional groups for an even larger conference in the future. Please contact us with your ideas!