Planning and facilitating an off-site hybrid conference
Author: Sam Pywell – Digital Development Coach, Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, and Principal Lecturer: Social Prescribing Unit Coordinator at the University of Central Lancashire
January 2022 involved the planning and delivery of UCLan’s first off-site hybrid conference.
As part of the planning process, the following considerations were discussed:
- Off-site WiFi stability
- Technology/equipment requirements
- The pedagogy for the event
WiFi at the venue was tested prior to the day, and proved sufficient for the purposes of a hybrid event.
In addition to a Surface Laptop (main device) and the venue’s lectern setup, the following equipment was borrowed from the University’s technical store: Meeting Owl, tripod, display adapter and power extension cord. The online meeting would be set up and hosted within Microsoft Teams.
In testing, the Meeting Owl provided a clear image of both the audience and speaker – offering more than the ‘standard’ presentation view. The event would also involve some speakers who were online and others who were physically at the venue. A British Sign Language (BSL) interpreter would be present at the venue, and there would also be a groupwork section – where an online group would form one discussion, and delegates at the venue would complete group work in their tables.
I did not do this alone and had significant help thanks to colleagues from UCLan’s Learning and Information Services team (we learned as we went!). I knew hybrid would be possible due to teaching – but had no experience of using the set up off-campus or for an external event. The Meeting Owl (mounted on a tripod) was connected to the Surface Laptop, which meant that the audience at home could see our audience in the conference room. We had more people dial in than face-to-face (dialed in = 76, face-to-face = 50), highlighting that a demand for ‘hybrid’ has remained – even though at present, we are just out of another period of restrictions in the UK.
Live captions were critical, and made available for both the audience at home and the audience at the venue – who could see the automatic script, and print a copy afterwards. Informal feedback from colleagues has been very positive, a number of whom are heavily reliant upon captions. One challenge we experienced when testing the Meeting Owl, was how to enable the Owl to track both the speaker, and the BSL interpreter – as the Owl only tracked the individual from both sound and movement, as opposed to just movement.
Allowing attendees to ‘bypass’ the online lobby (done under the meeting settings in MS Teams) was essential prior to the event, to avoid delegates triggering alerts each time they entered. In addition, having prior access to delegate presentations was also important, in case of any file-sharing difficulties on the day. I chose to give online presenters the option to ‘take control’ within the meeting – and asked at the start of the meeting, for delegates to mute their microphones and consider turning their cameras off to preserve bandwidth.
We also learned that the ‘share display’ settings were not ideal for everyone. Next time, the audience at home may want to see a full screen of the speaker and venue, rather than just the presentation. However, online delegates do still have the option to ‘pin’ a meeting window of their choice, and therefore make any window ‘full screen’. In future, instructions on how to do this could be sent out prior to the event.
Colleagues who attended said that they really appreciated the option to either attend in person or online, and this was due to a variety of reasons.
One key recommendation for planning and facilitating a hybrid event would be to start with accessibility first. For example, would a BSL signer need to be on screen for both audiences, or just the face-to-face audience? Also, consider transcript availability, captions, and the option to dial-in for members of the audience who may not wish to disclose disabilities or social circumstance – but who could benefit greatly from it.
A special thank you to colleagues in UCLan’s Learning and Information Services and Centre for Collaborative Learning teams, for all their support and guidance.