The WCET team enjoys planning our two live events each year. Our goal is to provide an opportunity for our community to come together to network, discuss new ideas, learn from each other, and bring important promising practices back to our organizations.
This year, in the “Age of COVID-19,” we were unable to host our annual WCET Summit as planned. As with many professional and personal events, we cancelled the live meeting. However, we decided to move the event to the virtual environment.
Hey, Let’s Just Move Online…
WCET has never held a multi-day virtual event. This was brand new territory for our team. While this is not the same as moving an entire course or program online, we definitely got a small taste of the challenges instructors and staff are going through with the pivot to remote teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While we enjoyed hosting this event virtually, it was a reminder of the struggles our higher education community has gone through (and continues to face!). We salute the faculty, instructional designers, IT professionals, and staff throughout the colleges that made the spring transition happen.
Today, Russ Poulin, Megan Raymond, and Lindsey Downs share their reflections on the virtual Summit, lessons learned from hosting an online event, and ideas for delivering digital content in the future.
Reflections on the Summit from Russ
The idea for centering the 2020 WCET Summit on policy issues was an easy one. WCET has long focused on federal, state, and accreditation policies, regulations, and rules. The 2019 negotiated rulemaking process introduced many federal regulatory changes that were coming into play in 2020, such as changes for accreditation requirements, regular and substantive interaction, state authorization, professional licensure notifications, competency-based education, student identity verification, and many more. The great partnership with the University of Maryland Global Campus put us in the DC beltway with access to those located in the Capitol.
The decision to move online was also an easy one. In talking to the leaders of other organizations, they were slowly moving to virtual options. We wanted to decide early so that we could spend our time creating a quality event.
In moving to a virtual event, we wanted you to still hear from those experts and give you a greater opportunity to ask them questions. We were very pleased to be joined by top policy leaders, including Diane Auer Jones (U.S. Department of Education), Aaron Lacey (Thompson Coburn), Jillian Klein (Strategic Education, Inc.), David Baime (AACC), Jill Desjean (NASFAA), Janette Martinez (Excelencia in Education), and several others.
We were glad to have our members along for the ride and were very glad that more were able to join us as we moved into unexpected virtual territory.
Leading Up – The Decision and The Plan
As higher education organizations began cancelling and postponing their events, we realized the possibility of holding an in-person meeting at our partner, the University of Maryland Global Campus’ location in Largo, MD was an impossibility. Our team needed a plan that highlighted our experts, provided invaluable just-in-time higher education policy content, and engaged attendees without the face-to-face component.
A viable virtual event also needed to be something that would not burden attendees and draw too much of their time and attention away from pressing matters at their institution.
Within a day of discussing with WCET and UMGC leadership the need to move the Policy Summit to a virtual event, we had a plan:
- Move panels and sessions to a recorded format, no more than 30 minutes each to ensure that participants weren’t tied up with the Summit for an entire day or two.
- Use our existing online community platform, MIX, to house the online event, with each key topic/panel as its own discussion thread. This platform provided online forums, member profiles, member director, and a resource library.
- Additional resources including deep dives into each topic developed by experts were added to the MIX library.
- The actual virtual event would consist of daily releases of two prerecorded video panels throughout each day, Monday-Thursday.
- Each panel topic would have its own asynchronous discussions and session guides to facilitate attendee reflection.
- The community would also facilitate networking and some fun interactive diversions like sponsor-logo bingo and prizes for engagement.
- The final day, Friday would be used for a live virtual Q&A and conversation with the panelists and experts.
- We created digital badges for MVPs (those who were in the top 10 for engagement), those who completed Bingo cards, and one for all attendees. These were awarded through the MIX platform.
We executed the plan which was a major team effort. Everyone had a role and we used a collaborative shared document as a timeline and task manager. It was critical to get all of the elements into one place where we could track everything that needed to be done in moving from an in-person to a virtual event, who was the lead, and when the task needed to be completed. More on how the execution went and what we learned later.
Beyond the logistics of reformulating the Summit, a few of our major considerations were:
- Pricing- how do we avoid refunds for the price differential between live and virtual?
- How do we communicate the value of the virtual event?
- When do we have the event? The original dates of the Policy Summit, April 15-16 or another time?
On a WCET Steering Committee call, it was suggested that we invite those already registered to include two additional people from their institution to register at no additional charge. This created some extra work for our intrepid registration manager but reduced the number of refunds and increased attendance. For an in-person event we were limited to 125, for a virtual event we figured we could effectively support 150.
Communicating the Value of the Virtual Event
By April 2020, adoption of Zoom and other online meeting platforms was full-scale. People were not nearly as reticent to participate in a virtual event. The topic of higher education policy and implications is also something directly impacting the WCET community and they’ve come to lean on our organization as trusted advocates.
The audience was ready, panelists were onboard, and the topic was relevant and timely. The key was not overwhelming participants with a heavy-lift or requiring too much of their incredibly valuable and increasingly finite time and energy.
Building in additional registrations for the original price also proved to be a value-add for a virtual event.
When or Lose
Choosing when to hold the Summit was tricky.
The original dates for the in-person event were April 15-16 in Largo, MD. We knew that we needed five days to distribute the Summit content and facilitate engagement. Since we were recording panels ahead of the virtual event, did it make more sense to hold the event the week of April 13, the same week as the in-person Summit was planned? Or was a better option to record the panels the week that the speakers had already blocked off and would be available, and then release the videos and do the online Summit the following week? Based on our speaker’s availability we ended up doing the panel recordings via Zoom on April 15 and 16 and then running the virtual Summit the following week.
We communicated with all registrants and the WCET community that we were moving the Summit a week later. We received very few cancellations. However, people were still confused and dismayed that we had moved the dates. We learned a lesson here as well, communicate the why when making a major shift.
As we all know in higher education, having accessible content is critically important to serving all learners. WCET wanted to ensure that our Summit content was accessible. All of the videos included captions and the live Q&A virtual session included live captioning. The supplemental resources provided could be more accessible and easier to use with a screen reader.
What We Learned
The feedback we received from the attendees could be grouped into the following types of comments:
- We did a great job pivoting to an online format.
Our platform was not conducive to an online event.
- Communication was too much- too many emails from the threaded discussions, too many messages from staff, too frequent of communication.
- People liked the asynchronous participation, especially being able to back up sections of the videos they wanted to re-watch.
- People missed the networking of a face-to-face event.
Here are some additional lessons we learned:
- Engage your audience and add some fun!
- To do this, we encouraged questions, discussion posts, and introduction posts. We sent daily emails with something funny, we played a virtual bingo game, we awarded badges for engagement and for submitting a completed bingo card.
- Offer a mix of synchronous and asynchronous experiences. We recorded our live session so attendees could watch later if needed.
- Practice, as always, makes perfect
- Ask your team members to test your online platform, have your experts practice their live sessions, practice your introductions… etc. This is very important!
Going forward, and as we do virtual events in the future, this invaluable feedback and the lessons we learned will help us craft content, curate experiences that nurture networking, and find ways to communicate that don’t overwhelm. We also realized that busy people don’t read emails thoroughly, so communicating essential information in a way people will pay attention to is vital.
As far as a virtual event platform, we were fortunate to have something in place to fit the bill but going forward we will explore better options. MIX is an excellent virtual space for our community to discuss and share resources, but it didn’t quite meet our needs for a full event space. Thankfully, one good thing about this “age of COVID-19” is that technology is improving, and new platforms are emerging.
We look forward to experimenting and hope you patiently join us on future virtual events!
WCET – the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies