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5 tips for running a virtual symposium that works

Laptop with person writing on pad of paper

Photo credit: J. Kelly Brito on Unsplash


June 22, 2020

The capstone experience of the graduate global health program is an intense two-week international symposium in India, which brings together 300+ students and faculty from McMaster and partner universities in the Netherlands, India and Thailand. This year, the evolving situation with COVID-19 meant the symposium had to move to a completely online format. The pivot worked – and the team has pulled together five tips for running a successful virtual conference, as well as a report on the highlights. 

“Online learning and collaboration are core to the program’s curriculum, with students working in virtual transcontinental teams from the get-go,” explains Andrea Baumann, associate V-P Global Health. “When it became clear that we needed to move the symposium online, we were well positioned, but we wanted to mirror that experiential learning and cultural immersion piece.”

1. Choose the right platform(s)
Sometimes, running an entire symposium on one platform won’t meet all of your needs. To deliver this year’s symposium, the team used a combination of platforms suited to each event to ensure the smooth running of activities. These included: Blackboard Collaborate, Zoom, WebEx, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangouts.

The team made the decision to use Blackboard Collaborate as the primary virtual classroom, since it’s the one used by Maastricht University, McMaster’s partner in the graduate program. For our webinar series, we used WebEx, since we had IT access to support for this platform, and we used Microsoft Teams for internal communication. Students were already familiar with Google Hangouts, having used it as part of the core courses, which require students to collaborate virtually in small teams with peers from partner universities. 

2. Put the necessary resources in place
Being prepared means ensuring you have what you need ahead of time – and that means putting the right team in place to execute successfully. Take the time to think about what makes a great online experience and be aware that a virtual symposium can require as much time and resources as an in-person one. Be sure to line up IT support as well to assist where needed so that the plan runs as smoothly as possible.

The team engaged Global Health program student volunteers to assist with communications activities and lead workshops. “It was an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach that involved participants as collaborators, and this meant that students helped shape the event and contribute to its success” explains Sue Barclay, Global Health faculty and one of the symposium organizers.

Also, for this year’s symposium, the team involved a moderator for the webinar series to facilitate the presentations, which worked well to keep speakers on track, and manage the Q&A sessions.

3. Make your content relevant
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global health crisis. For this global health symposium to be contextually relevant, COVID-19 content had to be a key part of the programming. Ten expert speakers were rounded up to create a webinar series that offered transdisciplinary perspectives on pandemics in the context of COVID-19. The series was opened up to a broader audience – beyond those involved in the graduate program – and video recordings were made available online following the series.

A key aim of the symposium is to simulate a scientific conference, where students formally present their thesis research proposals and scholarly paper abstracts. This year, several students shifted their research to focus on COVID-19, making the presentations and discussions contextually relevant.

Because the symposium typically takes place in India, the students were also keen to simulate the cultural immersion experience. Student-led activities included Indian cooking classes and yoga practice.

4. Prioritize communication
Delivering a virtual symposium over two weeks to a broad audience spanning multiple locations, platforms and time zones required a co-ordinated effort and dissemination strategy that encompassed both internal and external communications.

The communications strategy followed a multi-pronged approach that included broadcast and daily messages to students, news broadcasts, and an internal social media channel for students to connect throughout the symposium.

A key part of the symposium in India is about hundreds of students coming together and connecting face-to-face with the transcontinental teams they have been collaborating with for the duration of the program. So, in order to replicate that experience in a digital format, ongoing communication was critical to create that sense of unity.

“Student engagement levels were high throughout the two weeks,” says Ruth Adair, who leads the Global Health program’s communications. “The evaluation survey was positive, with students indicating that they felt their communication and collaboration skills – critical competencies for global health professionals – improved as a result of the symposium.”

5. Prepare and test
Being prepared is key – and that goes for presenters and attendees. We’ve all been there. You have the information and the link to join the meeting ahead of time and you think that’s all you need. Then, one minute before the meeting starts, you click on the link to join only to be told you need to ‘download the app’ or update your browser. And when you finally get in, your audio’s not working, and you can’t seem to find the meeting chat.

For this online symposium, presenters had run-throughs and the opportunity to ask questions. Participants had access to the links to join the meetings beforehand, so they could test them and get familiar with the ins and outs of each platform before the symposium kicked off. Most rooms were available 15 minutes ahead of the start time, and we left gaps in the schedule to allow for early attendees.

For every ‘room’ that was set up for presentations, meetings or lectures, a back up room was ready to mobilize if the technology failed to work. In the end, none of the backup rooms were required.

While the symposium was originally designed as an on-site experience to allow students to present their research in a simulated global health forum, and participate in a variety of activities in an international setting, the redesign into a virtual learning experience continued to provide the students with an opportunity to work together with their colleagues around the global goals.