Running a hybrid conference using Blackboard Collaborate - Digital Learning

Tuesday 26 November 2019

Running a hybrid conference using Blackboard Collaborate

The University of Sheffield recently hosted a symposium on Reducing academic flying. There are a growing amount of academic groups who have taken a lead on reducing the amount they fly (e.g. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research) or indeed not flying at all.

In the spirit of the subject of the event, the organisers wanted both participants and speakers to attend, and contribute to the symposium virtually. To support this, Blackboard Collaborate was used to host the symposium. Available to all members of staff at the university, Blackboard Collaborate is a modern, web-based video conferencing tool, and this was a great opportunity to use the tool outside of a learning and teaching context.

The symposium was delivered in a hybrid manner - some of the papers were given in person, to an audience of around 30 people in Sheffield, with another 30 or so watching live online using Blackboard Collaborate. Some papers were presented remotely - we had speakers from Europe, North America & Australia. The remote papers were streamed live to the physical symposium venue in Sheffield, and to the other participants watching remotely.

Delivering a symposium in this way did require some careful planning to ensure a positive experience for the physical and virtual attendees. Some of the measures we put in place included:

  • Requiring all presenters to submit PDF's of their talk in advance, so they could be pre-loaded into Blackboard Collaborate
  • Asking physical presenters to stay in the webcam frame, so they could be viewed remotely
  • Having a moderator in the Blackboard Collaborate chat room that was physically based in the symposium venue, to enable questions to be relayed to presenters. 

Coordinating the presentations across various different time zones was handled very effectively by the organisers, and we made use of the timer within Blackboard Collaborate as a visible reminder for remote participants to avoid any confusion about session start times.

We tried to replicate the face to face experience as much as possible for the remote attendees. The Collaborate chat room provided an effective back channel, with resources being shared and lively discussion ongoing throughout the day. The physical attendees split into project groups to create actions plans, and the same activity happened virtually with remote participants using the Breakout Groups feature in Collaborate. The remote participants could then feedback to the physical attendees in Sheffield.

Screenshot from the Blackboard Collaborate chat room showing that 30 people were watching in one location

One unexpected benefit of the hybrid conference approach was the extent to which it increased the reach of the symposium. As you can see the screenshot above, one of the virtual attendees was actually viewing the talks in a classroom alongside 30 of their students in Oslo - enabling them to participate in the event (and increasing the total attendees to around 90). All of the talks can be viewed from the Carbon Neutral University Website

Dr Stephen Allen, the symposium co-chair said:

At the symposium we were ambitious with the mix of physical and remote speakers and attendees.  However, with good reliability from Collaborate Ultra the event surpassed my expectations for how well a physical-remote international meeting, which did not involve anybody flying could work.  

Whilst I do not feel that I could now use Collaborate Ultra at an event such as the symposium without technical support, I am much more confident that using this technology as part of enabling a successful no-flying international meeting is not out of reach.

Have you had any experience in delivering a hybrid conference?

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