The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way that many people work. Not only have an unprecedented number of employees been tasked with working from home, but the need for social distancing has forced organizers to cancel most in-person conferences and other professional gatherings. Fortunately, virtual conferences are making it possible for industry professionals to get the same valuable information and key insights from speakers that they would have gotten at an in-person event. However, virtual conferences present their own set of challenges. To ensure you get the most value out of the experience, review our tips for attending virtual conferences.
What Is a Virtual Conference?
A virtual conference is a web-based event that aims to replicate many aspects of a traditional, in-person conference. Some occur on a standalone basis, while others operate in conjunction with an in-person conference, forming a hybrid event. Like their traditional counterparts, virtual conferences include multiple sessions and may feature keynote presentations, training and educational workshops, social networking opportunities, and more.
When compared with in-person events, virtual conferences offer several valuable benefits. Because they’re online and available to anyone with an internet connection, they’re extremely accessible and allow people from all over the world to attend. They’re also less taxing on the environment and attendees’ wallets because they don’t require attendees to travel to the site of the conference. Plus, because all sessions are recorded, attendees don’t have to choose between two or more concurrent sessions that they’re interested in attending. They can also rewatch sessions if needed.
All that said, virtual conferences do create new challenges for attendees. Especially if you’re attending your first virtual conference, it’s important that you prepare ahead of time to make the most of it. To get started, review our tips for attending virtual conferences.
Tips for Attending Virtual Conferences
Embrace Online Learning
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that online learning isn’t as effective as face-to-face education and assuming that you won’t learn as much.
First of all, that simply isn’t true. According to the e-learning effectiveness research conducted by Will Thalheimer, PhD, “When learning methods are held constant between e-learning and classroom instruction, both produce equal results.” Learning modalities (e-learning vs. in-person education) are not as important as learning methods (such as realistic practice, spaced repetitions, real-world contexts, and feedback).
Secondly, if you believe that online learning isn’t as effective as in-person instruction, it may reduce your motivation and impact how intensively you engage with the event, which will affect your learning experience. After all, education requires a commitment from both the teacher and the student. So, treat the event like an in-person conference, giving it your full and undivided attention. Whether this is your first virtual conference or your one-hundredth, show up with a positive attitude and a willingness to learn.
Familiarize Yourself with the Technology
The conference organizer will notify all attendees to let them know what software is needed and how it can be obtained. Don’t wait until the last minute to download this software and check that it works on your computer. If you procrastinate, you could end up in a frustrating situation that causes you to miss some of the conference. In addition, check that your audio is functioning correctly, test your internet speed (and decide which bandwidth-hogging applications you may need to turn off before conference sessions), and check out the features available on the conference platform. The more familiar you are with the technology and tools available, the more you’ll be able to pay attention and engage with the content.
Homes and offices are often teeming with distractions fighting for our attention, so you need to prioritize the time you’ve set aside for a virtual conference. The following tips should help:
- Start by finding a quiet, comfortable space in which you can set up your computer.
- Tell anyone who might be tempted to call, text, or drop by that you’re busy with a commitment that requires your full attention.
- Grab some coffee, water, and a snack.
- Set any important tools you may need nearby (laptop charger, earbuds, phone, notepad, pen, etc.).
- Shut the door (depending on who’s around, you may need to add a “Do Not Disturb” sign).
- Close unrelated tabs and windows on your computer.
- Turn off notifications on your phone and computer.
- If needed, create alerts to remind yourself of important sessions.
- Take advantage of scheduled breaks during the conference to use the bathroom, have lunch, etc.
Above all, give yourself room to fully engage with the material presented in the conference. This is not the time to multi-task.
Connect with Other Attendees
One of the advantages of attending an in-person conference is the ability to reconnect with acquaintances, connect with new people, and discuss key information and insights. Although the methods may be a little different, you can do the same things during virtual conferences. Most virtual conferences encourage attendees to communicate through live chats, Slack channels, hashtags, and other tools. To best take advantage of these options, watch the sessions live and interact with other attendees in the moment, sharing ideas and “ah-ha” moments. Sometimes, depending on the technology, you can even interact with the speaker by commenting or asking a question during the presentation.
Another way to boost your social engagement during the conference is to attend “with” colleagues or coworkers. You could communicate with each other between sessions or perhaps schedule a Zoom or Skype meeting afterward to share key takeaways and discuss how the information you’ve learned might impact your own work. Participating with other people is also a good way to boost your motivation and provide some accountability.
Since most virtual conferences share presentation slides and recordings, you might be tempted to skip taking notes. However, high-quality note-taking is an effective learning tool that can improve your educational experience. Research shows that taking notes by hand improves learning, helping students retain more information and better understand the concepts taught. That said, since most conferences do share slides and recordings from presentations, you don’t need to frantically write down every insightful detail. Instead, only take notes when you find the information especially enlightening. In addition, be sure to spend some time engaging with the material afterward.
If you do plan to watch recordings of sessions later, schedule this into your calendar. Many attendees register for a conference and then don’t take advantage of the recordings. So, if you had to miss one session because you were watching another, schedule it into your day. If you want to review a session to reinforce your understanding of key concepts, schedule it into your day. If you were a bit distracted during a session and need a refresher, schedule it into your day.
Virtual conferences are expected to surge in popularity in the coming years. Convenient, inexpensive, and eco-friendly, they’re an effective education tool if you take them as seriously as in-person events. Your focus and engagement can have a profound impact on your overall experience, so keep our tips for attending virtual conferences in mind. Good luck!
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