Lesson learned: Designing a virtual symposium

Rows of empty chairs

COVID-19 has necessitated a shift to online models for a number of activities that were previously facilitated face-to-face (F2F) or through physical presence and interaction. Education is a key area undergoing a shift, but moving learning activities online is not directly transferable or equivalent to F2F and what worked before won’t necessarily work in the same way. As such, it forces a shift in thinking, pedagogical practice and learning design.   

This reconceptualising and redesign for online is important for other activities, such as online conferences. As learning, teaching and educational technology specialists, TELedvisors are all too familiar with this in our practice when helping to design subjects. Hence the meta-challenge for us as TELedvisors to design an online conference – designing professional development online for online.  

Here is our account of trying to design an online conference with good learning design in mind, based on facilitating the recent HERDSASCILITE 2020 ‘Lessons learned from the COVID-19 response’ Symposium. The key lessons; it’s still as much work, simplicity is beautiful, timing is everything and test, test, test. 


We were approached by the New Zealand-based HERDSA Academic Development Special Interest Group (SIG) about collaborating on a virtual version of their one-day Symposium they had conducted face to face, for the last couple of years. To take up an opportunity that the online space provides, they reached out to the TELedvisors SIG to join forces. 

Both SIGs felt that given current events, there was naturally only one topic of conversation that the symposium could address – COVID-19, and what this meant both for current and future educational challenges. This was a theme that not only affected Academic Developers, but all TELedvisor professionals working in this space. It was a unique opportunity to have invested minds working to discuss and seek solutions to a common challenge. The benefits of not being stuck to one physical location allowed us a broader Australasian focus and ability to include a broader range of people in the conversation.  

As part of our involvement, we were keen to ensure that what we offered to attendees modelled good practice in online facilitation and online teaching and learning. This meant actively planning for virtual experiences and taking lessons from online delivery into our symposium planning and facilitation.  

Key lessons 

It’s still as much work – just different 

While there weren’t any room bookings or catering to contend with, the logistical aspects of organising a virtual conference with a team based across multiple time zones, are time and labour intensive. The big workload comes in thinking and planning prior to the day, including:  

  • How can we encourage and facilitate the social and networking aspects that are present in physical conferences? How do we facilitate this and build it into the program? 
  • How do we build a valuable experience that doesn’t feel awkward, while recognising we can’t replicate what happens in a physical location?  
  • What activities and tools/platforms can support this? Which platforms to use?  
  • Do we have enough people to facilitate and support technical issues when they go wrong?  

A key component that we focused on is facilitating interaction and social networking opportunities to mirror the benefits perceived from hallway conversations (DeRosa, R. n.d.).  As in online learning, these things don’t just happen online naturally but need to be intentionally designed, planned and cultivated.  

Simplicity is beautiful  

The technology is not always simple. For example, a concerted effort was taken to test the ‘waiting room’ feature of zoom before rejecting the use of this feature as it appeared unfriendly and left our test participants alone with no visible instructions. Instead, we chose to keep a facilitator or ‘greeter’ in the main room to help and direct people. 

Suite of products used for the symposium:  

  • Microsoft Teams – organising committee for administration, meetings and collaboration 
  • Eventbrite – Participant registration 
  • Zoom – Single conference session link, zoom breakout rooms for focused discussions 
  • Padlet – for documents, resources, collaborative activities and shared spaces 
  • Google Docs – shared formal feedback from discussion groups 

We decided to use Padlet and Google Docs as our main means for interaction before and on the day. The advantages of these tools are:  

  • They’re free to use 
  • They’re publicly available on the web 
  • You don’t need a login – there are anonymous sharing options including sharing a ‘private’ link 
  • They’re generally pretty simple and intuitive to use, and lots of people have experience with them 
  • They are flexible enough to be used for a range of different purposes, meaning we could re-use the same tool for different activities. Limiting number of EdTech tools meant minimising training needs, tech issues and cognitive load for participants – they could learn to use the tool once and continue to participate as needed 
  • The tools could act as a modelling exercise and hopefully give others ideas about how to use educational technologies in new ways in their own practice.  

The Padlet design consisted of nested and cross-linking Padlets from a single home base. This approach was inspired by others such as the OLC Innovate virtual escape room (see https://innovation-studio.org/ first for context) which relied heavily on Padlet and Google Docs and included cross-linked Padlets. We were able to capitalise on an institutional Padlet backpack licence for this purpose. Feedback after the conference showed that some liked this design and some found it confusing.  

Screenshot image of HERDSA ASCILITE Symposium home Padlet and the structure and layout design
The HERDSASCILITE20 Symposium ‘home’ Padlet design.

Timing is everything  

Key parts of re-conceptualising for online were about enabling informal connections and networking opportunities for attendees – ensuring that the day felt valuable and not overwhelming, and was open to as many people as possible. We were acutely aware that people could easily become zoom fatigued attending a whole-day Symposium. Aimed at Educational Technology specialists and academic professionals currently experiencing massive upticks in workloads, we couldn’t count on attendees (or us as facilitators) being able to attend the whole day. It was likely people would have to dip in and out of sessions due to other commitments. We were also trying to capture attendees from multiple time zones across Australia, New Zealand and other parts of Australasia.   

Key things to encourage flexibility for different attendee availability included:  


  • Modularised approach that allowed flexibility in moving in and out of sessions 
  • Ensuring the day was set at times suitable across multiple Australasian time zones 
  • Factoring in breaks at regular intervals 
  • Electronic version of the program distributed before the event, so people could plan their day 
  • Keeping to time, and assigning a greeter in the main room for communicating timing changes and manage attendees 

In our case, the day was broken into 4 key ‘sessions’, with an aim for people to work in breakout groups and be randomly assigned at each session. This provided a modularised approach so that people could attend one or multiple sessions and dip in and out as needed. It was important to keep sessions to time, so that attendees coming and going would not miss out or interrupt sessions.  

A ‘greeter’ also stayed in the ‘main’ room to greet attendees who turned up late or in between sessions. The greeter could inform them of what was going on or pop them into a breakout room. The weakness of this approach appeared as the greeter swapped for each session (not pre-planned) and the experience was not always consistent with background music or other settings. 

Asynchronous activities 

We also shifted some key introductory activities online to an asynchronous mode for perceived benefits:  

  • encourage attendees to introduce themselves and get to know each other prior (including learn and practice the technologies if they were new to Padlet) 
  • free up space in the program to build in the regular breaks.  
  • buffer time – attendees who were waiting (e.g. waiting for the symposium to start, waiting between sessions) had something to do – they could complete the asynchronous activities if they hadn’t already done so, or review other people’s introductions to get to know them. 

Test, Test, Test 

We held run-throughs via Zoom a few days before the Symposium, which was important for testing the logistical aspects of the tools and clarifying the running of the day and what to do if we had too many attendees and not enough facilitators. It also exposed that weren’t all clear or on the same page around some of the activities and how these would be facilitated, as we hadn’t had sufficient lead-up meetings. Testing allowed us to re-think some of our activities and to aim to make the tools and resources we were using as simple as possible. 

Testing also expanded to testing the tools we were going to use in the session, and a range of ways that we as facilitators or attendees might need to access them or want to work during the sessions – from collaborative small group brainstorming on Padlet as a free-for-all, to having one person share their screen and act as scribe. This led to some changes to the design of the instructions and creating a lot of cross-links between Padlets and Google Docs to enable easy switching and jumping across documents for attendees, to ensure quick easy access to documents and minimal reliance on a facilitator.  

What else? 

For a virtual conference, you’re not stuck to the usual format as you would be in a face-to-face event where people travel to be in the same place. Consider for future events: 

  • Spread out the time: Run the event over multiple days/weeks to support multiple timezones and help avoid synchronous session fatigue. E.g. Based on 2020 experiences moving from F2F to online, SOLAR Learning Analytics and Knowledge conference are now planning a fully online 2021 conference spread over a week.  
  • More on-demand: Some conferences (e.g. OLC Innovate, Blackboard World, CanvasCon) have moved a lot of their existing program to be pre-recorded presentations – a great idea for short presentations with low interactivity.  
  • Asynchronous networking and discussion spaces: Provide spaces (e.g. Microsoft Teams, Slack, Wordpress site with built in discussion forum) for more informal networking opportunities and general social chats. These spaces can also be used for Q&As and connecting and discussion between sessions, or for longer events, to build a community of practice.  

Further resources 

DeRosa, R. (n.d.). hallway conversations.  Retrieved from http://robinderosa.net/hallway-conversations/ 

Enamorado, S. (2020) 3 Lessons we learned from running our own virtual conference. Reftireved from https://www.3playmedia.com/blog/lessons-learned-virtual-conference/ 

Jones, H., Corrin, L. & Joksimovic, S. (2020). Are virtual conferences the way of the future? Presenter and participant perspectives from LAK20. Retrieved from https://blog.ascilite.org/are-virtual-conferences-the-way-of-the-future-presenter-and-participant-perspectives-from-lak20/ 

Kovanovic, V., & Scheffel, M. (2020). Brave new on-line world: key lessons from moving LAK20 conference on-line. Retrieved from https://campusmorningmail.com.au/news/brave-new-on-line-world-key-lessons-from-moving-lak20-conference-on-line/  

Kovanovic, V., & Scheffel, M. (2020). Running an online conference: Insights from LAK20. The 10th International Learning Analytics & Knowledge Conference, March 23-27 2020. Retrieved from https://www.solaresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/SoLAR-Webinar-Running-an-Online-Conference-Best-Practices-from-Organising-LAK20.pdf 

TELedvisors (Producer). (2020, 3 November 2020). TELedvisors webinar October 2020 Erik Brogt. [Youtube video]  

Virtually Connecting, (n.d.). VC Formats. Retrieved from http://virtuallyconnecting.org/vc-formats/ 

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