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Virtual Conferences: 12 Tips to Make the Most of the Experience

virtual conferences
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Let’s face it, Zoom fatigue is real. We have all felt it this past year and the thought of attending a virtual conference is about as exciting as mowing the grass. But it doesn’t have to be. 

Some of the benefits from attending an in-person conference is the travel away from your work, your home, and your responsibilities. A virtual conference offers none of that, but you can manufacture an environment in which replicating the conference experience happens on a virtual level. 

These tips have helped me re-engage with the virtual conference and make it a much more meaningful and fulfilling experience.

1. Disconnect from your real life 

This is probably the most difficult of all the tips so I’ll start with it. The truth is even when you travel to a conference, your work and home life follow you, just remotely. Now that you are attending a conference remotely, your work and home life are right in the room next door. Try your best to block off your calendar, set your email to “out of office” mode, and let others in your house know that you’ll be focused on learning. Just like at an in-person event, those responsibilities will distract you, but with some clear communication, you can carve out a space to help you focus. 

2. Change environments 

While it’s still a challenge to go places even as things open back up, you should try to get out of your house when attending a conference. Maybe you go to the coffee shop down the street with the good wifi and outside tables, or maybe it’s just a temporary conference room somewhere. If you have a neighbor who is out of town or at work, offer to watch over the place in exchange for an escape from your own house or apartment. The change of scenery can help get your mind in the right space for learning as you won’t be looking around your home for chores that you think you should be doing. 

3. Create a conference routine 

Think about what you do when you attend a conference in-person. Do you get up and work out in the morning before heading to the Starbucks in the hotel? Do you look over the sessions ahead of time and star the ones you want to attend that day? Maybe you get dressed up? Re-creating your normal conference routine can help get you in the right frame of mind to absorb information. If you have another location (see tip No. 2) you can almost re-create the entire experience remotely. 

4. Synchronous sessions 

One of the big advantages to virtual conferences are the wealth of sessions you can attend during and after the event. You no longer have to feel awkward walking out of a session that doesn’t work for you. Now you can just leave the virtual room and go into another one within seconds. As you are looking through the schedule, try and identify speakers and sessions that promise to be interactive for attendees. These are the best to attend in real-time as you can be an active participant during the session. 

5. On-demand sessions 

As you look through your schedule, try to identify which sessions will be available for a later viewing. Also, read the session descriptions to see if it’s more informational (such as a traditional “sit-n-get” session). If you have a scheduling conflict, choose the more interactive session for your real-time experience, and then go back and watch the other session. I’m still watching sessions from SXSWedu and it happened more than two months ago!  

6. Learn and listen 

Sitting in a crowded room, packed with attendees struggling to keep their coffee, laptop and phone on their lap, can be an uncomfortable experience. Many attendees like to interact and explore while a speaker is presenting. This can be awkward in person, but the reality is that we are all victims of the attention economy. Now that you are attending remotely, you might be even more tempted to surf Facebook or shop on Amazon as no one is there to see. Turn off all those distractions when attending and, if you can, explore what is being presented during the session. It might even be helpful to bring a pad of paper and pen to take notes so you can have a full-screen experience while you are attending. 

7. Be mobile 

There isn’t a rule that says you have to sit at your desk or on the couch while you attend a conference. Some of the great things about apps such as Clubhouse is that you can attend while walking. This can be a little trickier at a virtual event that includes slides, but there is nothing that says you can’t pick up your phone and head over to the neighborhood park. Getting up and moving adds oxygen to the brain and will help you be more alert and attentive to whatever is happening in the session. 

8. Interact 

Another way to be attentive is to interact during the session. If there is a chat or Q&A feature, try to engage with the other attendees or presenters. As a frequent virtual presenter, nothing brings me more joy than seeing a lively chat room. This is something that is hard to recreate in an in-person event as you are usually limited to chatting with the people next to you. Take advantage of it! 

9. Visit the virtual vendor hall 

Vendors really took it on the chin when conferences switched to virtual. They were already struggling getting physical traffic through the show floor and when attendees did come through, they were distracted by their phones. Now vendors are trying to lure your eyes to their product in a virtual setting, which is even more challenging, so they’re coming up with inventive ways to draw attention in a way that can be rewarding for the attendees. I’m hosting multiple Trivia events during the upcoming ISTE 2021 event that are engaging and entertaining, and give attendees many chances to win prizes and products. And because there are not as many attending these events, your chances of winning go up exponentially, and you might learn about a product or two that you didn’t know could help you in your classroom. 

10. Breaks 

Sitting through a six-hour conference online can be mentally exhausting, and now that you are not running from session to session in a large conference center, you are also physically stagnant. Just like at an in-person conference, be sure to build in some breaks. Stand up and do a yoga stretch. Go outside for a 15-minute power walk. Refresh your cup of coffee. Your brain and eyeballs need frequent breaks from the screen, which can help bolster your focus and productivity. 

11. Try some social events 

I know attending a virtual happy hour isn’t the same thing as in-person. It’s not even close. But there are some events that provide networking opportunities during and after sessions end for the day. These can involve games, karaoke, or even a mixologist. Try to attend at least one of the conference's social events to make a connection or meet up with colleagues from past conferences. 

12. Attend with colleagues 

I’ve always said that learning is an active team sport. You learn more when you are actively involved and when you have a team. Attending a virtual conference can feel very isolating. If at all possible, try and get other colleagues to attend the same conference. You can coordinate schedules and circle back after each day for a quick Zoom (or in-person) debrief. This will help hold you accountable to attending sessions and offer you some other perspectives and insight into those sessions you couldn’t attend. If you hear of an interesting session a colleague attended, you can try to view it on-demand later. 

While it is impossible to completely replicate the in-person conference experience in a virtual setting, my hope is that using a few of these tips can help you get the most out of your next virtual event. So grab a cup of your favorite coffee, throw on some yoga pants, and log on and learn!

Carl Hooker has been a part of a strong educational shift with technology integration since becoming an educator. As Director of Innovation & Digital Learning at Eanes ISD, he has helped spearhead the LEAP program, which put one-to-one iPads in the hands of all K-12 students in his 8,000-student district. He is also the founder of “iPadpalooza”- a three-day “learning festival” held in Austin annually. He's also the author of the six-book series titled Mobile Learning Mindset, a guide for teachers, administrators, parents and others to support and embrace mobile learning in our schools. Read more at Hooked on Innovation.