Why do it?

Hybrid conferences and workshops are a great way to get all the benefits of online-only and face-to-face events at the same time! Allowing virtual speakers and participants has many advantages, including:

  • Environmental sustainability: it reduces your carbon footprint. 
  • Accessibility: it allows participation by people who cannot easily attend for reasons of e.g. disability, caring responsibilities, lack of funds.
  • Cost: even though a hybrid event may incur some additional costs (see below), these may well be more than offset by the money saved on paying for travel for some of your speakers.

In the future, hybrid events may also be a solution to some of the problems raised by pandemic-related travel restrictions; if you’ve set your event up as a hybrid one, you should be able to accommodate last-minute travel disruptions for some delegates and speakers relatively easily.

How to do it

For smaller events a cheaper DIY approach is often feasible. For larger or higher-profile events, you might want to pay for your institution to provide technicians. In our experience, this results in a better-quality event for virtual participants and significantly reduces stress levels for the organisers! We followed both approaches for different events in our project; below, we explain what we did. 

A DIY approach

We used this for a small workshop taking place in a seminar room. We paid a tech-savvy PhD student to be in charge of the technical side, but you could do this yourself if you are competent and short of funding. (If you are at a university that has set itself up for ‘blended’ on-site and remote teaching in response to the coronavirus pandemic, you may find that a lot of the relevant kit is already set up in some teaching rooms, so things might turn out to be a lot more straightforward.)

Basically, you can just treat it like a fully-online Zoom (or similar) event but, in effect, with the speaker (in-person or virtual) as one of the Zoom participants and the in-person audience as another.

You will need:

  • A computer hooked up to a big screen, so that the in-person audience can see and hear virtual speakers and participants (this can be one of the laptops – see below – or the PC that’s already wired in to the room. Probably best to use a laptop.)
  • A decent-quality microphone that can do 360-degree sound (and single-direction sound too, if possible); we used a Yeti from Blue Microphones (£120), which worked really well. (Or, if it’s going to work better, have a single-direction microphone that can be passed around between the chair, in-person speaker, and in-person participants who ask questions.)
  • Two decent-quality webcams; we used the Logitech C930-E Business Webcam (£135).
  • Two laptops: one to capture the in-person speaker, and one to capture the in-person audience. Hook one webcam up to each of these.
  • A standard portable Bluetooth speaker so that the in-person audience can hear virtual speakers/participants well. (The built-in laptop speaker probably won’t be good enough.)
  • A paid Zoom account (this will give you more than 40 minutes!)

Have one of the laptops set up so that, in effect, the in-person audience is one of the Zoom participants. Make sure the camera is set up so that it captures all or most of the in-person audience, and in the Q&A session position the microphone so that it will catch in-person questions (so set to 360-degree mode and place in the middle of the table).

For virtual speakers, have them beam in via Zoom in the usual way and show them on the big screen; if they have slides, there is a way to do split-screen mode in Zoom so that you get the presenter and their slides side-by-side. Use either one of the laptops (with a speaker) or the built-in PC – whichever gives you the better sound quality.

For in-person speakers, one of the laptops will feed their talk to virtual participants – make sure you have the webcam set up so that it captures both the speaker and their slides. Hook the microphone up to this laptop. 

The in-person audience will be able to see and hear virtual speakers and (for Q&A) virtual participants on the big screen, and hear them through the Bluetooth speaker. 

The virtual audience beam in via Zoom as normal. They’ll be able to see and hear the speaker as one participant and the in-person audience as another.

A more professional approach for larger events

Larger events will probably make the above cheap-and-cheerful approach unfeasible for various reasons. For example in a large lecture theatre it’s unlikely that in-person speakers will stand still enough that you’ll be able to capture them and their presentation with a fixed webcam or microphone. Also, having to delay the start of a session or rearrange the programme a bit because of wifi problems or technical glitches is fine with a small number of participants but a bit of a nightmare when there are a lot of them. 

For our conference we hired the University’s Media Services team to help us out. They sorted out the YouTube feed (see below); operated cameras; made sure speakers were wearing mics and that they were working; provided all the necessary equipment; and just generally made sure all the tech was working properly.  They charged us £3,000 for a 48-hour conference, which included some follow-up work editing the YouTube videos (making cuts, adding starter slides, etc.).

We live-streamed all the talks and Q&As on YouTube, with the feed coming from the lecture room (with the camera just focussing on the big screen when a virtual speaker was talking). Take a look at some of the end results.

We used roving mics for the Q&As from the in-person audience. (For virtual speakers in a big lecture, theatre you might get people to stand up to ask their question so that the speaker can pick them out of the crowd.) We had the virtual audience type questions in real time using Slido – which was integrated with the YouTube feed – and we had a grad student in the lecture theatre raising his hand and asking questions on their behalf (so they could of course hear their own questions being asked, and the speaker’s answer).

Tips, general issues, things to think about

Advice for virtual speakers: This is a bit more obvious now that many of us are old hands with Zoom, but it is vital that virtual speakers can be seen and heard properly! Consider the following:

  • Internet connection: Ask them to plug into their router with Ethernet rather than relying on Wifi if possible. The quality may be significantly better.
  • Webcam: Built-in laptop cameras seem normally to be good enough, but again, check the quality in advance. Remember they will be showing on a big screen so you need better quality than you do if everyone is watching on their own laptops.  
  • Microphone: Built-in microphones are often not good enough. One problem is that they tend not to cope well if the speaker is moving around or waving their hands in front of their face a lot. A standard hands-free phone headset will normally be OK, but again often not great. Ideal is either a good-quality plug-in mic or headphones with a fixed mic in front of their face.
  • Advance testing: We recommend setting up a quick test with all the virtual speakers a few days in advance of the conference to check that the quality is OK – so that, if it isn’t, they have enough time to find a better mic or whatever.

Software and tech support: A good first move would be to consult your own university’s IT support/media services people to find out about whether they have done similar things in the past, whether your university has a site licence for software you can use for free, etc. 

There is loads of commercial virtual conferencing software available (e.g. Starleaf, GoTo), and often there is a lot of additional functionality (conference registration, etc.); but our impression is that it is aimed at companies who do a lot of this kind of thing and have IT people who are used to the software package and can do all the setting-up. We used GoToWebinar for an earlier conference and, while it worked well from the participants’ point of view, it was really time-consuming to figure out how it worked and set it all up. Sticking with software that most people are familiar with (Zoom, Skype, YouTube) makes everything much more straightforward. 

Streaming on YouTube (with Slido for the questions) is especially good because all anyone needs is a web browser and a URL (which we just posted on the conference website) – no registering, passwords, downloading software or anything – and because remote participants can’t actually be seen or heard, you don’t need to worry about Zoom-bombing. 

Q&A: We paid for Slido (about £100) but found it was worth it because it integrated with the YouTube feed so people didn’t have to switch between webpages or apps. You could use Twitter (or similar), but a lot of people won’t want to register for a Twitter account just to be able to ask questions in a single conference. There may be other free (or better-than-Slido) options though.

Conference website: We found having a conference website that we could update in real time, with a tiny.url shortcut, was really helpful; also a conference email address that someone (e.g. a paid PhD student helper) kept open during the talks. That meant that any last-minute changes or glitches at our end, or problems that virtual participants were having, could be communicated really quickly, and again it meant we didn’t need to bother with registration for virtual delegates so that we knew who to contact if there were any problems – we just posted all the info on the website.

Handouts and presentations: Remember to make any handouts available to the virtual participants. Also, if speakers can give you their presentations in advance, it’s good to have those available too. Some in-person participants will also welcome these, e.g. if they are dyslexic or have visual impairments. We simply set up a publicly accessible Dropbox folder for these, with a link from the conference website. If you give speakers editing rights to the folder they will be able to add or update their handouts/presentations themselves.

Social interaction for virtual participants: One thing we didn’t crack was having a facility for virtual participants to interact with each other outside the talks. We set up a Facebook page for this purpose but it was barely used. You could try something like Gather.town for coffee and lunch breaks, and maybe set up a short post-conference online social for everyone to give virtual participants to interact informally with other participants, speakers, etc.

Finances: If you are applying for a research grant, consider building the costs of hybridising your workshops and conferences into the application!

Have you ran a hybrid event or a fully online event? Please share your experience and tips in the Comments box below!