Some thoughts after organising a hybrid workshop

I am writing this post on the train on the way back from Paris where we organised our first hybrid workshop. Since hybrid workshops are still still quite a new thing, I first discuss my experience of participating in the online vs hybrid conferences and then explain how we approached our own hybrid conference. I hope this helps somebody (including future me) who might be planning a hybrid meeting at some point.

The raise and fall of chat platforms

Just before the start of the pandemic I joined a project of Anuj Dawar and Samson Abramsky. We were supposed to hold an opening workshop in Cambridge but the pandemic turned everything upside down. Instead of that we had to hold an online meeting. It was ran on Skype for Bussiness which proved to be a really bad platform but it was our first event of that type and we were happy we could do at least that.

Then, in that first year of the pandemic I attended quite a few other online workshops and conferences. Looking back at my experience I’d say that the online events that year had something in common. They all were full of enthusiasm and experimentation. People really tried to make the best out of it. Conferences often provided a chat platform (such as a dedicated Slack or Discord group) where people actively participated, talked among themselves and discussed the talks or research in general. There was also quite a bit of experimentation with Gather Town and tools like that.

In the second year of the pandemic things weren’t the same. The enthusiasm was definitely gone and people used the chat platforms less. Since there were so many online conferences, it seemed to me that people started to care a bit less. They stopped using the chat discussions and be active online during conferences as much as before. I myself often only picked a handful of talks that I watched but completely skipped the rest of the conference. I think that many people did the same. When at home people can’t justify spending the whole day in front of the screen. They probably mix conferencing with their normal life (going shopping, cooking, picking up kids from school, …) and they also can’t escape their work duties, such as meetings with students, lecturing, etc.

I noticed this already when we ran our first Structure meets Power workshop in 2021. I found that the Zoom+Discord discussions weren’t as active as the previous year even though we were told by the LICS organisers that our discussions were quite lively, compared to other workshops.

Then, ACT 2021 was the first hybrid conference I have ever attended. It was well thought through, they used so many cool tricks with OBS, smartphones’ cameras and remote microphones to make model the physical experience for Zoom attendees as much as possible. I attended both on-line and on-site because I had to be in quarantine for the first two days. It made me realise how vastly different the online and on-site experience is. It is very difficult for the people “trapped” in the online word to make new connections. I remember being a bit disappointed that there is no Discord/Slack group at ACT 2021 that would help to connect the online and on-site participants.

Our small hybrid workshop

It’s been now two years and a few months since the beginning of the pandemic and things have definitely stabilised to a point where organising scientific workshops and conferences in the hybrid fashion became possible and also quite common. We have just had our second Structure meets Power workshop and it was hybrid too.

What helped quite a bit is that we had the support of the local organising team of ICALP that did the registration of on-site participants and organised coffee breaks and lunches. They also booked a room for us with a projector and speakers and got us a volunteer with a laptop to help us on the spot. Also, we are grateful to our Cambridge audio team that selected and bought all the audio equipment we needed to get this running.

Our set-up was as follows:

  • two laptops
  • a shared Google drive folder
  • a private chat group just for the committee
  • a Discord “server” for participants
  • two volunteers on the internet
  • 4-in-1 remote microphones (Debra AU-400)
  • mixer for converting the analog signal to digital (Focusrite Scarlett Solo)
  • a clicker for controlling slides :-)
  • Discord and Zoom apps on our smartphones (very important, see below)

One computer was just for streaming onto and from Zoom and, therefore, had everything else connected to it (the projector, speakers, microphones, clicker). On the second computer we did all the other administration tasks such as answering emails, monitoring the chats, uploading slides to the shared Google Drive folder, booking a restaurant, etc. The only thing that we needed to do on the computer with the Zoom was to download slides from the Google Drive before every session and switch between them for the talks.

The two online volunteers were letting people in the Zoom session and helped us testing how everything looks on their end. We always checked with them when we switched between microphones just to make and also, importantly, they asked the questions that were posed in the Zoom chat. It proved essential that the two volunteers were attending online only. Otherwise, we would have definitely missed a disconnected microphone, the volume issue, not shared slides and a couple of things they spotted because they only relied on what was happening on Zoom and Discord.

As with every event like this, something always goes wrong. And it’s usually the least expected thing. In our case it was the eduroam refusing the credentials of our UCL/Oxford people. Luckily mine worked so we didn’t have to completely rely on our phones. We did have to use our smartphones to start the Zoom session and make the two volunteers co-hosts.

What could be done differently?

We couldn’t properly test the set-up in the room before arriving and so we didn’t anticipate that the projected screen might be too small for Zoom’s dual view (with slides on the left, speaker’s face on the right or a gallery of the people connected from the internet). When a speaker had a bit smaller font on their slides it all appeared unreadable for the people in the back rows. After a few talks we ended up just using the full-screen mode without showing any faces of the remote participants. We only showed a floating window in the top right corner of the active speaker in case the presenter was remote. The main disadvantage of this is that the on-site people don’t see the face of the online person that is asking a question. But we had very little time for question so it didn’t bother us that much.

Next time, unless we know the projected screen is very big, I would tell everybody to account for a little window covering their slides in the top right corner and to not use a too small font. Note that the too small font is something that hasn’t been an issue for online-only meetings in the past two years because people can usually clearly see what’s on their screens. It’s been a bit forgotten that this has to be taken into consideration for physical meetings.

The other thing we somehow haven’t handled at all was anything to do with blackboards. We only used a single camera (the one on the laptop with Zoom) and the laptop had to be fairly close to wall because of all the wires for power delivery, microphones, etc., we couldn’t move it so that shows what is on the blackboard. Luckily the blackboard wasn’t used much but if it was we would need a different set-up. Either the computer and all the equipment would have to be somehow moved in one of the first rows of the class room, facing the presenter with its camera from the front. This, however, is still not ideal because the blackboard might still appear too small on Zoom if the slides are being shown at the same time.

A more robust solution would be to add a third computer to the mix but this adds an extra dimension of technical complications. The extra computer would be dedicated to everything Zoom related (including the audio, video input and output) and we would have to also use OBS on that computer to switch between two cameras, one for showing the presenter and one for showing the blackboard. Then, the same computer as previously we had for everything Zoom would be only used for showing slides over Zoom.

Even if we had a third computer (which could connect to the internet :-)) and had the OBS ready for this, we still couldn’t pull this off in our case. Our external speakers were connected via the same cable as the projector and so also the external camera would have to be close to the wall, hence unusable for showing the blackboard. By the way, the same set-up would be also necessary if we wanted to show faces of remote participants on the right-hand side of the screen because of Zoom’s limitations. But, as said earlier, this would require us having a bigger projector so that the slides don’t appear too small.

Another area where we could have improved a little bit was the audio set-up. I was very happy with what we had, it was just a plug-and-play, no crazy configuring of anything and it worked really well. We had the four remote microphones connected to a single antenna, which was then connected to a computer via the mixer. The speaker and the session chair each had one microphone and then a third microphone was passed around if there was a question from the audience. But because the room was a bit cramped we couldn’t do this very efficiently and some questions or comments were not streamed over to Zoom. In our case, the room was quite small and it would be enough to have some kind of room microphone (such as the Yeti mic) placed somewhere in the middle of the room. However, this would bring a number of questions: Do we want to have it running all the time or do we want to switch it on/off depending on if there are questions from the audience? How do we mix the input of the room microphone with the speaker’s microphone? Maybe just having a single Yeti mic very close to the speaker would be fine and it would pick up everything fine.

Other comments

It is important to keep in mind that the perception of time is vastly vastly different for the on-line and on-site participants. When sitting on Zoom and waiting for the on-sites to return to their places so that the talk can start, 5 minutes feels like forever whereas for the on-site people 5 minutes goes by reasonably. I think that it is important to be quite strict with the schedule in a hybrid event.

We also did not care about people’s timezones. We took them into consideration when scheduling remote speakers, to make sure they do not have to give a talk in the middle of the night. In the hybrid setting it is inevitable that one cannot accommodate everyone. Luckily or not, we couldn’t worry about it because it was all predetermined by the fact that ICALP had a single concrete day for workshops where we needed to fit everything into a given schedule.

One way to combating is being pioneered by MFPS 2022 which is a truly hybrid conference. They have two local organising committees in two different continents. People who can travel, travel to their nearest destination, to cut down on unnecessary travel while still allowing an on-site participation for as many people as possible.

The tension between on-line and on-site

The last last section will be a bit about everything and nothing because I still can’t wrap my head around this. I believe that we had a very successful hybrid event. I’ve heard good things from both the on-line and on-site participants. My grape is that a lot of my planning considerations went into thinking how to interconnect the two words and I am not sure whether it is really worth to worry about it too much. Let me explain.

We had four Discord rooms: #outings (for arranging joint dinners), #backstage (for discussing anything technical), #off-topic, and #main. There was a little bit discussion going on in #outings and #main and luckily nothing in #backstage :-). Later I found out that most of the on-site participants did not even install Discord and the discussion on Zoom wasn’t too lively either. This makes sense, on-site people are socialising with themselves and so why would they check the chat platform and socialise there as well? On the other hand, the on-line participants are busy with their ordinary life so they will not sit on the chat during breaks, instead they’ll rather sort out emails, do other ordinary tasks, or go away from the computer to to combat screen fatigue.

Still having Discord was useful. Apart from the small number of questions discussed there, it was useful for the on-site participants that installed it. We used it to announce how to easily find our room in the building, where the restaurant is, etc. On the other hand, I think that online people generally don’t like to switch between Zoom and a separate window just for chat. The problem is that Zoom’s chat is not build well to encourage social interaction, even if it was useful for online participants only. One of the main problems is that those that come late can’t see the history prior to when connected. Maybe, if there was a way to “bridge” between Discord and Zoom chats (so that the people connected to either of them could interact), we would have more interaction between on-line and on-site participants. I am aware that I might be the minority and most people are fine with Zoom’s chat and do not need more social interaction than what it offers.

Also, when planning the workshop, I was trying to make sure we can show the faces of online participants on the screen during presentations. We didn’t do it at the end and it probably didn’t matter. We noticed that close to nobody shows their face on Zoom. Maybe, if we had means of showing the online participants and encouraged them to show their faces the story would be different.

I’m still a bit split on the issue of how much energy should go into making the online experience as good as possible. It seems to me that people are alright with just sitting on Zoom and occasionally ask a question on the chat but do not expect too much social interaction from that anymore.

I myself quite like to have the possibility to discuss the currently running talk and maybe ask others for explanation, references, and possibly also ask the speaker a question at the end. But, again, I might be a minority. It would be interesting to hear your feedback. Please, if you have anything interesting to say, drop me an email.

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