Last week, together with a friend and fellow PhD research student Laura Watson, I organised a conference for postgraduate students. We have been asked by some of the attendees to share the process we undertook and our learning from the event, to help others who might want to organise a similar event. If you want to read a blog about the papers presented on the day, rather than the organisation of the event, please see this blog by Gary Walsh.
For a few years now, we had felt that there was a need for a space dedicated to students studying and researching in the field of Philosophy of Education to be able to share their work, to enable feedback and critique on their developing philosophical theories. Whilst we recognised that students are obviously welcome to both attend and submit abstracts for posters or papers at a range of conferences, for instance the annual conferences run by PESGB or BERA (which has a Philosophy of Education Special Interest Group (SIG)), some students feel that they lack the experience, knowledge or confidence to present at these major conferences. Conferences can feel quite intimidating for some students, and not everyone’s supervisor is willing or able to support their students’ conference attendance, for instance by making introductions during the event to support networking, or attending the paper being presented to provide moral support. Conference attendance as a student deserves its own blog post at some point (maybe when I am feeling braver!)
With the shift to online conferences as a result of Covid-19, we saw an opportunity to organise an online conference specifically for postgraduate students in the field. This felt particularly important given that numerous conferences including the PESGB postgraduate summer school had been cancelled, due to lockdown and social distancing requirements. The PESGB summer school, in particular, would have provided selected postgraduate students with space to think about their own developing philosophical thought alongside peers and a mentor, with a view to presenting at the main PESGB conference in advance of working towards publishing a paper. This was an incredible opportunity, and we think the intention is that it will be open to applications from students again next year.
We therefore felt it was a suitable time to test the water and see if other students might welcome a safe and inclusive space to present their ideas. Of course, it was quite possible that it was only us who felt that there was a need for a dedicated space run by students for other students to share their work with each other. We simply would not know unless we were willing to give it a try, even if it meant we would be associated with an unsuccessful event. We did not know how many people might submit an abstract nor whether others would want to attend to listen to the papers being presented. (Spoiler: it was not unsuccessful and we were not alone in valuing such a space, phew!)
We approached the South Coast branch of PESGB, of which we are both members, to discuss our idea for an online conference, and they offered their support to the event. We would like to extend our thanks again to Dr Marie Morgan, Dr Wayne Veck, Dr Emile Bojesen, Dr Adrian Skilbeck and Dr Alexis Gibbs, from the University of Winchester, for their support in advance of the event, and for chairing sessions for us on the day. Thank you to Paul Veck for designing our promotional flyer. It is very much appreciated, and we hope that we did the branch proud.
At the outset, we were keen to make sure that the conference was as inclusive as possible, and that the ethos of the day was based on the idea of support and collaboration, with everyone learning together and from each other. Critique would be welcome, of course, but within an encouraging and friendly environment. We also were learning, along with our conference participants and attendees, as we had never organised a conference before, and did not have anything other than our own experience to guide us. As such, we too needed it to be a friendly and supportive environment.
One of the first things we did was to think about conferences we had attended (online and offline) and what we felt worked, or did not work for us as attendees. We kept in touch with each other as we attended online zoom meetings, conferences and workshops/seminars, collating our thoughts about what worked well or not so well.
I offer here a summary of the steps we took, in a linear fashion, though it was anything but a linear process. It was important that Laura and I got on well and were happy to learn together about how to run the conference. I am grateful for her ability to put up with my ramblings as we worked out our approach together. She is very patient indeed…
- We chose a theme ‘Education and the Future’ as this was a broad theme, which we thought would encompass a range of philosophical theories and approaches to education.
- We decided on a date, which at the time seemed a long way ahead, but it certainly came around quickly!
- We discussed who we would like to invite to be keynote speakers – it felt important to us that we would invite keynote speakers that were either postgraduate students themselves or whose work was supportive of the development of students. We had no budget for an honorarium, or even for a thank you gift for the keynote speakers, so when we approached Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting (editors of The Philosopher Queens book) and Professor Pat Thomson, we explained this was the situation and that and we would understand if they decline our invitation to speak. Fortunately they were willing to give their time free of charge in order to support the event (Dr Frances Howard also joined Pat Thomson in her session), and we are incredibly grateful to them for their contribution. Thank you all again.
- Once the date was confirmed with the keynote speakers, we prepared a call for papers, which we promoted on social media and to a few students we knew, and waited with baited breath. A copy of our call for papers is here.
- We were absolutely delighted with the quantity and quality of papers submitted by the deadline. We had thought we might need to extend the submission date, but this was not necessary at all. We realised quickly, however, that we had not thought about what criteria we would use to determine which papers to accept or reject. Given that we wanted to give as many people as possible the chance to speak, we only rejected those that we felt were either not education or not philosophical in approach. This meant that the conference suddenly became bigger than anticipated as we had to build in parallel sessions. It was also really exciting that we had speakers from all over the world, which again we had not necessarily anticipated. We realised it was necessary to put the time zone on all materials discussing the event as a result!
- We then had the task of pulling together a schedule, trying to put papers into sessions, which also meant we had to bear in mind time differences for some speakers. It would have been useful for us to ask people if they had times they could not present at, because once we had issued the schedule, we needed to move a couple of people around due to prior commitments.
- We wanted the presentations to be as accessible to attendees as possible, so we collated some guidelines for presenters. We have been asked to share these. These guidelines are here, but please be aware that they are just a first attempt and I think they still need refining further. This document will therefore continue to be a work in progress, as I think this is something that evolves and will never necessarily be finalised.
- After we knew who our speakers and keynote speakers were, we organised a promotional flyer and promoted this on social media and via email to PESGB members. We decided to use Eventbrite for ticket booking, as this meant we could contact attendees quickly and easily, and also we were not storing attendees’ contact details on our own devices.
- We set out to promote the event as widely as possible, including individual invitations by email to PESGB officers and local branch co-ordinators. We wanted to have academics attending the event, to support the developing work that is taking place in the field, and we were again overwhelmed with the support for the event. We had over 120 tickets booked (including the speakers).
- On the booking form we asked attendees if they had any accessibility requirements to let us know. We had no budget for the event, but we agreed that we would have to find a way to ensure that if captioning or a BSL interpreter was needed, for instance, then it would be provided. We did not have any requests for captioning or interpreters, but some attendees did ask for a copy of the presentations in advance, to enable their full participation on the day. We therefore asked the speakers to provide these at least a day before, which most did, and we uploaded them into a dropbox file for the small number of attendees who had asked for access.
- We chose a conference hashtag #PESGBPostgraduate2020 for people who wanted to tweet to use before, during and after the event.
I also want to detail some of the specific aspects of our conference, which we think helped on the day:
- We found that lots of conferences struggled at the transition between speakers or breakout rooms. We decided initially to keep the event simple, with one zoom ‘room’ for the whole conference. However, when the abstracts came in and we felt there were too many for one session, we decided to run a second parallel session. To do this, we set up another zoom room on a different zoom account, rather than using the breakout rooms feature on zoom. This allowed us to have different zoom links for each room, which seemed to work well.
- The day before the event, all attendees were sent a schedule for the conference, which included timings, abstracts and zoom links. This ensured everybody had the ability to switch between rooms as they would in an offline conference.
- We decided to have both a Chair, who would introduce speakers, ensure the sessions kept to time, and manage the Q&A session, and a room ‘host’ who managed the waiting room and monitored the chat room. The host also reminded people via the chat room about what would be happening next. Laura and I took on the role of hosts, and the Winchester team agreed to be session Chairs.
- We also decided to allow everyone attending the ability to share their screen, without having to be either a host or co-host or to have this function enabled by the Chair or room host at the start of their individual presentation. This meant that we needed to ensure the session could not be zoom-bombed by unwelcome content, so we chose to operate a waiting room, only allowing in those who were on the event booking list. We also needed to know how to remove participants quickly, should anyone who had booked on the event choose to be disruptive. One complication of this approach was where zoom names did not match the name on the booking form, for instance if a nickname was used, or where people had booked multiple tickets in their name for friends or colleagues. We simply had to message these people in the waiting room and ask them to contact us to confirm what name their ticket was booked under, so that we could provide access to the conference.
- We knew that not everybody was familiar with how to share their screen on zoom, so we offered all attendees and session Chairs an optional ‘test’ session on zoom the day before the conference. This gave us all an opportunity to meet up online, to try out the technology and to ask any questions about how the day would run. This felt really useful and I would definitely do this again for any future conferences.
- Some attendees do not feel comfortable with having their videos on or to ask questions verbally themselves. Therefore we stated at the outset that videos did not need to be switched on and that questions could be asked in the chat room, so that we could read them out for anyone who did not want to speak.
Where do we go from here…
As part of our conference, we built in an after event ‘drinks’ session, in which we sought feedback about both the event and what other opportunities students might want to explore for sharing of work. Some of this feedback and our learning is detailed below:
- We knew that we had packed lots of papers into the day and that timings were quite tight. Each paper had 15mins and then 5 minutes for questions/discussion. This did not feel that it was quite enough in practice, and this was amongst the feedback we received afterwards. Attendees would have valued more discussion time and opportunities to discuss ideas that were generated during the papers being presented.
- We tried to build in gaps between the sessions, but in hindsight it might have been better to have these even longer, as at times it did feel as though there was a lot of information had been presented in a short period of time.
- We had decided that we would only be hosts and not use the conference as an opportunity to share our own work. However, when two people pulled out at short notice (for perfectly valid reasons) we were unsure how to fill the gaps, so stepped up and rapidly wrote a presentation for the day. This did mean that we were having to host and monitor the waiting room whilst also presenting. Our multi-tasking skills were certainly required!
- We had intended to record the conference sessions, but then we did not do so on the day. This was because we were not sure that everyone consented to their image or name being recorded, but also we did not know what we would do with the recordings afterwards. It was an added complication, something else to think about. So we chose not to record the sessions after all. On the day the second zoom room had been set up to automatically record, however, and although we did turn this off, it meant that the very start of each session (a few minutes at most) was recorded. So we needed to communicate this to attendees, and let them know we did not download or access the videos, instead deleting them immediately.
- It was suggested that instead of a conference on one full day, it could be run across two or more half days.
- It was also suggested that the presentations or a paper could have been pre-recorded and uploaded for access before the event, and then the Presenter just give a five minute overview and have 15 minutes for discussion.
- At one conference I went to last year, three papers were delivered back to back with no breaks between, and then questions/discussion took place which involved all three speakers. This is another option that could be considered.
- Some presenters found it disconcerting to be presenting to a screen without any faces looking back at them (as most people had their videos turned off). Maybe the Chair and host should keep their videos on throughout, to ensure there is at least a couple of friendly faces visibly watching.
- For future conferences, we could look at how the breakout rooms provided by zoom could be used to facilitate small group discussion about the papers that have been presented.
- We were asked if attendees could share contact details with each other. Obviously, with GDPR requirements, we are unable to share the whole attendee list (which was deleted on Eventbrite after the event anyway). So we have given people the option to share their contact details. We are currently collating this and will share with those who want to keep in touch at the end of this week.
- We hope that the papers might be able to be published in some form and we are talking to the JOPE editorial team about this currently. They have some ideas about how we might be able to achieve this. Watch this space! We are also talking to the PESGB Virtual Branch about involving postgraduate students in their schedule, and are finding out about the new PESGB website to see what opportunities this might present.
Once again, I would like to thank everyone who made this event a success. We were simply blown away by how well it was received, and continue to be committed to exploring opportunities for our peers to engage in discussions about our developing philosophical work.
I am sure to have missed something important from this post, so if you have any specific questions, do feel free to add them in the comments box and I will do what I can to provide more information. Thank you if you have got this far, I appreciate this is quite a long post.