“May you live in interesting times” goes the saying, reported by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen to be a ‘Chinese curse’ he heard while serving as the British Ambassador to China 1936-37. Of course there never has been such a saying in China, but the double entendre, stemming from the last era in which fascism and xenophobia swept the globe, seems particularly apt to describe MuseWeb’s ambivalent relationship to MW20 Online and the circumstances that led to our producing our first online conference March 31-April 4, 2020.
The outbreak of a novel coronavirus, as it was then known, in Wuhan caught our attention immediately. In 2016, MW ran a workshop on the beautiful historic campus of Wuhan University. We were concerned for our friends and colleagues in the city and throughout China, and watched with alarm as the virus swept into South Korea and throughout Asia, which has graciously hosted so many MW events.
As the COVID-19 spread and conferences around the world were cancelled, MuseWeb monitored the advice of the CDC and WHO, and began considering a number of possible scenarios that could impact our planned meeting in Los Angeles. The health and safety of our community of course came first, but there were also many depending on us to run the conference, from the hotel and contractors who had invested time and resources in organizing the event with us, to the exhibitors and attendees who had booked flights, paid deposits, and made extensive plans around their time in LA. Could we accommodate both those who still wanted to meet in person, and those who could not?
To Be Online or Not To Be
So we tackled the question of how to provide remote access to the conference: not for the first time–it has probably come up every year since the conference started as “Museums and the Web” in 1997! Having so many talented technologists in our community, we are very aware of the challenges of providing inclusive online access to in-person meetings. As the Deaf/Hard of Hearing Technology Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center wrote in their tips on accommodating mixed local/remote participants in the same room: “The first rule is: don’t do this type of meeting if you can avoid it. It’s hard. Like–really hard.”
When the pandemic was declared by the WHO on March 11 and Governor Newcom of California banned meetings of 250 people or more, it was clear that no in-person conference could happen in Los Angeles. In a sense, this made things easier because we were no longer trying to combine in-person and online audiences. We tapped our community’s incredible skills and generous advice, and by March 19, were able to announce that the MW20 Conference would happen entirely online. It was a scramble to figure out all the moving parts of going virtual by March 31, while also honoring the significant investment that everyone from presenters to exhibitors and sponsors had made in creating a quality conference experience.
The technology hurdles were not the most daunting; rather, it was time zones! For clarity of communications–and to prevent our heads exploding–we had to pick just one to hold the conference in. We mapped out the time zones of all the registered participants and found that PDT was at the center, roughly equidistant between Europe and Australasia. This is not surprising, as our last conference in Los Angeles in 2016 had drawn our largest audience ever, being a sort of global epicenter. And there was a simplicity in sticking with the published program times to the greatest extent possible, though we did some rescheduling of sessions to accommodate presenters’ time zones, as well as the inevitable last-minute changes that were a result of the exploding pandemic and its impact on participants. Thanks to their flexibility and generosity of spirit, over two-thirds of the originally scheduled presentations went ahead in the online version of the MW20 Conference.
If we had any doubts before, it became abundantly clear as we wrestled with how to make the program accessible online that the primary benefit of in-person conferences is that all the participants are in the same place at the same time. As a result, even if some are jetlagged, they can not only attend the same sessions but also run into each other and enjoy what our survey participants have said is the most important part of an MW conference, after the program: networking.
Serendipity and Second Life
We knew that the serendipity of the hallway encounters and late night drinks that are the heart of our community’s networking would be impossible to replicate online. But the closing plenary speakers, Alice Krueger from Virtual Ability, Inc. and Draxtor, gave us the idea to use a virtual world as a digital meeting place for more casual mingling. The Virtual Ability group and Linden Lab, the team that runs Second Life, the oldest and most populous of the virtual worlds, built and donated to the conference MuseWeb Island a beautiful meeting venue featuring its own auditorium and seaside views for the duration of the conference. Virtual Ability even offered free orientation sessions in the run-up to and during the conference, as well as tours and support in creating Second Life accounts and avatars. (Draxtor and Strawberry Linden collaborated to make sure that MW co-chair, Nancy Proctor, was well-represented by her avatar as well, and in record time!) And opening plenary speaker, Dr. Nettrice Gaskins, installed an exhibition of her artwork in the MW20 Auditorium, literally overnight. The artist has continued to update the exhibition since the conference, and it remains freely available for a bit longer for anyone who wants to see it here.
Like the originally-planned closing plenary, the Second Life sessions–pre-conference tours, “Linden Lunches,” and “Birds of a Feather” breakfast on the final day–were experiments in accessibility in all senses of the term, so were offered at no charge to anyone who wanted to join those sessions. Again, our friends at Virtual Ability were invaluable in ensuring that there was support for people of differing needs and preferences for participating in the Second Life sessions: their mission is to enable people with a wide range of disabilities to thrive in online virtual worlds. It was illuminating to see what the affordances and the limits were on digital accessibility in a VR space, and also discover that like any place, Second Life has its own culture and aesthetic, which some found fascinating, and others very off-putting.
As Lauren Jensen pointed out, we should have underscored to participants that these open sessions were analogous to the parts of the in-person conference that happen in the hotel’s public spaces: anyone can turn up, and everyone needed to know what to do about unwanted communications in the virtual world as they would in the physical one. For about 24% of those who responded to our post-conference evaluation survey, the virtual world technology alone was “a bridge too far.” Nonetheless, about 130 or more than a third of those registered to attend MW20 online visited MuseWeb Island in Second Life during the conference.
Microsoft Teams was the primary platform for the conference, and the one used for all of the presentation sessions except the closing plenary. It allowed us to host up to 250 participants in each session with robust video-conferencing features, run multiple parallel sessions from the same account, and record and caption all of the session recordings. As “Zoom-bombing” and data breaches led the Guardian to publish an article calling Zoom “malware” the week of MW20, we were grateful to be using a platform that afforded good security and, to our knowledge, never came under attack during the week. Thanks to Catherine Devine, long-time MW Program Committee Member and Business Strategy Leader for Libraries & Museums at Microsoft, our Global Sponsor, and an amazing group of tech support volunteers, we were able to provide free training in Teams for participants in the week running up to the conference, and help in using Teams for anyone who asked for it during the conference. Of course, some found it hard to fit that training in before the conference, and many skipped it entirely. Interestingly, a similar percentage–24%–of those who responded to our survey had trouble using Teams, as reported trouble with Second Life, but the opinions on Second Life were much stronger among those who answered our survey, both for and against.
The main issues with Teams were getting the software installed and launching correctly (some experienced conflicts with existing Microsoft licenses on their computers), and the chat panel disappeared for some users some of the time. We did notice a decrease in sharing of conference content and experiences through Twitter compared to previous years and think this may have been a result of people commenting in the Teams chat windows instead, or simply the inability to focus on multiple screens while attempting to actually learn something.
Live captioning is a new Teams feature, not yet installed with all licenses and available only in the app, but it was a real boon to accessibility when available. Participants also appreciated that it was easier to hear and to control the volume of presentations watching online than in person, and one commented, “…oddly enough, I had more conversations and contacts with people that I admire so much than in the last face-to-face event.”
Inevitably, there were inexplicable glitches and user errors, including from the organizers’ side. Often this had to do with the network traffic in the administrator’s and/or the presenters’ locations, and was beyond our control as the internet got busier and busier throughout the week of the conference. We had up to three administrators running the Teams sessions behind the scenes simultaneously. We wished we had a fourth person and computer so there was always an “uber-admin” to take over in case one of the administrators had technical issues. (And we’re available to give more detail on set-up of multiple and parallel Teams conference sessions; just email us here.) Ciprian Melian and Loic Thirion-Lopez from Livdeo, pulled out their superhero capes to help out as admins when we needed extra hands, as well as provide tech support to attendees, alongside Richard Urban, Paige Dansinger, Kate Stevenson, Kate Wilcox, Colleen Thomas, and Dr Mark Osterman. As in our in-person conferences, we could not have run MW20 Online without a large team of talented and expert volunteers, and those who responded to the post-conference survey heaped thanks and praise on the work all the conference volunteers did. Read more about the conference volunteers here.
One of the best outcomes of MW20 Online is that we now have video recordings of most of the presentations, and MuseWeb members can access them at any time. We have recorded selected sessions in the past, but the cost and technical challenges of videoing and editing all the in-person presentations, not to mention live streaming them, has prohibited our providing comprehensive documentation of MW’s many strands and the full range of presentation types. Thanks to Microsoft Teams, we were not only able to record but also caption the videos of all the sessions as well. MuseWeb Members can log in to access the recordings of the MW20 Online conference here.
80% of those who responded to our MW20 survey said they want to attend future conferences online, so we are working towards offering virtual as well as in-person ways to participate in our Washington, DC, meeting, April 5-9, 2021. In addition to the quick pivot to make the conference accessible online, MW20 participants said they appreciated that we were trying something new, and that the quality and depth of content was not lost in the online format. Many said they could not have attended the conference in LA regardless, so putting it online made it accessible to them. Participants also noted that MW20 Online brought our community together, at a time when the world had just gone into lock-down, and so many plans had been disrupted. Even without the hallway encounters and drinks to provide the ‘serendipitous sauce’ that makes our in-person gatherings so special, MW20 Online was “a lighthouse for boats on troubled waters,” according to one participant. Another commented, “it meant a lot, to many people, to be able to connect as peers, colleagues, and friends, and be able to concentrate our attention back towards the topics we care so much about.”
We received several good suggestions for how to improve the online experience in future:
- Offer breakout rooms for small group and one-on-one chats with colleagues, and follow-up with presenters;
- Try the World Cafe or Open Space approach to the online format;
- Consider Mozilla Hubs and Altspace VR as platforms;
- Develop the Birds of a Feather format further;
- Offer more evening sessions so people can attend after their work days;
- Facilitate local and regional meetings, and/or offer presentations in different time zones.
It won’t come as a surprise to the MW community to learn that running a successful online conference takes no less work than running an in-person one. We are now tackling the question of how to scale up to offer both online and in-person ways of participating in future MW meetings. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to accessibility, so adding platforms for our conferences is an important step in growing our community and serving it more inclusively, not to mention helping steward the environment more responsibly. It will not be simple to make MW conferences cross-platform, but with the acceleration of online activity today, we know the technology and methods are sure to develop by leaps and bounds, and we are fortunate to be able to learn from all the leading technologists and innovators in our community. We live in interesting times indeed! Stay tuned as we continue to work with our partners on our next MW Asia conference as well as MW21, and please let us know your recommendations, further comments and ideas as you see best practices for online and mixed-reality meetings emerge.
And thank you again: for all you do for the MW community, your organizations’ communities, and the field at large.
To read what others have written about MW20 Online, check out the links below (and please let us know if we are missing any!):
- Lauren Jensen: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/museum-industrys-first-virtual-conference-what-went-well-jensen/
- Rachel Thornton: https://rachelthorntonjournal.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/week-29-making-day-keynote-and-museums-and-the-web/
- Catherine Devine: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/from-ballroom-chat-room-my-first-virtual-conference-catherine-devine/
- Simon Adlam: https://www.thebigidea.nz/stories/making-the-most-of-a-crisis
- Robin Owen White: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/my-first-virtual-conference-mw2020-robin-white-owen/
- Nettrice Gaskins: https://medium.com/@nettricegaskins/making-art-in-vr-while-trying-to-survive-a-pandemic-2e72252a0734