For the Public Good: Social Distancing with Online Events

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Verletta Kern, Digital Scholarship Librarian, and Madeline Mundt, Head of the Research Commons at University of Washington Libraries.

Everything was going smoothly! This was an event we had planned twice before–third time’s a charm, right? We had been planning since September and were just hitting our stride when news broke that the first case of coronavirus had made it to the US, just north of the city of Seattle where our university is located. It soon became clear that what started as one small case was turning into something more, as Seattle became the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak in early March. With less than a month before our event launch, we faced a tough decision–should we move forward with planning for an in-person event for 150 people? Was it even ethical to ask people to gather in a confined space given all that was going on? Should we postpone to an unknown future? Should we cancel? Should we move this event fully online? Could we move it fully online in 21 days? What if we moved forward with an in-person event and the University closed operations, leaving us to cancel and deal with the messy work of canceling catering contracts, etc.?

“Going Public: Opening Scholarship to All” was designed to be the third in our series of annual “Going Public” events, which encourage researchers to come together to learn about and exchange experiences communicating research openly beyond the walls of the academy. The 2020 focus was equity in the production of and access to scholarship and we were excited to bring this work to our campus community. We hoped that shifting online would allow us to reach a broader audience beyond the University of Washington. With the encouragement of our wonderful planning team and the support of our Libraries’ administration, we began the scramble to convert our event to an online format in 21 days. Shortly after we made this decision, the University of Washington became the first university in the country to suspend in-person instruction in favor of finishing the quarter online. 

The shift wasn’t easy! We needed to confirm our presenters were still okay with presenting online and to talk with them about the possibility of recording their sessions and sharing them following the event. We revisited conversations with our five event co-sponsors to see if they would still be willing to co-sponsor an online event. We negotiated the purchase of a zoom webinar license to protect the privacy of attendees. We set up live captioning for the event to provide equitable access to all. And then we tested. And we tested. And we tested the technology more. We tested it ourselves. We tested it with our speakers to make sure they were comfortable. We assigned chat moderators to moderate the question and answer period. And with two weeks remaining before our event, we felt confident enough to launch registration!

Without the constraints of a physical space capacity to worry about, we opened registration with 450 spots, assuming somewhere around our normal 120 people would register. To our surprise, numbers rose quickly and by the time we closed registration 24 hours before the event we were at 269 attendees! Our largest group of registrants were graduate students, followed by staff and faculty. About two-thirds were affiliated with the UW. While our marketing campaign was not so different from a normal Going Public campaign in its content, it was conducted entirely online at a time when we were all beginning to look for ways to engage remotely rather than in person. Many face-to-face events at the UW and in Seattle were canceled in early March, and we suspect our event may have stood out as a rare online option at the time.

All 269 attendees received an email with a Zoom Webinar link about 24 hours before the event; this email cautioned them to refrain from sharing that link with colleagues (who could instead contact us to register). We hoped that by sharing the link in this restricted way, we would head off any “Zoom-bombing” or other malicious activity–things that were just beginning to hit the news. Then, on March 26th, they joined public scholars, librarians, and experts Nikkita Oliver, Chris Coward, Jason Young, Negeen Aghassibake, Lauren Ray, Gillian Harkins, Clarita Lefthand-Begay, and Linda Ko for a keynote, short talks, and a panel on inclusive research design. Sessions covered topics from libraries as spaces for public engagement (Oliver) to equity in research data visualization (Aghassibake).

Although our link-sharing strategy worked to prevent Zoom-bombing, we did belatedly learn the importance of creating a code of conduct for online events like ours when a UW attendee began making inappropriate comments in the webinar chat. Going forward, we will use event codes of conduct based on our UW Libraries Code of Conduct, with procedures in place to make sure all attendees understand our expectations and what will happen if harassment occurs. 

Along with the importance of a code of conduct and other tools to address malicious use of Zoom, we also learned the importance of timing for online events like ours. We originally planned a six hour in-person event with simultaneous talks attendees could choose between and workshops scheduled over the lunch hour. To make the shift to online manageable, we cut the workshops and decided to run the day’s event from a single zoom webinar account. As a result, we were able to cut the event down to five hours. We limited ourselves to very short breaks between sessions, reasoning that attendees wouldn’t need to move between breakout session venues. While this was true, we learned that people wanted longer breaks to combat the draining nature of starting a screen for hours on end. Although we traded off moderating chat, the length of the online event proved exhausting for our symposium planning team as well. In future online symposia, we will build in 10-15 minute breaks and stick to a three to four hour event. Overall, the hours selected for the event seemed to be accessible across multiple time zones as registrants from the west and east coasts as well as the Midwest attended.

Credit for the successful online shift of “Going Public: Opening Scholarship to All” is due to the creativity, enthusiasm and hard work of our planning team along with the support of our Libraries’ administration and our wonderful event co-sponsors. Thanks in particular go to our planning team: Joanne Chern, Robin Chin Roemer, Beth Lytle, Sarah Schroeder, Elliott Stevens, Sarah Stone, and Christine Tawatao. Due to this collaborative effort, we were able to successfully social distance yet still share our message of equity in the production of and access to scholarship to a wide audience at a time where research communication and access is more important than ever.