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Can you make genuine relationships at an online conference?

Challenge accepted

In June 2020, Scott Huntley challenged this community to change his perspective on online conferences. Scott felt that online conferences are cold, empty experiences as they do not allow for true connection and networking. Since I couldn’t get out to play pick up hockey or hang out at a coffee a local shop, I decided to take up this challenge.

The Plan

The best way to gather information about online conference social potential is to participate in a few, journal about the experience and arrive at a conclusion. Although I am no stranger to online conferences, the majority of my experience has been at face-to-face events. After the dust of the first wave settled in late July, I cobbled together a Fall 2020 conference schedule.  I decided to submit session proposals to a few conferences.  Luckily,  I was accepted by four events and politely rejected by others.

At these fully online conferences, I would run a session and attend other sessions. Hopefully, there would be online social events such as virtual yoga, virtual coffee or virtual tours. This would allow me to determine if online conferences are worse than face-to-face conferences.

Deeper Dive

As the summer progressed, the conference I usually attend, posted request for interest for conference session moderators.  Since this was the first year that the event was fully online, the organizers needed session moderators to assist the presenters and to mediate communication with the audience.  I thought that this would be an interesting experience, so I applied and was accepted for this role.  As a result, I was going to attended conference sessions as a participant, facilitate an online session and perform session moderator duties.

So, I thought this was a perfect example of fully participating in an online conference.  However, an educational vendor rented a virtual table in conference vendor’s hall. They asked me to virtually sit at their table and answer questions about their services. My duties also included ensuring that the company video was looping, engaging anyone who entered the virtual space, and directing folks to digital pamphlets and other online resources. Most importantly, I was to record the names and comments of people who expressed interest in the project.

To summarize at one fully online conference, I was functioning as a:

  • session facilitator/leader
  • sessions participant
  • session moderator
  • exhibit hall table jockey

The Experience

With four functions at this online conference, I was ready for the show.  As a conference delegate/participants, I felt comfortable.  Some of the session facilitators experienced technical issues at the onset of sessions, but these were not too distracting and their professionalism and the respect showed by the audience made most of the sessions worth the visit. As a participant, I could not turn on my camera or speak with a microphone.  My interaction with the facilitators was limited to a question posting box that would be read to the facilitators during the Q and A period at the end of the session.  

However, I did notice that the public chat was being used for folks to request technical assistance and greeting others who were noticed in the participants’ list.  If participants wanted to have a private conversation they often opted for private chat room offered by the conference app.  To be honest, most of the dialogue on the public chat was social. I connected with a few delegates but did not jump into the private chat as I was focused on the current session.

As a session facilitator, my focus was on delivering the information and ideas within the allotted time. Since the participants were not in direct communication with me as the facilitator, it felt like I was reading into an empty room. The only voice I could hear was the session moderator. There was no social interaction with delegates. A few emailed for information regarding the session content and hand outs after the conference, but there were no meaningful social exchanges.

As a session moderator, I felt like a juggler, managing the technology, the polls, the Q and A, redirecting technology concerns, ensure the video and audio were broadcasting, recording the session and keeping each session on time. There was no time for human contact during these sessions. However, as a moderator, I spent a few hours with each session facilitator before the conference.  In these meetings we sorted out technology, presentation and timing issues. It was during these informal session that I was able to meet very impressive personalities from our field. I made a few connections in this role.

My final function, as a virtual desk jockey, was by far the most social.  I could see who was looking at the vendor’s space and reached out to each one of them.  Some of them I had met at previous conferences or worked on contracts with in the past. I was able to reconnect with some folks which felt great.  I did have some interesting conversations with new people just as in a face-to-face conference.

One of the benefits of the conference’s online format was the delegates came from a wider region, so I encountered folks that never would have come to the conference due to budgets, commitments and time were present throughout the conference. I enjoyed exchanging ideas with folks from across the country and beyond.


I was busy at this conference and did interact with scores of delegates and presenters. I found that my schedule and roles did not promote social engagement during the conference hours with the exception of the virtual exhibitor table. Virtual conferences are an efficient venue for generating contact lists as names, connected affiliations and emails were instantly accessible. Emails do not make a genuine relationship, but they can be a starting point. I agree with Scott that it is easier to make a connection and join others in a post-day activity such as a coffee, dinner or a walk around the area. Limited by rigid online schedules, the lack of potentially bumping into a peer in a hallway or joining an informal group at a cafe at virtual conference, make forming genuine relationships less possible – not impossible.

Just to be sure…

I attended three additional conferences this past term, as well as a dozen webinars. Some offered virtual yoga, Zoom socials and virtual tours. These did offer opportunities for engagement and interaction between delegates, however I agree with Scott’s impression that online conferences do not have the same human connection as face-to-face conferences and I am going to patiently wait with everyone else until we can experience them in the future.

John Allan

John Allan

John is a Canadian who writes about learning object development and online facilitation from a teacher's perspective.

6 thoughts on “Can you make genuine relationships at an online conference?

  • Aaron, Thanks for these links. I was involved with Second Life through the TESOL organization in the past. As the pandemic moves on, these options are more relevant. Any resource that allows us to meet, learn, share and socialize are welcomed. I am looking forward to the conference in March.

  • Great ideas Stuart. I am once again getting ready to run online conference sessions in 2021. The organizers have a set structure that will confine participation in the events. I am going to suggest an open format for a conference that I am helping to plan. The facilitators can choose their technology and delivery methodology. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Every year since 2008 the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Conference has been held in the virtual world Second Life. If you really want to experience the level of presence that can be brought to an online conference and the sense of all being there in a same space together that can be achieved I’d suggest giving it a go. I’d be happy to facilitate learning about the environment if anyone wishes to head there in March.

    The conference site is here https://www.vwbpe.org/

    I have written a number of articles here https://fxualeducation.wordpress.com/ which may give you some insight into the possibilities of virtual world environments in education.


    • Thanks Aaron !
      I haven’t used Second Life for several years, but it was interesting, I also had a play with IMVU.
      I think there are perhaps two challenges to using Second Life for a ‘standard’ conference.
      1. The technical challenges – the hardware required to have a good SL experience.
      2. The time challenge – it takes a certain investment in time to get the best out of a SL presence and event.
      However, I do think there are things we can learn from these gold standard virtual environments, that can then be incorporated into more traditional environments.
      Just as a basic starting point, if using Moodle for a virtual conference for example…
      a) Everyone has a blag, which helps others understand their perspectives and opinions (or a feed from their external blog)
      b) Everyone has a profile, with multiple photos
      c) Everyone has interests and tags
      d) Everyone joins groups – perhaps based on tags and interests
      e) Everyone votes in Choice activities – so there is a shared understanding of the group
      All these aspects, and many more, can be part of the pre-conference setup, and allow people to understand and connect better.
      Hmmmmm, I might start thinking about the New Zealand conference soon, or the idea of an ElearningWorld online conference, and how some of these ideas could be beneficial 🙂

    • Stuart I hear what you are saying re the technical challenges and the time challenges but I would suggest that similar challenges occur in any ‘virtual environment’. One must always have the hardware to manage the required applications and take the time to form some mastery of them so that the experience might be effective and not too burdensome.

      In particular, I would say that the hardware challenge has reduced significantly since the early days of Second Life as, technically, the specs now required have not increased dramatically when compared to the expotential increase in the capabilities of even standard hardware.

      In terms of the time taken to learn the environment, to enjoy a conference only requires learning a minor subset of the full capabilities, all of which are comprehensively covered in YouTube videos, and the SL entry tutorials that every new user is subjected to, i.e. how to move, how to teleport and minor use of Inventory. Once learnt… well it’s the old bicycle adage.

      What I would say though, unequivocally, is that the benefits brought about by one’s sense of presence, of actually being there together with all the other attendees, far outweighs the effort required to attend.

      I have written some on this in an article: Being there: A presence of self – https://fxualeducation.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/being-there/

  • That’s a great post John.
    Such a lot of focussed reflection around Scott’s assertion, and I think you reached a similar conclusion.
    I too miss the human face-to-face contact of traditional conference events.
    This makes me “think forward” about what we could do, in the future, to make virtual conferences more interactive and engaging?
    Ultimately, I think the ‘presentation’ mode of transfer is the issue.
    It is generally one way, a push technology.
    So I think we need to consider how to enable more ’round table’ modes.
    As an example, where maybe a session is limited to 10 people, each has specific point to address, and then would ask a question of the next person. In this way the speaker role flows from one person to another.
    I also think that having to prepare something before a session, and complete something after a session helps.
    Maybe as simple as constructing a group Wiki.


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