2020 NCFR Virtual Conference Preparations Leading Up to the Live Event

Jennifer Crosswhite, Ph.D., CFLE, Director of Research and Policy Education
/ Winter 2020 NCFR Report

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The first ever NCFR Virtual Annual Conference was a success! It was an amazing experience with fabulous sessions and networking opportunities. And it was a process to get to this place of success.

Diane Cushman, NCFR’s executive director, wrote about the decision to move to a virtual conference (see bit.ly/fall2020-exec-review) in light of COVID-19 in the fall 2020 issue of NCFR Report. I last wrote about the conference in the summer 2020 issue about the initial development of the conference program and how we were proceeding during unprecedented times (see bit.ly/summer2020-fsr).

In this article, I provide an update on how we moved the face-to-face conference to a virtual conference. It took a lot of planning and redesigning of the conference with many daily decisions.

As many of you know, universities and the economy at large have been hit hard by the pandemic. We heard almost immediately about how university budgets were frozen, recruitments were suspended, faculty were put on required furloughs, and others experienced a loss of employment. People were uncertain of flying or staying in hotels. Many across the world were (and still are) working from home, including the NCFR staff. We all knew this was going to have an impact on the conference. Many barriers emerged, and we knew we needed to reduce the barriers to participating in the conference while safeguarding the health of our members.


Conference Pricing

With such a hit on the economy, we wanted to minimize the conference registration cost as a barrier to attending the conference. We were able to create a “COVID Year” discount across all registration levels. The TCRM preconference registration was included in the full conference registration pricing this year. The early-bird registration rate was extended by 3 months into September. A conference registration and membership bundle was created that was cheaper than just registering for the conference as a nonmember. The NCFR Board of Directors also created the NCFR Student Access Grant to support students from historically marginalized racial or ethnic populations to attend the conference and obtain 1 year of free NCFR membership.


Conference Program Schedule

Many NCFR members are parents who are now integrating family with work unlike ever before (e.g., distance learning for children, not having access to child care or choosing to not send your children to child care), myself included. Many of you were unable to focus on the conference this year and needed to continue to engage in regular work and family responsibilities. Many of you are international members—or members who live across North America—and live in different time zones. Attendees needed more flexibility to participate in the conference. Combining these new realities with Zoom fatigue, we needed to reimagine a program schedule.

With these new realities, several changes were made to the schedule:

  • No meetings overlapped with the academic sessions.
    • Business meetings were scheduled the week prior to the conference week.
    • Section and focus group meetings were largely held after academic sessions from 4 to 5:15 p.m. CT.
    • Receptions were scheduled after all meetings at 6:30 p.m. CT.
  • Academic sessions were limited to 3 days rather than 4 days (no Saturday sessions this year).
  • The hours of academic sessions were condensed to between 10 a.m. CT and 3:45 p.m. CT.
  • All sessions were recorded to watch on demand.
  • Posters were available at the beginning of the conference week.

In addition to meetings not overlapping with academic sessions, many of the meetings were open to people regardless of conference registration. For example, all section and focus group meetings were open to their members, and the NCFR annual business meeting was open to all NCFR members.

We were also able to schedule an additional learning opportunity after the conference, NCFR Member Town Hall: Navigating the Future of Family Science, on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, (see ncfr.org/familysciencetownhall). We hope to schedule more events like this in 2021.


Live or Pre-recorded

Another direct result of our new realities is that presenters needed more flexibility in how they could present. Several new options became available through a virtual format.

  • Sessions could be pre-recorded and provided on demand with live discussion during a scheduled time and asynchronous discussion throughout the conference. This was helpful for presenters and attendees living in other time zones or who had other obligations.
  • Sessions could be presented live. This was particularly beneficial for our plenary sessions, invited sessions, and interactive sessions.
  • Live sessions could be facilitated through Zoom Meeting and Zoom Webinars depending on the type of session. Zoom Meetings allowed smaller interactive sessions and workshops and Zoom Webinars worked well for our high-profile sessions with large audiences.
  • The resource exchange and poster presentations were able to share files of their resources and record a brief presentation of their materials. There was also synchronous and asynchronous discussion available to meet everyone’s needs.


Conference Platform

With the decision to move to a virtual conference, we had to learn how we could successfully plan a virtual conference. Many staff worked tirelessly researching the various elements of virtual conferences. One area that several staff spent the summer (and beyond) researching was possible virtual conference platforms. We reviewed several platforms and landed on Whova as our conference platform.

This platform provided us with many benefits. It allowed us to

  • integrate with Zoom for our sessions—a bonus considering most people are familiar with Zoom;
  • post recordings of sessions, resources, posters, and more before, during, and after the conference;
  • provide a community area for attendees to interact and to create virtual meet-ups;
  • have sponsorship and exhibit opportunities; and
  • allow attendees to access conference session abstracts and recordings for 12 months following the conference.


Rewriting Conference Instructions

Once the conference platform was decided on, it was time to write all new conference and session-specific instructions. This entailed having many discussions, attending other conferences to learn about how virtual sessions were conducted, and doing the research to learn best practices. We now have new presenter instructions, session-specific instructions (e.g., interactive papers, workshops, traditional papers, symposia, special sessions, posters, and plenary instructions), which include best practices for presenting virtually but can be applied to in-person conferences. The instruction also included how to record videos and create materials that are ADA compliant. We then had to develop a method for submitting all conference materials to staff to upload in the conference platform before the conference. Others spent time writing new instructions for how to access the conference and to attend a virtual conference.


The Future of the NCFR Conference

We have certainly learned a lot since March 2020 and throughout the conference. Will these changes influence the future of the NCFR conference? Very likely. We are living in historic times, and the changes made also present an opportunity for the future. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” is a phrase that has come up repeatedly in NCFR staff and committee discussions this past year. It is hard to commit to specific changes without knowing the future of COVID-19 and how it will affect our lives, yet we look for possible silver linings in the changes we were forced to institute this year. Inevitably, though, the many things we have learned this year will allow us to reimagine future conferences too. Above all, we will continue to put the health and safety of all conference participants first.