We ran a conference in Teams (and it was better than the “real” thing)


The future of academic conferences is sustainable!

A report on the TEALFest conference at the University of Warwick in May 2020, organised by Jess Humphreys, Kerry Pinny, and Robert O’Toole. Hundreds of people participated using our collaboration platform, Microsoft Teams – not just for video conferencing, but also (and perhaps more significantly) co-editing of documents and file sharing. Teams is a complete collaboration platform, not just a videoconferencing system, and we used this to great effect.

Here’s the key technical and organisational features of what we did:

  1. At the University of Warwick, like most organisations, we have a Microsoft license that provides Teams access (amongst many other things) for all of our members (including students). The conference happened within our Teams “walled garden”, to which any member of the university can enter using their university IT account. We also issued Teams guest accounts to three of our presenters from other organisations. This is easy to do, and could be done at greater scale if needed (I have run projects in Teams with 100+ external guests). We used this ease of secure access to widen participation in the event, well beyond what we would have got at a conventional conference.
  2. We used the in-built notifications system to keep participants informed about upcoming sessions and changes to the schedule. On a couple of occasions we added in extra events at late notice, and still got good participation by alerting people immediately.
  3. Teams is a complete collaboration platform. Whereas Zoom just provides videoconferencing, Teams allows people to create, share and edit files synchronously (at the same time). It has text discussion, a notifications system, project management tools, and thousands of other features. We used these collaboration features, as described in the article below, to deepen the forms of collaboration that took place, well beyond what we would have got at a conventional conference.
  4. Teams videoconferences are easily recorded. This works through Microsoft’s integrated video platform, Stream. We were able to share conference recordings almost immediately as meetings ended. This is far quicker than any system I have used for recording events in physical conference rooms.
  5. Automatic instantaneous transcription is available in videoconferences and recorded videos. The subtitling is good enough to be useful.
  6. We ran all of our sessions in a single Teams channel that we called the Plenary Room (a channel contains a discussion board, videoconference meetings, file space and lots of other features that can be added from the Teams system). We scheduled a whole-day meeting in the room each day, and had a chairperson in the room from start to finish to manage the hand over between presenters and to start and stop the video recording for each session.
  7. We built a publicly visible web page (outside of Teams) to recruit participants and on which we built the schedule. Each day in the schedule contained a link to the Plenary Room. Each session in the schedule contained a link to its abstract and other files in Teams. It is possible to get a “deep link” to almost any specific item in teams, and share that.
  8. Participants were encouraged to post feedback and questions in the chat channel of the videoconference meetings. The chairperson (and sometimes the presenters) monitored and responded to these messages.
  9. The chairperson and presenters monitored the participants list, welcoming people into the sessions at the start.
  10. The abstracts, presentation files, and supporting files for sessions were uploaded into the files area of the Plenary Room. In some cases participants co-edited files during sessions. For example, some presentation Powerpoints contained pages that were edited by the participants live in the session, as a synchronous activity. This is easily done with all Microsoft Office files. When a file is shared into a files space in a channel, it becomes editable by the members of that channel.
  11. We used a second channel as a help desk.
  12. Four more channels were set up as breakout rooms. Some presenters put documents and instructions into these rooms, and sent participants off to them to work during a session. Videoconference meetings were scheduled in these channels so that breakout-participants would talk to each other while collaborating.
  13. We also encouraged participants to chat to each other directly using Teams Chat. This was used in one session as a peer-learning channel.
  14. In addition to Teams, some sessions used the Vevox personal response system as a Q&A channel, and for polling questions. This is more sophisticated than the tools built into Teams.
  15. We had a couple of activities using Padlet, in which participants added ideas to online whiteboards. This works well, but sits outside of the security framework of Teams – we could investigate integrating it.

There were two thing we didn’t try, but will next time (just because we were so busy):

a. Feedback forms. We could easily have used Microsoft Forms, embedded into Teams, for that. Or the Vevox survey tool. We might follow up with a survey soon.

b. Facilitated networking sessions. We did create a social channel, but didn’t use it. We could have run a networking session, in which we used a speed dating approach, and people went off into Teams Chat to have a private discussion.

What did we get out of this?

Just one week – that’s how fast we “pivoted” the TEALFest conference to online. We had originally completely abandoned the idea of running it. The conference was intended as a fringe event to run alongside the main annual Warwick University Education Conference, which had been cancelled early on in March. We had planned to explore together, over a week and through a series of meet-ups, how to inject more active learning into in-class activities using new technologies. This would involve many people coming together in physical classrooms and experimenting together. That was obviously now not possible. But after spending March, April and the first couple of weeks of May working together online, at a distance, in our homes, we just made a snap decision: we could do it, and it might even be better than a “conventional” conference. We think that in many ways we were right:

The advantages of online conferences outweigh those of old-fashioned by train, plane and automobile events.

TEAL stands for “technology-enhanced active learning”. The term TEAL is an tautology, in that all learning is active, and in one way or another, technology-enhanced. But it also signifies a shared design-value: to redesign how we teach and learn, to make it more active, and hence, more effective, and to use technology to achieve that goal more often, more reliably, at greater scale, more efficiently, and more enjoyably. Most importantly, we want TEAL to spread across all disciplines, and for every subject to find its own flavour of TEALing. This is an inter and trans-disciplinary activity. Effective TEALing brings together a broad range of knowledges and practices, from for example, computer science, engineering, performance studies, linguistics, design, cultural studies (the list goes on and on). The need to develop subject-relevant TEAL pedagogies requires a second dimension of interdisciplinarity. And this is our first major realisation:

It’s easier to create a good interdisciplinary blend in an online conference than a conventional conference.

During the week we also noticed how broad the range of participants had become. People who wouldn’t usually attend a technology-enhanced learning event on campus, were coming along – often to just listen in, but also with more direct participation. We can guess that the more open, flexible format encouraged legitimate peripheral participation, as they say in the “communities of practice” approach.

Leading the sessions, we had representatives from across our whole university, bringing together ideas from many different fields, applied to a single point of focus. We also had three “external” speakers (Jon Couperthwaite from Echo 360, Louise Robson from Sheffield University, and Jack Hyland from FourthRev). We created Teams guest accounts for the externals, who were then able to share files and participate fully in the event. No one had to travel to the event! No one had to worry about trains or cars, or even planes. The carbon foot-print was minimal. Participants and speakers were able to come just to the sessions that were relevant to them, and carry on with other things when not attending (work, ironing, gardening, looking after children).

We note that this form of conference is more inclusive and flexible, being especially suited to working parents and people with responsibilities that would otherwise limit participation.

Our second goal was to deepen the modes of collaboration used over the week. Most people in academia still think of online collaboration as being about talking to people synchronously (at the same time) in a videoconference. In many other more digitally-oriented professions, videoconferencing is the least important collaborative activity undertaken online and at a distance. People work on documents or software systems together asynchronously, and moving in and out of synchronous collaboration as necessary. For example, a computer programmer might start by reading through a list of bugs online, reading the notes from other programmers (asynchronous collaboration). They might then come together online for a group discussion (synchronous). They make a plan, and start working on a problem on their own, but make brief synchronous connections with colleagues to discuss problems and solutions as they work. In this way collaboration is more fluid. In the TEALFest we got participants working in this way – working asynchronously on documents and Padlets, coming together for ad hoc discussions. Working in more focussed ways together during scheduled sessions. A Padlet was co-created during one session, edited asynchronously, and then discussed and developed further in another session. In this case, the synchronous sessions were added at short notice, and were well attended and involved lively discussions.

As you can see, the week was intense and varied, covering a lot of topics, involving a diverse range of people, working in many different ways. But it worked. It did what a really good conference should do, bringing such diversity together into one space and a transformational journey for all. We felt as if we were inhabiting the collaboration space of the conference, most certainly as residents and not visitors.

Dr Robert O'Toole NTF

Senior Teaching Fellow, Arts Faculty, University of Warwick. Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, National Teaching Fellow, Warwick Award for Teaching Excellence.

You may also like...