Reflections on the 1st fully online Learning Analytics & Knowledge (LAK) conference

Authors: Nina Seidenberg, Grace Lynch, Nicole Hoover, Maren Scheffel, Vitomir Kovanović and Hendrik Drachsler

In March 2020, the Learning Analytics Community planned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Learning Analytics & Knowledge conference (LAK20) with an outstanding community gathering in Frankfurt, Germany, at the beautiful Campus Westend of Goethe University Frankfurt at the river Main. Everyone was looking forward to celebrating the many accomplishments of this supportive community and hosting everyone in person in Frankfurt. The conference registered close to 600 individual attendees for the main conference, a record number for the face-to-face event of the year. 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 virus outbreak changed the situation rapidly. New international travel bans were enacted, numerous universities took preventive measures that affected a growing portion of our participants, and finally on March 13th, twelve days before the kickoff of #LAK20, the campus of the host University in Frankfurt, got closed. 

This was a tough situation concerning timely communication with the community, commitments made to local supporters, and also for the overall financial condition of the LAK20 conference. While many conferences and fairs around the globe and also in Germany got canceled or postponed, the pressures to also cancel #LAK20 were high. In this delicate situation, the #LAK20 organizers took the decision to run the conference entirely in virtual/online mode through the website utilizing ZOOM.  

Within ten days, we communicated with speakers, presenters, and participants about how to adapt the face-to-face conference format into an online event. The dates for the conference remained the same March 25 – 27, 2020 as the community had blocked these dates anyway and had reserved time to network with the LAK community. As one can imagine, with an event like LAK20, which takes more than a year to plan, there had been many decisions that now needed to be adapted in a very short period of time. 

We recognize the value of face-to-face interactions usually occurring in the pre-conference workshops. However, for the same reasons explained above, we were forced to cancel or postpone all workshops. Several workshop organizers planned alternative engagements. Participants were contacted by the workshop lead(s) to make such arrangements, but they happened outside the scope of the LAK20 organization team. 

From March 13th, this is how we turned LAK20 into an online conference:  

1 Extend what you have

All LAK20 registered participants received access to the conference proceedings published by ACM as well as the LAK20 Companion proceedings of the Society of Learning Analytics Research (SoLAR). We already had a conference App made available and updated it to the new online format. The LAK20 App provided a list of all attendees and speakers as well as the abstracts to all papers. The participants could create their personal schedule within the LAK20 App and contact participants individually. The conference website was also extended from a pure information portal to a community platform with various options of interaction like discussion forum, media gallery, voting for best posters and demos, etc.

2 Keep it simple

Clear communication and smooth navigation on the LAK20 website were the main contributing factors. The already established LAK20 website was extended with a community plugin, where LAK20 attendees could register. Once they logged in, the menu of the website got extended with an Attendee Corner that contained all links to the online conference ecosystem. 

3 Adjust the conference program to time-zones

The conference program got totally restructured. As #LAK20 is an international conference, we needed to deal with various time zones. The paper presentation slots were reallocated to fit the presenters’ home regions and thus not organized in topical sessions anymore. This made it more convenient for the speaker to present their papers. Showing all time zones in the program schedule also made it simpler for the attendees to navigate to a particular session. Next to the program on the LAK20 website, we created an iCal file (.ics) of the program. This .ics file could be added to a calendar app that automatically shows each session in the time zone of the attendee. 

4 Book virtual rooms 

We were considering having one virtual room for each paper, but this would have raised too many administration efforts. Therefore, we still kept papers in sessions and tried to make the time zone convenient for the speakers. Keeping sessions showed to have multiple positive effects for the online format. First, it was easier to set up and maintain. Second, we got more people to stay around, which increased the total number of attendees for the single paper. Third, we were able to keep the role of session chairs. They were all people actively involved in the community and made the online experience more formal and professional. 

5 Recording all presentations
All presentations were either submitted as pre-recordings or were recorded during the sessions when researchers presented their work live from their home premises. All recordings were made available in a media gallery on the LAK20 website that was organised by the different tracks and days. The attendees highly appreciated this feature as it allowed them to catch up with the scientific conversation at times they were unable to join due to time differences or when they attended another presentation at the same time.  

6 Management backchannels 

We also had several background slack channels where the whole organizing team and session chairs could communicate and align actions and solve problems. If something was to go wrong in a room, we were able to find an alternative person to chair the session, play a pre-recording of a presentation, or take other measures. 

7 Prepare the community

We offered all presenters to provide a video about their contribution and upload it to a LAK20 conference NextCloud server before the conference kickoff. In that way, we had the opportunity to fall back on a video recording of a paper. Posters and demos were handled similarly in that authors were asked to record their demonstration and to provide their poster so that they could be shared with all attendees. We also organized training sessions for both presenters and session chairs, which gave people the chance to get used to the online ecosystem and the conference format. This allowed them to ask questions and test their technical equipment. 

8 Online Housekeeping 

Next to the Opening of the conference by the local hosts, we also had two additional housekeeping sessions like The Conference Social Night, and the Closing Session. These online sessions were used to keep momentum and touch base with the community on their online experiences. We also sent daily recap emails, which were inspired by @gsiemens cMOOC-style weekly aggregator emails. They also served as reminders that the new day is about to start, as people would often forget about online events.

9 Have a technically savvy audience

LAK20 is a very knowledgeable community concerning online learning. Most of the community members are used to online formats like Massive Open Online Courses, webinars, distance teaching, and working online in distributed teams.  

10 Make it a fun experience

Being 12 hours committed to online sessions is tiring, as regular meetings are too. We, therefore, aimed to add a lot of fun moments to break out of the regular conference mode. We had two break-out rooms (The Coffee Machine & The Bench in the Sun) for people to meet up and discuss outside the conference program. Here we also organized community moments like bring-your-favorite-drink, wear-a-funny hat. This also affected chat communication that was often very funny and less formal. 

Some reflections

Clearly, an online conference does not provide the same opportunity as a face-to-face conference for social networking and informal talks and meet-ups. But not being present physically does not stop having a scientific conversation. Plus, there are also certain advantages compared to face-to-face conferences. For instance, you can extend your community. People that did not plan to attend LAK20 in Frankfurt physically had the opportunity to join online. Within only 7 days of us announcing that LAK20 would happen fully online, we had 90 additional registrations for the virtual conference format. This opened the doors of LAK20 for people interested in the learning analytics community to join with fewer efforts and costs. In that way also, regional conferences could be more open to a global community by allowing people to attend or present their research online. 

The sessions often had very high participant numbers, sometimes reaching more than 80 and up to 110 participants. This allowed presenters to spread their insights and research to a larger group of attendees. As all sessions were recorded and made available in a LAK20 media gallery to the registered participants. This again increased the visibility for the speakers and preserves state of the art on #learninganalytics in 2020. 

Reflections from Participants: 

  • I doubted the value of a virtual conference, but finally, I found out that it was worthy to attend it, although I would have greatly preferred a f2f conference that allows for social interaction
  • A huge thank you to the organizers for the vision and willingness to spin on a dime and quickly re-structure the conference under such incredible circumstances and significant time constraints.    
  • A huge thank you to the session hosts who were friendly, welcoming, and encouraged questions. They made it seem like this was just ‘normal’ and that made everyone more comfortable.   
  • A huge thank you to all the conference technical people who provided the platform to make it all possible.  You must congratulate yourselves for an incredible conference experience.  I SO MISSED not seeing Frankfurt but I’ll add it to my ‘bucket list’ and enjoy it 
  • It was a positive experience, although I would definitely prefer a blended version with lots of social interactions, social and informal, that build community
  • The LAK was really well virtually organized on such short notice. I enjoyed attending the 10th LAK, and I am surprised that virtual conferences can be so informative. I hope, in the future more conferences will provide the possibility to attend them virtually or in a blended format.
  • I do miss the engagement of an in-person conference. However, LAK20 proved that a virtual conference can be great and provide opportunities for attendees to engage virtually.  The online offering was amazing and I salute the organizers, hosts, and technical people who allowed us to engage in LAK20!