Reflections on hosting a "virtual" workshop

UB CTSI's Creative Scientist Workshop 2019 received 81 registrations which represented 33 hubs of the NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program.

UB CTSI’s Creative Scientist Workshop 2019 received 81 registrations which represented 33 hubs of the NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) Program.

Published June 3, 2019


By Erin O’Byrne, MBA

With the continuous advancing technology, many people are becoming accustomed to meetings via conference calls and webinars. But have you considered “attending” a conference virtually? Or are you contemplating organizing a conference virtually?

The University at Buffalo Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI) held its biennial Creative Scientist Workshop “Enhancing Collaboration: Fostering an Evidence-Based Approach to Improving CTSA Network Capacity” on February 26-27. In a completely virtual environment, the workshop sought to foster collaboration and team science, particularly with those across the national NIH Clinical and Translational Science Award (CTSA) consortium. Compared to the 2017 workshop held in Buffalo, not only did the number of registrations increase, but more than half of the CTSA hubs were represented.  

The attendees were quick to recognize the perks of a virtual meeting. To rid the burden of spending large amounts of time and money on transportation and lodging, not to mention saving institutional dollars, they had the ability to multitask with other work and personal responsibilities.

Although the workshop was held virtually, it was still attainable to provide the things one might expect when they pay for and attend an onsite conference.

hang tag.

When you pay for registration, you might look forward to the meals and occasional snack and caffeine breaks. You may anticipate your free pads of paper, pens and imprinted conference bags. For the Creative Scientist Workshop, it was simple enough to collect mailing addresses through registration. This allowed for sending sacks filled with customized door hang tags, Starbucks gift cards, notepads, post-its and markers prior to the conference dates.

But what does it take to equally keep participants engaged? Even onsite meetings can’t keep the buildup of emails away. For those who chose to attend the workshop from work, how did they avoid the regular office visits from interrupting? For the participants who worked from home or a local coffee shop, how did they silence the distraction of a barking dog or background chatter?

Planning the agenda well in advance helped overcome foreseeable obstacles. Even the planning committee meetings were held virtually allowing for cross-institutional collaboration. Given the desire to engage a national consortium, time zones were a consideration for start and end times; oral presentations were prerecorded and provided to participants prior to the workshop; the estimated time and duration of each breakout and discussion session was indicated. The preparedness of information and flexibility of pop-ins and -outs for attendees stimulated engaging conversations. Further, a common sharing platform (e.g. Google Drive) was established to ensure all related materials could be accessible prior to, during and after the workshop for all participants.

If your institution wants to consider hosting a virtual workshop, be sure to have a tech-savvy person on your team. Prior to the event, they can require technology onboarding to cover audio/visual dos and don’ts. And when it’s time to go live, they can monitor audio feedback, use collaborative tools to administer small-group breakouts, and assist with any other technological hiccups that arise, allowing you to focus on sharing with and learning from everyone involved.  

The 2019 Creative Scientist Workshop has set the stage for future workshops utilizing technology to increase enrollment and include more CTSA hubs. Be sure to look out for the next Creative Scientist Workshop news item to learn about the success of the event.