Online Seminar Best Practices
Here we collect best practices for online seminars in economics and beyond. If you have best practices to share or link to, or questions about running your own seminar, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Online Seminar Organizer E-Mail List
If you have already or plan to run an online seminar with similar format, you can sign up for our "online seminar organizers" open e-mail list. We plan to use this e-mail list to discuss issues with hosting online academic seminars and to share best practices between list members.
Our Experiences so Far
We are running our first seminar as a Zoom webinar with registration required, with the technical host (who starts and stops the meeting, records, and ensures the right screens are visible at the right time) as webinar host, the moderator (who collects questions and keeps the seminar on time) as co-host, and the main speaker and discussants as panelists. We hope to make the seminar interactive by including discussants and encouraging audience questions. The webpage itself is realized with Google Sites.
We want to share some lessons we learned from organizing the first Chamberlain Seminar. We are happy to hear about your experiences organizing virtual seminars, so we can develop best practice guidelines and recommendations together for this new (to most of us) format. This is an evolving document. We apologize for poor structure, imprecision, and lack of conciseness. We welcome any corrections and contributions!
About the Seminar
The Zoom webinar works well for large groups if you have a good moderator handling questions.
Having panelists or discussants help the moderator by flagging particularly interesting questions can make life easier for the moderator.
Disabling almost all features for “attendees” should make it hard for anonymous people on the internet to derail the webinar (which has happened to other Zoom events recently). Depending on your choice of meeting or webinar, make sure to disable features for attendees that allow them to hijack your meeting. Some settings (like “chat only with panelists” for attendees) might only be possible once the webinar has started (is in practice session). Other settings (disabling annotations) can also be made for your account in general, but make sure to check whether those settings also apply to attendees in your webinars. You can unmute individual audience members during the seminar if you want someone to ask a question in person.
For smaller groups, Zoom meetings may be an alternative to webinars. Primarily, the decision between meeting and webinar is about the number of participants and the risk of someone hijacking the meeting. You can find a comparison of the features on the Zoom website:
In a Zoom webinar, you can set the chat feature such that participants can only send messages to panelists. This can serve two purposes: 1) if someone anonymously spams the chat, you can remove them without other participants noticing anything (luckily wasn’t necessary for us). 2) you can get a better flow for the presentation by aggregating the questions and picking the most interesting and constructive ones to actually ask. This requires a good moderator, see point 1.
You can either have the moderator ask questions that appear in the chat or have people ask their own questions with the moderator’s approval. Getting different people to speak makes the seminar feel more dynamic and natural. Just make sure the moderator knows how to find people in the long list of seminar participants (search function or raise hand feature can help) to make it work smoothly.
Have the host / moderator / people in charge of technical aspects of the seminar try out the webinar format in advance, ideally everyone gets to see both the host / panelist perspective and the participant perspective so you know what participants can and cannot see and do, and you can find settings that you may have forgotten to disable.
The setting “Enable Practice Session” when creating the zoom webinar is very helpful. On the day of the seminar, you can then start the webinar early and initially only have the hosts and panelists join. This gives you time to briefly discuss the order in which people speak, test everyone’s microphone, make sure the presenter knows how to share their slides, etc. Participants / Attendees will only be able to join once you hit the "broadcast" button.
Agree with the speaker to include (ideally predetermined) break points throughout the presentation for questions to be asked. This allows the speaker to focus on the presentation rather than the chat, making it much easier. It also lets the speaker control the flow of the presentation. Since the speaker can generally finish at least small sections before questions get asked, this makes many clarifying questions (that may get asked in the chat) unnecessary and saves room for more interesting questions. For the moderator, it helps to know in advance when the next break for questions will come to line up questions for that break (potentially giving an audience member the ability to unmute themselves) and also avoid having questions that go back too many slides. If there are sufficiently many breaks for questions, then asking one to two questions per break seems to make for a good flow.
It is easy and useful to record meetings in Zoom. In a webinar, you may want to warn attendees before starting the recording that they will appear (typically without video and without name) on the recording if they ask questions themselves. Local recordings are fine in terms of disk space (e.g. 1.15GB for a 90 minute seminar) and give you easy control for uploading it afterwards. If you record the meeting, Zoom also saves a text file of the chat in the same folder as the video. This way, you can easily forward questions that were asked in the chat but didn’t make it into the seminar with the speaker.
Within the first 15 minutes of the seminar, we jumped from 700 to over 900 attendees. Some attendees entering late might be unavoidable, but in academic settings it might be good to include a reminder in the sign-up email that the seminar will start on time without an "Academic Quarter" that is common at some universities.
We were happy with a one hour seminar including some questions. Given the large number of good questions asked through the chat (maybe 20%-30% were asked live), fewer than three discussants could have been sufficient and would have allowed time for Q&A in the end.
About some Technical and Organizational Aspects
An email list is essential to share information and registration or seminar links. But make sure to have settings such that only list administrators can send emails to the list. Ideally, you can set it such that you need to review emails from others before they are sent to everyone.
It’s good practice to send emails intended for the list to yourself first to check formatting, links, included images. In particular, copying text from google docs straight into gmail sometimes creates superfluous line breaks that are only visible to the recipients but not in the “sent” email.
Make sure your zoom license can handle the number of participants. The license seems to be about the number of people actually attending, not the number of registrations, but it is hard to know what fraction of registrations will turn into attendees. We had about 900 people attend the first Chamberlain Seminar at the peak (over 1000 unique viewers during the entire seminar), out of 1600 registrations. Some institutions may have rotating licenses for larger groups than the general license allows. Make sure to check that with (university) IT in advance since there is likely higher demand for these rotating licenses right now.
Requiring registration for a meeting / webinar is very helpful to know approximately how many people may come. Public links can get shared without noticing and result in a surprisingly large audience. Without registrations, we would certainly not have expected to get over 900 concurrent attendees (over 1000 unique users); almost double our license limit for meetings and very close to our regular license limit for webinars -- see the point about rotating Zoom licenses as well. It’s not entirely clear to us whether the license restricts the concurrent users or also the number of unique users.
It might be nice to facilitate meetings between speaker and attendees before or after the seminar, similar to how many in-person visits for seminars are structured. We don’t have experience yet what structures can work well. Clearly, a meeting of 1000 people all at the same time (or even spread over 5 hours) doesn’t work. Maybe group discussions could work with several parallel groups. However, we cannot split the speaker to be in multiple groups at the same time, so one might need some moderators / discussants with insightful comments for those groups as well. Maybe only a much smaller number of people are interested in signing up for meetings. With any meeting where people can unmute themselves, share video, etc. there is a risk that weird things happen, so a moderator who is on top of the technical aspects of muting and removing people may be necessary for each group.
Some attendees may have difficulty getting a good quality video stream, e.g. based on their internet connectivity or Zoom server capacity. An option to avoid this problem is to ask the presenter to upload their slides to the website in advance.
If you want to upload your recording to Youtube, you need to verify your account before uploading the video. Otherwise, your video will be blocked after uploading and processing because it is longer than 15 minutes. If you verify your account after uploading, you still need to delete the old video and upload it again.
If you have a setup with two screens, e.g. your laptop plus an additional screen that you connect to your laptop, then you can use a "dual monitor" setting in zoom. This allows you to have e.g. your slides on one screen and see the video of the panelists on the other screen. Zoom explaining Zoom settings:
We suggest focusing on the presentation and ignoring the chat completely. Leave the chat to the moderator and panelists, they will bring up the questions. At least for recorded sessions, Zoom also saves a copy of the chat that can be shared with the speaker afterwards so that no questions are missed.
Plan to have breaks for questions at relatively regular intervals and communicate those points to the moderator in advance. Give the audience a moment to think of and ask their questions if none / few have accumulated in the chat yet. Some audience member might only start to type their question when you ask for questions, and typing can take a moment.