From the Editor: “V” Is for Virtual (and Sometimes Not Victory)

By Ken Korber, Almanac Editor-in-Chief

Over the past few weeks, I have had conversations among some CE/CME meeting planners, and the focus of those talks has shifted from whether to go virtual to how to go virtual with their upcoming conference(s). Three overarching issues kept sneaking into our discussion:

  1. How do you schedule your accredited event?
  2. How do you deliver the CE/CME content?
  3. How do you manage faculty and connect attendees?

It appears that these questions have meeting planners considering whether to design their virtual conference as a live (livestream) event or to provide learners with on-demand access to content. Or, a little of both.

Ultimately, however, we are all trying to figure out how to replicate the best parts of an in-person event within a virtual environment. [Hint: you cannot replicate it, but you can reinvent it.]

Reinventing the In-Person Conference as a Virtual CE/CME Event

To have a successful virtual conference, you need to truly understand what the life of a virtual participant looks like right now, so you know what you can—and cannot—expect of them.

Typically, at a medical or surgical CE/CME conference, we are more focused on the professional backgrounds of our attendees. But with so much of the population working from home, we must take into consideration their personal lives as well.

Many faculty and learners work full time and have been working from home since mid-March. An initial success barrier could be as simple as having the tools and tech that allow both cohorts to work effectively: multiple monitors, great bandwidth, dedicated working spaces.

The other individuals (and pets ) living under the same roof is another variable that could be disruptive and not allow for seamless presentations and successful learning activity.

When Tech Is Not Kind

Do you have any idea what having one person participate in a live video event all day does to the bandwidth in the house? The effects can be immediate and dramatic. One meeting planner had to take her Microsoft Teams meetings from the app on her phone (and not from her computer!) with the Wi-Fi turned off. She, then, had to also boot out her kids from their online schoolwork and from their Facetime sessions with friends. Admittedly, not the ideal scenario.

Another individual, who was both an attendee and a speaker at an event, was in the middle of his presentation when one of the primary internet service providers in the area had two routers fail. He was not prepped for any backup plan ahead of time, so he was scrambling to get the live streaming app downloaded to his phone. Thirty minutes later, he was back online with just enough time to give an abrupt wrap-up. Things happen. They really do. The takeaway here is that technology will fail at some point for someone. And there is nothing you can do about it.

Tuning In (and Tuning Out) From a Busy Household

When you attend an in-person conference you are away from the office, away from home and away from the usual daily distractions, minus an urgent email here and there. With a virtual event, however, there is no mental or physical separation from work and home. You can’t delegate your spouse to deal with a vomiting dog, a kiddo who is frustrated with their math exercise, an impromptu 8th-grade graduation parade through the neighborhood (horns blazing, of course) or the UPS driver making his third delivery to your house that day, because she’s also on an important work-from-home call!

The bottom line: It is unrealistic to think that your attendees can dedicate significant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time to your event. As hard as they may try, life gets in the way.

A Virtual Group Conversation Is Harder to Navigate

Another challenge to the virtual methodology is that networking can sometimes be awkward, at best. Recently, I have done several virtual happy hours with close friends, and I find those to be more difficult and challenging than meeting up in person. Screens freeze up intermittently or people accidentally talk over each other, which affects how naturally the conversation flows. But we manage because we know each other so well.

Now try doing the same thing with a group of strangers at a scientific educational setting, especially if you are more of an introvert learner, like several people I know. Oh, they can fake their way through “forced” social events with the best of them, but they certainly do not prefer it.

Virtual CE/CME events can often have several different networking opportunities built into the agenda. Some, like live events, are unstructured happy hours and some are virtually scheduled in-between sessions (using virtual “break-out rooms” to herd the audience into groups).

Others can consist of smaller collaboration groups, which many feel are the most beneficial and effective to establish a genuine connection with a group of people who rallied around a common set of challenges. It also helps when the virtual networking events are scheduled earlier in the day when peoples’ brains are fresh, and they can absorb more of the educational content.

How to Make These Virtual Learning Initiatives Better

Here are some observations that might be useful (having survived the Association of Family Practice PAs & NPs 3rd Annual Hybrid CE|CME Conference in July 2020):

  • An event that combines both live and pre-recorded content provides the best attendee experienceand the most room to get creative!
  • Making your content available on-demand is crucial
  • Give your attendees a way to access session content anytime. This not only helps to reinforce learning, but it also serves as a safety net if technology fails or life happens.
  • Make sure all your faculty presentations—even the live ones—are recorded and available in a way that is easy to search and navigate, along with all related session materials. This also takes some of the pressure off your speakers and their tech.
  • If you are going to livestream, be selective. While presenting sessions live creates a sense of excitement and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), it does not work for all attendees, especially those in different time zones. And it is definitely difficult to manage as an all-day event. Save the live streaming for the most popular portions of your conference, such as a keynote session.
  • There are many effective ways to craft a successful live/recorded blended event. You can “fake” a live experience by releasing pre-recorded content on a timed basis and hyping up the countdown on your event marketing channels. Follow this release with live, small-group discussion sessions around that content to create a sense of urgency for participants to view the content. This also helps to create those more structured and deliberate networking conversations among attendees that tend to be more meaningful.
  • A blended approach also makes it easier to program natural breaks in the agenda for your attendees to address everything else that is currently happening in the background of their lives.

If you have any additional pearls-of wisdom or best practice examples, feel free to contact the Almanac

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