In times of uncertainty, stories of success and connection are particularly inspiring. While the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak caused many conferences to reschedule or cancel entirely, one committee decided its community needed to meet to talk shop and connect amidst the upheaval of a public health crisis.
The IT Professionals Forum (ITPF) is a bi-annual conference held at the University of Illinois by, and for, IT professionals. It has a long history on our campus that spans three decades and nearly twice as many name changes. Twice a year, IT pros from across the University of Illinois System gather to teach, train, learn, and network with their peers across disciplines. The conference features presentations on technical and professional development and serves as a forum for IT professionals “to share updates about innovative and far-reaching projects, facilitate dialogue, and catalyze networking among IT professionals,” according to the ITPF Website.
However, this year is inarguably different. Due to the pandemic, conferences across the globe canceled or rescheduled their events, or decided to go all-virtual for the first time in their histories.
When the realities of a potential COVID-19 outbreak landed with university officials in March, the ITPF committee was in the midst of planning their Spring conference scheduled for early June 2020. The I Hotel Conference Center was booked, menus negotiated, and session proposals under review.
The committee, made up of about twenty university-affiliated IT staff, quickly changed gears. Matthew Macomber, a quality assurance engineer with Administrative Information Technology Services (AITS) at the University of Illinois System Office and an ITPF committee member explained, “with all of the moving parts an in-person conference entails, we were optimistic we could pull together an online conference in time.”
While planning generally starts around six months prior to the conference dates, the committee decided in March that they would be going all online. “We asked 30,000 students to go online in two weeks,” confirmed Dena Strong, an information design specialist with Technology Services and another ITPF committee member. “We’ve got two months, we can do this thing.”
The conference theme, “Share the Vision,” centered on examining technology in research and innovation, connections in IT infrastructure and architecture, and a focus on “current services, projects, and promising opportunities.” The decision to highlight infrastructure was particularly prescient as it quickly became evident that supporting our IT at a greatly increased scale would be one of the defining challenges and triumphs of the early months of 2020.
On April 8, the group officially announced their plans to continue the conference in a shortened (one day instead of the usual two) online format. While the demands of facilitating an in-person event disappeared, new challenges arose with the plan to go all online.
“The biggest challenge was facilitating informal dialogue and catalyzing networking among IT professionals during a completely virtual event,” explained Candice Solomon-Strutz, Assistant Director of Instructional Technology at the chemistry department, “being able to generate peer to peer engagement in a large digital format is a significant challenge.”
Macomber agreed, “we had to rethink how we handled the lunch hour and the social hour. While we typically let people socialize at tables and walk past vendors and posters for the in-person conference, we couldn’t replicate those experiences on our short time table. Instead, we gathered those who wanted to chat in one large Zoom room – like a big round table – and talked over food.”
Looking forward to the next conference, the committee will be reviewing best practices for online engagement to improve interactions like these that are built upon one-on-one conversations and connections. The business card raffle and the free pen giveaways will also require some reimagining if the conference goes all-online again (or even partially online) in the future, which is still up in the air.
“The ITPF planning committee is reviewing all the feedback from our attendees,” said Solomon-Strutz, “and we will be following guidance from the University community and CUPHD (Champaign-Urbana Public Health Department) regarding planning for the fall event.”
On the positive side, the all-virtual experience laid the foundation for a more flexible and accessible experience for many. For the first time, the entire event could be attended remotely, which is a request several out-of-state attendees had made in the past.
“We were so excited to have more participants from outside of the U of I join us for the IT Pro Forum,” said Macomber. Additionally, Technology Services has around 30 full-time remote staff, and more part-time remote, who could now experience the conference with their colleagues.
“When everyone is on a level playing field, the entire environment changes,” stated Strong, addressing accessibility on a wider scale. “There were people saying that being able to use their own assistive technology for the conference was an experience they’d never had before. Some had never been able to participate in the IT Pro Forum on an equal basis because they couldn’t see the presentations projected on the physical screens or watch presenters’ faces up close. Having the screen right there, on their system, with their own tech in place, was transformational for them.”
Additionally, transitioning to a virtual event allowed the committee members to flex their own tech expertise and prove, yet again, that IT professionals often exemplify adaptability.
In his opening remarks before the Keynote Address, Troy Gagne, IT project manager at Tech Services and ITPF Co-Chair, expressed his thanks to attendees and the committee. “The planning committee considered canceling, but we really wanted to maintain the professional development and the social opportunity that this forum provides,” he explained. “We know it won’t be perfect. There may be some hiccups during the day. But we hope everyone finds some value in it.”
For a typical conference touting around 400 attendees, 30 sessions, and 12 presentation rooms, technical errors happen. Hosting an all-virtual event, however, means “technical difficulties” could disrupt the entire experience. To avoid snafus, the committee devoted ample time to testing Zoom capabilities, trying permissions and settings, and practicing how to hand off room hosting duties seamlessly.
“Generally, the ITPF planning committee is very hands-on the day of the event at the I Hotel Conference Center communicating with catering and AV staff, answering technical and logistical questions,” said Solomon-Strutz, “with the online version, we didn’t have an extensive contingency plan for technical difficulties so there was a very calm excitement when there weren’t any network connectivity issues.”
As far as lessons learned, there were many. The committee celebrated the success of the virtual experience, but also lamented the in-person structure that brought people together, physically. Chances are, something involving both approaches will become typical.
“We learned that the hybrid mechanism we used last fall (2019) was more inclusive than anything we had ever done, but it was a lot of physical work and it didn’t work flawlessly,” explained Strong. “There have got to be ways to do this hybrid model well.”
“We need to look at how to continue the level of inclusion that we’ve been providing and under what terms,” emphasized Solomon-Strutz.
While some frequent IT Pro Forum attendees missed the interactions over food and in the hallways, they were happy to have the conference continue in this new format. Feedback gathered from the post-conference surveys confirmed that the added accessibility and modified session delivery provided the IT community with a robust update on the world of IT in higher education, and perhaps due to global circumstances, inspired a sense of a more unified, meaningful experience.
Technology Services has been a primary sponsor for IT Pro Forum for over 25 years. Recorded sessions from the June 4, 2020 IT Professionals Forum are available to the public on the IT Pro MediaSpace Channel.