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CarpentryCon@Home: Challenges and Opportunities in transitioning meetings online

Rachael Ainsworth

Rachael Ainsworth

SSI fellow

Estimated read time: 15 min
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CarpentryCon@Home: Challenges and Opportunities in transitioning meetings online

Posted by j.laird on 26 November 2020 - 9:30am

Mug by laptop with a Zoom callPhoto by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

By Emily Lescak (Code for Science & Society, United States), Rachael Ainsworth (Software Sustainability Institute), Sarvenaz Sarabipour (Johns Hopkins University, United States), Vinodh Ilangovan (Aarhus University, Denmark), Iryna Kuchma (Electronic Information for Libraries Open Access Programme, Lithuania), Adam Hughes (University of Arkansas, United States) and Sara El-Gebali (Open Computational Inclusion and Diversity Resource, Open Source Virtual Initiative).


Scientific meetings provide valuable opportunities for scientists to interact with colleagues to share research, build their skills, and launch new collaborations. Because of the value placed on these gatherings, event organisers have been reluctant to cancel scheduled meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic and instead have gone to great lengths to quickly pivot to online formats to continue to meet the needs of their community members.

In moving to online platforms, conference organisers can no longer default to traditional in-person practices, which can exclude participants who may already feel marginalised in their communities. Rather, organisers can proactively work to innovate inclusive conference practices. In our CarpentryCon@Home breakout discussion, we shared challenges in planning meetings, ways to turn these challenges into opportunities, and the many benefits of transitioning to virtual meetings. Here we summarise the key points from each of the thematic breakout sessions and provide additional resources for virtual event organisers and attendees. 

1. How to Choose a Platform?

There are many considerations that organisers need to take into account when choosing platform(s) for their virtual event. These include the availability or restrictions of the platform across different regions, the bandwidth required to maintain connectivity, the privacy and security of participants using the platform, and screen real estate (i.e. can your participants accommodate having multiple windows/programs open simultaneously to fully participate in your event?). Many resources and guidelines exist for comparing different platforms to help you choose which is best for your community. Organisers and participants may also source local/regional technical support and sponsorship through grants to help fund the cost of using and accessing the various platforms.

Organisers should plan contingency measures in case the platform fails during the event. They can mitigate this risk by planning for the lowest availability of resources by participants and adding features as they go, while ensuring that the main information is available in a low or restricted resources format so that all participants are included. Organisers should also have a backup plan or platform in place. For example, in the case of collaborative documentation, organisers may create backups of the notes using Etherpad, Google Docs or HackMD.

To aid participants in using a platform which may be new to them, and maximising efficiency on the day of the virtual event, organisers can instruct the participants on how to use the platform(s) by hosting a pre-event (e.g. the day before the event starts). It may also be helpful to provide brief guidelines on using the platform (e.g. with screenshots) to help participants feel more confident during the event.

If you are looking for more virtual conferencing tools and platforms please refer to:

2. Strategies to build sustainable relationships 

Building and sustaining relationships in online formats parallel in some ways the difficulties of in-person meetings. Just as someone at an in-person workshop can sit in the back of the room and not be noticed, they may be present in an online format without speaking or turning on their video camera. It may be advantageous to use familiar platforms that may make participants more comfortable, and therefore more willing and able to interact. Engage participants with “yes-no” response ice-breaker questions to get everyone participating. Creating the time and space for sharing stories and experiences builds connections that can last. “Storytelling” creates the space for discovery of similarities and common interests, building lasting relationships. You can fins out more at Community engagement and event planning guides from CSCCE, Five Reflections On Community Building During Covid-19 and Virtual Software Carpentry Workshops - key learnings to make it a success (video).

3. Networking at virtual conferences 

Coffee breaks and social events at conferences and workshops provided a space for networking in the past, as well as regular informal meet-ups. Accidental interactions and connections that happened there created opportunities for engagement and collaborations. How can we facilitate networking in a virtual space? A number of conferences this year created virtual lobbies for attendee meetups. Some may not feel comfortable starting a random conversation with people they haven't met before. We discussed two virtual networking events that worked well for us: 

  • One-hour long virtual coffee break on Zoom - all participants were asked to have their video on, no presentations allowed, just an informal experience-sharing discussion about online open science training delivery. The topic was announced in advance and worked well in a group of 20 attendees. Some attendees were acquainted, others met for the first time and kept in touch: OpenAIRE virtual coffee break.
  • Chatroulette as a networking event (which can work well at large conferences as well as smaller ones) randomly connects two participants into a live video chat with a set (short) amount of time.

The choice of tools and platforms depends on the needs and resources available, but almost any tool would work as long as you offer space for conversations and make sure that everyone can participate. In both cases listed above, organisers didn't ask participants to attend the networking sessions and didn't facilitate introductions; connections formed organically. A year-long idea challenge Open Repositories 2021 (instead of a conference networking event, e.g. Open Repositories 2019 engagement ideas) could also be examined.

Read more on more virtual networking ideas at FORCE11 FSCI Community Events.

4. Virtual Mentoring

Virtual mentoring can provide valuable opportunities for global networking and collaboration and for mentees to strengthen their personal and professional skills. 

How do you get enough mentors? Mentoring cohorts may have size limitations due to challenges in mentor recruitment. It can be hard to meet the demands in volunteer, community-driven initiatives and help community members to self-identify as mentors. To recruit mentors, program organisers can hold interest meetings, clearly define and describe the role of a mentor and expectations about mentor-mentee relationships, and allow people to share their mentoring experiences. If possible, program organisers could provide incentives for mentors, including badges, professional development training, or compensation. 

How do you match mentors and mentees? One strategy is to ask mentees to identify their needs and/or goals and share these anonymously with mentors, asking them to sign up to work with individuals who they feel they can most help. Alternatively, mentors can be asked to identify areas in which they can provide mentorship and then be matched with mentees looking to build skills in those areas.

How can meaningful mentoring relationships be supported? Expectations about the length of the relationship should be clearly defined, either by the program or by the mentors and mentees. Mentors and mentees should have the opportunity to share individual feedback with program organisers and mentees should have opportunities to reflect on their progress. There should be plans in place in case a mentee needs to step away unexpectedly and they should be empowered to end or change their mentor assignments, if necessary. Lastly, it’s important to educate both mentors and mentees about the role of cultural backgrounds in communication. Read more at the Carpentries mentoring programNational Research Mentoring Network, Mozilla Open Leadership Training Series and Key skills to know before mentoring.

5. Holding Virtual Conference Organisers accountable

We discussed a code of conduct or set of expectations for scientific societies and other conference organisers. It is important that the organisers consider accessibility for all attendees at virtual conferences. For instance, conferences can offer internet hotspots free of charge for attendees who have challenges to being able to connect virtually without disruptions. 

In-person conferences can lack means of accessibility for attendees with physical vulnerabilities, but in virtual settings this barrier is lifted. Underrepresented groups and researchers with family commitments can face challenges with travel, but virtually they can attend the livestreaming or watch the recordings and online poster libraries. Conference organisers need to clearly and publicly state their commitments towards reducing these barriers for attendance. As researchers, we need to change the way we present science and hold meeting organisers accountable to have them continue virtual conferences, as these are most inclusive for all who would like to attend or present. Mentoring and other career development training sessions are important for attendees, in particular early career researchers (ECRs). Conference organisers need to help source local sponsors at different locations for attendees who cannot afford the registration cost or reliable internet access at home. These efforts will fund high-speed connections for all attendees at virtual meetings. Reforming in-person conferences was long overdue. The coronavirus pandemic has forced researchers and organisers to change and shown us that we can improve as a community and take charge of how we convene and represent research and continue this going forward. 

6. How can we hold ourselves accountable to prioritising accessibility? 

We can preserve the positive elements of virtual conferences. Online events have advantages because it can be easier for organisers to invite guest speakers or get engagement from underrepresented populations. Accessibility can be increased by allowing presentations in multiple languages, with captioning and translation, and splitting programming into separate schedules for eastern and western hemispheres (see BCC2020). 

We can normalise remote talks at in-person events (e.g. having hybrid in-person/virtual meetings) to ensure that virtual presenters have the same privileges and prestige as in-person presenters, and providing captioning services. 

We should think about ways to provide the same support to remote participants and presenters as would be provided to in-person attendees, including space, childcare, and refreshments. 

We can be intentional about choosing platforms. In doing so, organisers should prioritise platforms that are better able to perform with low-bandwidth connections. Organisers should also strike a balance between providing multiple modes of participation and not overwhelming attendees with options and new platforms to learn.

We can normalise asking questions and providing feedback on accessibility. Organisers can establish feedback opportunities for accessibility concerns and normalise asking questions about the accessibility of the platform and event. Events could also appoint an accessibility point person who can provide dedicated support.  

We can learn from other organisers. We can share accessibility solutions across communities and develop a standardised way of reporting and documenting that allows organisers to share what they’ve learned.

7. Code of Conduct

In this session we discussed best practices for reporting code of conduct (CoC) violations and how these could be scaled, for instance, 10 vs 100 people. There are conference codes of conduct which include examples and easily comprehensible language. A few recommendations for composing a code of conduct for virtual meetings:

  1. Carpentry con chat anonymous identities - CoC exist in virtual spaces, Mozilla community and Carpentry Con. Example from Mozilla Slack
  2. Create restorative codes of conduct: one which is not punitive, not replacing legal protections, etc.
  3. Mozilla community guidelines: a good place to start as they have been organising virtual events for a long time
  4. For code of conduct in virtual spaces: put a link in the chat to remind participants that the code of conduct also applies there

Consider other codes of conduct provided by the Software Sustainability Institute, OpenCIDER and the Berlin Code of Conduct.

9. Virtual training 

We provide a few key recommendations from Guidance for running online training to help organise virtual training sessions at your virtual conference.

Before the event: You may or may not have a choice about which online platforms you are able to use. Perhaps your institution uses and mandates Blackboard Collaborate, Microsoft Teams, or you have access to Zoom. Make material available pre-event to allow participants to familiarise themselves with it. Provide pre-recorded sessions that allows for asynchronous participation for wider time-zones which oftentimes is supplemented by live sessions of Q&A with presenters. This is of course one of many ways of setting up virtual training but it's gaining more traction due to the more inclusive nature of the setup.

Get the trainer/helper to learner ratio right: It is much harder to resolve technical issues online than at a face to face event, hence the need to balance the ratio of attendees/helpers differently. Be sure to size the event appropriately so learners get the attention they need. The ratio of one instructor/helper to four or five learners works for online. Higher levels of interactivity and assistance would require a ratio of 1:4 vs 1:5. Fifteen learners might be trained well in an online setting requiring active participation from learners. Consider advertising for 18-20 places (as there are usually no-shows) and having two instructors and two to three helpers for a two-day workshop.

Have an event facilitator: Online training needs extra facilitation. The event facilitator will help make sure the virtual event is working well and people are aware of what is happening next and which resources to use. They can also help manage participants by muting those who aren’t speaking to minimise background noise.

Have learners at a similar skill level at the workshop: You can normally expect to get a variation in skill levels, but in online courses that variation is more apparent to the flow of the event. Variations in how quickly people get through exercises, material, or technical difficulties tend to be even larger.

Plan your agenda for the online format: The agenda for an online event must have sufficient breaks for it to be effective and less tiring for those who are attending.

Set break times and keep to them: Make the agenda with exact break times available as early as possible. This will allow people to plan their day and any caring responsibilities as much as possible. Stick strictly to the break times - make changes to your teaching plan if you have to on the day.

If you plan to use data, make dataset availability easier: Encourage attendees to use local storage on their machines wherever possible to download datasets to and access them from. This will decrease any access problems and increase performance around any data access. For example, they should be discouraged to download any needed datasets to university file servers which they might have problems accessing due to network or availability reasons. See OpenAIRE Community of Practice for examples.


Virtual conferences have become more common as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the CarpentryCon breakout session, the session organisers and attendees recognised that in-person conferences can exclude researchers from diverse backgrounds. Virtual conferences represent an opportunity to improve how we organise conferences to provide access to research worldwide and to opportunities for networking among researchers. Here we summarised our discussions on challenges and opportunities for holding virtual conferences. We encourage researchers, meeting organisers and institutions to hold these discussions locally and globally as well.


We thank the CarpentryCon organisers for their efforts on this breakout session and all our session attendees for joining the discussions and for their valuable input.

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