Due to COVID-19, scientists and students alike moved from hallway discussions and group
debates to working in isolation and participating in online classes. Academic and
professional communities around the world have experienced significant cancellations of
critical in-person events, including a number of scientific meetings. The University of
Arizona Department of Geosciences 48th annual conference, GeoDaze, was no exception. GeoDaze
was originally scheduled for April 2020, but all in-person university events were cancelled
a few weeks prior. As organizers of the conference, we were initially devastated that we
would not see all of our hard work come to fruition this year. Within a few days of the
cancellation, our heartbreak transitioned to problem solving as we decided to redevelop the
conference into an innovative virtual event. Surprisingly, there were several silver linings
in the online conference that enhanced the event for attendees. As GeoDaze concluded, we
wondered: What can we learn from the unprecedented pandemic lockdown to enhance scientific
meeting experiences? Here we outline the benefits of transitioning a conference to an
entirely virtual format, and we argue that some elements of online meetings are worth
incorporating into a post–COVID-19 world.
GeoDaze is an annual university event inaugurated in 1972 that provides graduate and
undergraduate students with the opportunity to present their latest geoscience research to
the community. The entirely student-run conference draws in university alumni and
geoscientists from industry, government, and academia. The ability for students to interact
with professionals provides opportunities for career and academic growth through
collaboration and guidance. This event often serves as the first opportunity for students to
publicly present research, so there was a sense of urgency to maintain the annual tradition
despite being met with initial hesitation and concern about moving GeoDaze to an entirely
virtual format for the first time in history.
Virtual Conference Format
Considering that participants were uncertain about the new format, it was apparent that the
website needed to be executed in a way that conveyed professionalism and reassured both
participants and attendees that the virtual experience could be equally as effective as a
traditional conference. In order to achieve this goal, we enlisted a GeoDaze committee
member with a background in both geosciences and graphic design. This integration of
multidisciplinary skills was a critical component lending to the success of the virtual
conference. The culminating product, the GeoDaze 2020 website, was visually engaging and
well organized (Fig. 1).
Formatting and design of the GeoDaze 2020 website home page.
The site was built using SquareSpace, a website development platform, and CSS coding for
customization. Conference attendees were able to easily navigate from the website home page,
which served as a welcome platform with site navigation information and sponsor
acknowledgments, to pages containing detailed conference information and scientific content.
Traditional conference features, such as a welcome address, program, and conference schedule
were available on the About page or in the linked Program, situated in the
site navigation as a downloadable PDF. Although attendees could browse conference content at
their own pace, the Program offered a suggested schedule to follow if the attendee
wished to have a more traditional conference experience. In addition to these features, a
conference Store was created to enable e-commerce transactions for conference
merchandise, a key fundraising effort that normally takes place during traditional GeoDaze
Presentations were organized by type on two separate webpages, titled Posters and
Talks. All talks and oral poster explanations were prerecorded using Panopto, an
online video platform often used in e-learning environments for managing and recording
lectures. Each poster or talk session was accompanied by a live one-hour question-and-answer
session hosted through Video Webinars, a feature of the teleconferencing software, Zoom.
These live forums were formatted so that attendees could pose questions for individual
presenters during moderated time, followed by a general discussion. Live sessions were not
recorded, and presentations were only available for the duration of the conference out of
respect for unpublished research. To conclude the conference, an awards ceremony was held
through Zoom, paralleling the traditional GeoDaze experience. Although unexpected, the
virtual GeoDaze conference highlighted several benefits that align with the American
Geosciences Institute objectives, components of which are easily integrable with future
in-person conferences (American Geosciences Institute, 2015).
One of the major takeaways from this experience is the impact the virtual conference format
had on accessibility, which also lends to overall inclusivity. Panopto allows users to
prerecord, manage, and edit their presentations, and recordings can be made available to a
public audience or solely to those given access. The aspect of this technology that
contributes the most to accessibility is the use of disability access features, such as
video captioning and screen reader support, which enhance engagement of viewers with visual
or auditory impairments. Many lines of evidence suggest that video captioning also improves
retention of video content and viewer attentiveness for all (Gernsbacher, 2015). The
additional function of variable speed playback can improve viewing for everyone, especially
those with learning deficits, as it allows viewers to slow down or speed up recordings.
These features, which were utilized during our virtual conference, are typically not
available during in-person events, ultimately emphasizing the impact of virtually formatted
scientific conferencing on accessibility.
The virtual format of GeoDaze made the conference available to people around the globe,
compared to the normal in-person crowd of local attendees. Over the past five years, GeoDaze
has averaged 130 registered attendees per year. This year the GeoDaze website had more than
1,300 unique visitors (a statistical count of non-repetitive website viewers). The
Talks and Posters pages had more than 800 and 700 unique visitors,
respectively. Website statistics recorded visitors from five continents (Fig. 2), providing
for a much more geographically diverse audience than those of prior conferences.
Additionally, website organization, formatting, and design all made it possible for people
to access the conference on any device, which was ultimately beneficial considering that 27%
of attendees tuned in on their mobile devices. Students and early career professionals often
lack the financial resources to attend conferences, which can inhibit career and academic
advancement, but virtual formatting alleviates this issue.
The virtual format made the world a smaller place, bringing people together from opposite
ends of the globe to discuss science.
Under the traditional conference format, attendees must adhere to the conference schedule in
order to participate. The virtual format allowed for asynchronous viewing of presentations;
attendees were able to access and view prerecorded presentations at their own convenience
and pace during the week that the website was live. This flexibility led to noticeably
increased engagement during interactive sessions, likely because viewers could rewatch
particularly complex presentations, improving comprehension, and they had time to postulate
questions for the presenters. The use of a video conferencing platform gave attendees the
option to ask questions vocally or to type questions in the Chat or
Q&A software features. In our experience, this provided an environment that
encouraged questions from all participants, including those who would normally feel too
intimidated or embarrassed to ask in person. Although virtual interactions may not provide
the same social gratification as face-to-face conversations, we found that the virtual
Q&A sessions provoked interesting, and sometimes extensive, discussions that
the traditional three-minute post-talk timeframe sometimes fails to encourage. On top of all
of the aforementioned benefits for inclusivity, virtual conference formatting also addresses
the growing concern for scientific meetings to reduce their carbon footprint.
GeoDaze was one of many events around the globe that was disrupted by COVID-19. The goal of
this piece was to highlight the fortuitous silver linings that came out of our means of
adapting to the circumstances by developing a virtual conference. Given the positive
takeaways outlined here, we believe that future in-person conferences could benefit from
incorporating elements of virtual conferences, like ours, into the traditional format. With
this suggestion, consider these key takeaways:
1. Virtual recording software, such as Panopto, offers disability features that increase
accessibility for both presenters and viewers, an option that often does not exist for
2. The asynchronous and virtual viewing format of our conference encouraged geographic viewer
diversity, indicating that this format allows for increased accessibility and inclusivity.
3. The combination of accessibility features and self-paced conference attendance allows for
better comprehension of scientific information, which can stimulate engagement during live
session discussions, ultimately leading to increased scientific advancement.
4. This virtual conference serves as an example of how integrative collaboration of visual
arts and science can produce innovative means for conveying scientific information that are
highly effective due to the effects of enhanced visual literacy.
- American Geosciences Institute, 2015, Disability Consensus Statement:
- Gernsbacher, M.A., 2015, Video captions benefit everyone: Policy Insights from the
Behavioral and Brain Sciences, v. 2, p. 195–202,