Overwhelming response to virtual conference on educational development

Can a digital conference replace and even surpass a physical conference? How can new methods promote learning in higher education? The Swedish Higher Education Authority and the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education arranged a virtual conference to answer these questions.

There was a sense of anticipation from the moment the conference lobby opened at 8:30 a.m. on 27 September 2019. Many people had arrived early and took the chance to chat with other participants before the day’s programme began. New arrivals were greeted: “Take this chance to test your microphone and headphones, so that you know you can be heard”, “Great, Dalarna University has now joined us, too,” and “Keep an eye on the chat window.”

When the actual conference programme began and Director General of the Swedish Higher Education Authority (UKÄ) Anders Söderholm began his welcome speech, lovely words of praise for the conference began streaming into the conference chat window.

“This kind of conference is the future,” “Finally, I can take part,” and “This isn’t just sustainable; it’s also economical.” The participants’ encouraging comments streamed into the conference chat window.
Great! And I don’t have to be embarrassed or bother anyone when I stand up while listening and stretch my neck a little bit.

“This kind of conference is the future,” “Finally, I can take part,” and “This isn’t just sustainable; it’s also economical.” The participants’ encouraging comments streamed into the conference chat window.

“We are holding this conference entirely online with the help of digital tools. I can’t say this is a brand new method, but in any case, it’s still worth pointing out that what we’re doing today is also a bit of an experiment, or perhaps a development initiative, to broaden our forms of cooperation at UKÄ. I would very much like to see UKÄ using digital meeting forms to a greater extent, and we should also create an environment where it’s easy to try out and use new possibilities,” Anders Söderholm explained in his welcome speech.

Anders Söderholm brought up several reasons for developing how meetings are held, which are also consistent with Agenda 2030. Some of the reasons mentioned included travelling less to reduce our impact on the climate and to give more people a chance to participate, no matter where they live. But he also pointed out yet another reason: to improve the content of our meetings and to enhance the quality of our work.

“The goal shouldn’t be to make a 2D copy of the 3D reality. The idea here isn’t to create a worse version of a real conference. On the contrary, we should be trying to generate quality that isn’t otherwise available.”

Collaboration made the conference possible

In conjunction with a presentation of the Swedish Higher Education Authority’s (UKÄ) government assignment for the educational development in higher education, the agency had contact with the Swedish Network for IT in Higher Education (ITHU). ITHU is a professional network for everyone who works with digitalisation in higher education. They work to boost skills and awareness of digital opportunities in teaching contexts.

“When UKÄ introduced the educational development project and included the digital possibilities, we were incredibly pleased at ITHU that someone finally saw the potential of merging education with digital tools and platforms. ITHU’s project board has several highly experienced ‘webinar gurus’, and we have long been working on what the next developmental steps will be. Arranging a virtual conference has been a goal of ours at ITHU. Together with UKÄ and with such a suitable project, the opportunity was perfect,” says Birgitta Hemmingsson, educational developer at Mid Sweden University and chair of ITHU’s project board.

With ITHU as a partner, UKÄ boldly ventured into unknown territory.

“Our project includes promoting a development where higher education makes more use of existing digital possibilities. We will also develop and test new transparent, interactive and digital forms of communication, dialogue and discussion with stakeholders in the higher education sector. The problem was that we didn’t have the necessary skills to tackle these questions in full, but with ITHU as a partner, everything fell into place. Their unique blend of both technical and educational expertise gave us the courage to experiment with the virtual conference and we’ve learned a lot along the way,” says Andrea Amft, project manager for the government assignment for developing education in higher education at UKÄ.

Qualitative opinions from many people with digital tools

As part of the government assignment, UKÄ has conducted a survey of how the country’s higher education institutions work with educational development in higher education. UKÄ presented some of the study results at the virtual conference and then requested views and input on them from participants.

“We and several of the other sessions at the used breakout groups: participants were split into smaller groups to discuss and present their viewpoints using digital tools, such as Padlet or Mentimeter,” says Andrea Amft.

Together with the survey and in-depth interviews with some of the higher education institutions, the conference participants’ viewpoints are helping UKÄ create a national overview of the higher education institutions’ work with issues related to educational development in higher education.

“When so many different voices take part and are heard, our overview becomes more nuanced and multifaceted. We call this for co-creating with the sector. I hope and believe that we will work more according to this model in the future,” says Andrea Amft.

One step forward for digitalisation, educational development and no-travel meetings

During the conference, important key players participated and raised various questions on the theme of higher education and digitalisation. In addition to UKÄ and ITHU, the Swedish National Digitalisation Council, Swedish Council for Higher Education (UHR), Swedish National Union of Students (SFS), Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF), Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) and teachers and educational developers from various higher education institutions had their own sessions at the conference.

Many participants said the conference was a true eye-opener, and that it became clear that you actually can hold a digital conference that is simultaneously social and interactive.

“This conference was a step forward for digitalisation in various ways, a step forward for educational development, for collaboration among different types of organisations, and a step forward for sustainable travel,” says Birgitta Hemmingsson.

Or to end with a quotation from one of the conference participants:

“We don’t travel – we participate!”

The virtual conference on educational development in higher education was held on 27 September 2019, with over 500 participants. It was a joint arrangement between UKÄ and ITHU and was carried out with the help of SUNET. Over half of the participants who responded to our survey gave top marks for their overall impression of the conference. We will evaluate the conference in greater depth and will be happy to share our experiences. See “Related reading” below for links to more information about the conference and our government assignment.

We would like to direct a big thank you to ITHU’s project group for such an incredible collaboration!

More about the conference

Read more about the conference via the link below. Here, you will find more information about the various sessions and presentations from the speakers.

To the conference pages » (In Swedish)