Successful econferences: examples and case studies

Online conferences Mar 24, 2020

By Geoffrey Rockwell, Oliver Rossier, Chelsea Miya, Terry Anderson and Nick Byrd; edited by Lucy Barnes

Nearly Carbon Neutral conferences

The Nearly Carbon Neutral (NCN) econference concept was created by Ken Hiltner as a part of a response to a sustainability audit at UCSB, which found that nearly 30% (55,000,000 lbs.) of the CO2 footprint of its entire campus in 2014 came from air travel (UCSB Climate Action Plan, 2014).

Hiltner and his colleagues used this stark finding as a motivation to explore alternative methods of conferences with a lighter environmental footprint.

The NCN econference has three phases:

1) Speakers [pre]record their own talks.

2) Talks are viewed on the conference website.

3) Participants contribute to online Q&A sessions.

The core goals of this NCN were ‘to encourage the cross pollination of ideas across a broad range of disciplines’ and ‘help establish relationships and to build a community.

The econference featured 4 keynote speakers and 50 research presentations from 8 countries. The online question and answer sessions are still available and provide insight into some of the successes and shortcomings of this format. Hiltner’s opening remarks and corresponding discussion section have a particularly rich discussion of both the NCN application techniques and the philosophical underpinnings of the econference.

Most significantly, the NCN econference model provides opportunities for several layers of cognitive and social presence among the presenters and participants by hosting both the presentations and the discussion online in three formats.

In terms of cognitive presence, NCN presenters disseminate their research through video via Vimeo, voice via SoundCloud, and text via conference website comments. Social presence was also augmented by some presenters’ use of social media. The NCN econferences created access to research detailing climate change constraints and specific techniques for hosting similar econferences.

HackSummit 2016

Perhaps the largest virtual conference to date was the 2016 HackSummit that attracted over 30,000 participants over 4 days to a conference hosted on CrowdCast streaming video platform enhanced with Twitter and other technologies. This example demonstrates the potential for scalability of virtual conferences that far exceeds that of face-to-face conferences. However, in practice many virtual conferences seem to attract audiences measured in hundreds – not tens of thousands!

Bangkok Project

The formation of the Internet set the stage for text-based conferences, which represent an important phase in the evolution of econferences. The first international econference was likely the 1992 Bangkok Project, organized by Terry Anderson. This conference was an extension of the XVI World Congress of the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) and used carefully coordinated email relays to make a major f2f conference available to virtual participants.

This conference also serves as an early model for exploring dual presence, as there were contributors who sent email messages as well as making in-person presentations. In this way the Bangkok Project also prototyped hybrid methods of engaging a distributed audience in the dialogue of a f2f conference.

The Bangkok Project ran as an asynchronous set of interactive sessions over a longer period than most traditional conferences: it ran for three weeks.

Terry writes:

Beginning my PhD program in 1990 meant curtailing the perks I had enjoyed as a director of a distance education network in northern Ontario. There was no money for trips to exotic lands to participate in education research conferences.

I was stuck, in pre-Internet times, in Canada, while my ex-colleagues enjoyed the learning, each other and the intercultural experience of other lands while attending international conferences. However, as the International Council of Distance Education Congress approached in Bangkok I began to wonder if I, and potentially hundreds of others could participate in the conference - without actually travelling there.

Thus, the inspiration for the world’s first networked supported virtual conference.

In 1990 we didn’t think much about carbon footprints and time on airplanes, but we did worry about the high costs of travel and hotels. And of course, the irony of distance educators, having to physically travel for their professional development while preaching the benefits of mediated learning, unnerved not just a few of us.  So how could we have meaningful and productive professional learning and networking while remaining in our homes?

To set the context, one must remember that in 1992 there was no Internet – or at least any Internet that ordinary teachers could access.  However email was becoming more popular supported on networks such as BITNet, FidoNet, NetNorth , UseNet and 18 other mail distribution lists that participated in the conference.

The learning design for the conference consisted of soliciting text talks/papers from six leading experts who would be attending the conference and distributed these “first speaker inputs”. We invited participants to respond (using email) to the paper, first speakers and other participants. Each topic ran for two weeks of asynchronous discussion, with two topics running simultaneously using listserv and other early email support services.

To expand access, we needed to bridge networks by using human ‘porters’ – ‘unsung heros of the computer revolution’, who manually cut and pasted text messages between various network distributors.

In those early days it was quite easy to solicit “first speakers” as most had no idea what a virtual conference was and many were willing to give it a try. A participant survey of the Bangkok Project gleamed the following comments:

●       For me this virtual conference means that I can attend—I would be unable to get the funding to attend the “real” conference.

●       It means that I have a permanent record of all dialogue, to which I can easily refer at a later date.

●       It means that I can choose when, during the day, I want to “attend” a session.

●       It means that I can listen to practitioners and experts in my field discussing the new developments that I am interested in and hope eventually to implement myself.

There have been hundreds of virtual conferences held online since 1992. Now in addition to asynchronous text, live and recorded video, immersive environments, blogging, live and asynchronous video, microblogging and other technologies have been used to bring learning and networking to professionals around the world – without the fiscal and environmental costs of physical attendance.

Case studies

Here we present two chapters from the forthcoming Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene edited by Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier, which offer in-depth case studies of particular online conferences. Below are links to the peer-reviewed manuscript versions of these chapters, stored in the University of Alberta online repository.

  • ‘Greening’ Academic Gatherings: A Case for Econferences by Geoffrey Rockwell and Oliver Rossier.
    Traditional academic conferences that require participants to physically travel between locations have a large environmental footprint. That is why a growing number of researchers believe it is imperative to seek out more sustainable alternatives. This econference case study looks at the “Around the World” virtual conferences organized at the University of Alberta as a model or ‘greenprint’ for hosting successful and sustainable research gatherings without the carbon cost of flying. The success of this online event, with its diverse range of topics and presentation formats (live, pre-recorded, hybrid), shows that the econference format can be adapted to a wide range of needs. Our results show that econferencing, while not without its challenges, is a viable alternative to face-to-face conferencing that can replicate its benefits without the environmental cost. (DOI:
  • Online Philosophy Conferences: Their History, Methods, and Benefits by Nick Byrd.
    Philosophers have probably been organizing conferences since at least the time of Plato’s academy. More recently, philosophers have brought some of their conferences online. However, the adoption of online philosophy conferences is limited. One might wonder if the reason is that traditional conference models provide goods that online conferences cannot. While this may be true, online conferences outshine traditional conferences in various ways, and at a significantly lower cost. So, one might wonder if the advantages of traditional conferences are outweighed by their significantly higher costs. This paper shares the methods and results the Minds Online conferences of 2015, 2016, and 2017. The evidence suggests that the online philosophy conference model can help philosophers better understand their profession, share the workload of conference organizing, increase representation for underrepresented groups, and reduce their carbon footprint. So, the advantages of traditional conferences might be outweighed by their higher costs after all. (DOI:
This series of blog posts is drawn from Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene edited by Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier, forthcoming with Open Book Publishers. Explore the other posts here.

Lucy Barnes

Lucy Barnes is Senior Editor and Outreach Coordinator at Open Book Publishers.