SITE 2020: How COVID-19 Led to the First-Ever Online SITE Conference

Due to COVID-19 health concerns, SITE 2020 was held as a completely online conference for the first time in the Society’s 31-year history. SITE’s community and leadership, along with a small team of 3 moms with 6 children at home from school, a guy working from an Airstream trailer parked in Colorado, and a guy with 17 cats and several servers managed to get the conference re-organized and online in less than 3 weeks, with surprising results.

by Kathryn Mosby (Sarah Benson contributing)

About SITE

The  SITE Conference is an annual international meeting held by the Society for  Information Technology and Teacher Education.  This society represents individual teacher educators and affiliated organizations of teacher educators in all disciplines who are interested in the creation and dissemination of knowledge about the use of information technology in teacher education and faculty/staff development. The conference is organized by AACE—Assn. for the Advancement of Computing in Education in conjunction with SITE’s leadership.

For 30 years, SITE has met in a traditional on-location conference setting. But with the onset of the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic, AACE’s conference team was faced with a difficult choice. For the first time in its 30-year history and in less than 3 weeks time, SITE transitioned to a fully online conference experience. More than a year’s worth of planning and scheduling for a week-long conference in New Orleans was condensed into a new 4-day format to be held completely online and as live and in real time as possible.

COVID-19 Concerns

For weeks leading up to SITE 2020 in New Orleans, the SITE/AACE staff watched the COVID-19 situation escalate around the world and then begin infecting the US. In the meantime, we were in talks with AACE conference hosting hotels about our future contracts, and most concerned about the upcoming  SITE conference to be held April 4-7. On March 16, just 3 weeks from the start date of SITE, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards made the official statement limiting all events in the state to 50 people or fewer, in effect cancelling the SITE 2020 conference.

After weighing the options of full cancellation, or postponing, and looking at all possible outcomes and how our attendees would be affected by our final decision, the SITE Executive Board and AACE decided to move forward – to take the chance that no matter the conference format, SITE attendees would follow. We knew that if anyone could come together online to promote research for teachers and educators that would be exponentially important for these uncertain times, it would be the SITE community. We also knew we couldn’t let the hard work of so many presenters wait another year and possibly lose its significance and importance. And we knew that SITE was a family, and we trusted that family to stick together.

So we asked authors and attendees to not only adjust to their “new normal” of being sequestered at home and now teaching their students remotely, while also homeschooling their own children or living under other new and difficult circumstances, but to now also prepare to present in an online format and new schedule much different than a typical SITE conference.

The Online Conference

On April 7, we launched the conference with four free, live workshops and live meetings for the SITE Special Interest Groups, all held using an online meeting platform and the AACE developed, custom-designed Academic Experts conference application. These interesting and timely workshops drew the highest attendance numbers SITE has seen in years! The week continued with live keynote talks, live paper presentations, poster sessions, live panels and symposia, and more live SIG meetings. For those not able to attend or present live sessions, asynchronous virtual presentations were offered throughout the week.

Presenters showed incredible commitment to the new format, some even joining us from distant time zones to present their work at 3 AM local time. Other presenters completely reworked their sessions at the last minute to better address the changing demands in online learning. We saw how 3D printing was being used to create facemasks for healthcare workers. We learned how instructors were using social media not only to reach and teach their students, but to also foster communities of connection at a time when we were all beginning to feel more and more isolated.

We found that in a world that felt like it was changing daily, some things also stayed the same. Presenters still knew how to be flexible and adjust to changes made on short notice. Attendees still collaborated, still shared, and still fostered deeper discussions. SITE has always been known as “The Friendly Society,” and this was well exemplified during the online conference.

On Friday afternoon when we held an impromptu online happy hour to close the conference, more than 45 attendees joined us for a virtual “Cheers!,” from their offices, living rooms, Airstream campers, and front yards, many with a drink in hand and all there to connect one more time and share in the excitement and success of the SITE 2020 conference week. Some attendees even donned leis and fun outfits and blended their own cocktails!

Screen share of SITE 2020 closing “Happy Hour.”

The Numbers

SITE 2020 Online was the first conference of its kind in the 30-year history of the Society. Never before had we held an exclusively online conference with both live, real-time sessions as well as virtual sessions. An astonishing 564 attendees joined together from 6 continents and 15 different times zones! Twenty-eight countries from around the world and 400 unique universities and institutions were represented by our attendees. SITE 2020 showcased 215 live-streamed sessions including Keynotes, Workshops, Innovators Playgrounds, Paper Presentations, SIG Meetings, and the Happy Hour Social. We also welcomed 235 virtual presentations, presented asynchronously by authors who chose to pre-record their work and facilitate discussions on the SITE virtual conference platform.

The presentation papers and slides of all presented works are now published and internationally distributed in the SITE 2020 Proceedings via LearnTechLib—The Learning and Technology Library.  These online conference  proceedings carry the exact same validity (publication, certification, etc.) as the face-to-face conference.

Just as prior on-location SITE conferences, cutting-edge research was presented and connections were made using the Academic Experts community conference app. The COVID-19 outbreak could not stop authors and attendees from participating and doing what all needed now – to form stronger communities and make strides to improve how we teach and learn in this new, online and at-a-distance frontier.

We even saw and announced the birth of a first-of-its-kind, open access JTATE special issue journal that will exclusively showcase best practices and professional development for teachers and teacher educators during the COVD-19 pandemic. Given the unbelievable attendance and the ongoing research and conversations that were started at SITE 2020 Online, we consider the conference a huge success. While we had never done this before, we knew it was necessary and important for us to at least try.

The Support of Many

We cannot say thank you enough to the quick response and tremendous efforts of the SITE Executive Committee, volunteers, and hundreds of attendees who joined us to make this conference a success! The research and practices being formed now during this crisis will undoubtedly shape the landscape of online and traditional education for decades to come. We are in a time where creativity and innovation are being pushed to the forefront, and we are learning and teaching in new ways and to an extent we never expected. We are so impressed with the quality of work shown at this conference and with the resilience of the SITE family as a whole.

Thank you to AACE Founder and CEO Gary Marks for his vision and support and for taking a chance on the online conference format. He is one of the many forces that worked behind the scenes and ensured the conference would come together so completely in such short time.

A very large and heartfelt thanks is also due to Denise Schmidt-Crawford, SITE’s president through SITE 2020 Online, who has served SITE the last 4 years. Denise is easily one of the kindest, most generous educators and people, and she has brought that passion and compassion to the SITE community. We appreciate her tireless hours of phone calls and meetings to get SITE 2020 off the ground and online! As she ends her term this year, she is leaving behind a truly exceptional legacy at SITE.

We sincerely appreciate all the kindness, flexibility, and sense of community that we experienced first-hand from all those involved. Very special appreciation goes to those who couldn’t participate but still donated their registration fees to help support the online conference and ensure the success of SITE in the future. Thank you all for hanging in there with us! This was an historical moment for AACE and SITE, and we truly could not organize this successful conference without you.

The saying, “Adversity is the mother of invention,” proved to be true especially with the help of SITE leaders!  Now, we also can add, “COVID-19 couldn’t stop SITE 2020!”

We invite you to join us at SITE 2021 in San Diego, California, March 28-April 3!

Our team revealed –

The 3 Moms with 6 Children: Sarah Benson – AACE Director of Conferences,

Kathryn Mosby – AACE Graphics & Communications Coordinator,

& Lindsey Radecki – AACE Business Office Manager

The Guy in an Airstream Trailer: Dave Monsour – Website & Technical Support

The Guy with 17 Cats: Michael Rapp – AACE Technical Director

 

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  Comments: 1


  1. Amazing feat in hosting first online conference! Great teamwork by all to make it possible, as well as the attendees willing to give it a try. Great job SITE!

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