While COVID-19 has forced many events online, going digital has its advantages say those who helped to organise the recent highly successful RCN Education Forum conference.

“It allowed many people to come along who wouldn’t otherwise have been able to attend,” says RCN Education Forum Steering Committee member Dr Rachael Major, a senior lecturer at The Institute in Guernsey. “The cost was less than a face-to-face event, plus there weren’t travel or hotel expenses. It stretched budgets further,” she says.

In practice, the new approach has proved so successful it’s likely to change the way future annual conferences are delivered. “The feedback was that people wanted a blended approach next time around,” says Rachael.

Getting together

Open to both RCN members and non-members, including students, the national conference held in April was one of the College’s biggest online events so far. Titled "Stepping Up: Educating the workforce in challenging times", it attracted around 270 attendees over two days. “We weren’t expecting to get such a high attendance and we were really pleased,” says Rachael.

Dr Rachael Major

Dr Rachael Major

For many, this was the first real chance to interact with others in their profession since the pandemic began. “People really appreciated that it went ahead,” says Rachael. “They’ve been wanting to get together and even though we had to do it virtually, it worked really well, with some great feedback. People really valued the opportunity to engage with others, with time out from the work they’ve been doing.”

Other than the keynote speeches, contributions were pre-recorded, but the event remained interactive with those attending able to put their questions forward. There was also networking, with attendees randomly allocated someone to chat with for an initial three minutes that could be extended. “It worked in the same way that a face-to-face conference would, with opportunities for networking in the coffee breaks,” explains Rachael. “For some, one-to-one felt a bit intimidating and they wanted the option of a group, but we’ll look at that for next time.”

Delegates got to see more than they usually would

Behind the scenes

Challenges included technology issues. “It took a lot of people behind the scenes to do this,” says Rachael. “A lot more than a face-to-face conference. There was a great deal of planning and organising.”

Rachael adds that input from the RCN’s professional leads for education, learning and development was also crucial to the success of the event, as well as support from the RCN events and marketing teams.

Sarah Done

Sarah Done

For Sarah Done, a senior lecturer at Swansea University, who joined the forum’s steering committee in January, many initial concerns proved unfounded. “We were worried about whether we would get the attendance and whether interaction would be possible, but it all worked very well,” she says. “It gave the vibe of a live event, which was unexpected. We were delighted.”

Particular highlights of the two-day programme included a keynote presentation on the student experience during COVID-19, given by the RCN’s Newly Qualified Nurses Network. “It was outstanding,” says Sarah. “They generated a real sense of excitement about what the future holds for nursing. I learnt a lot.”

Top tips for organising an online forum event

  • Start early
    “We’ve already started planning for the next conference which will be held in March next year,” says Rachael.
  • Get the whole committee involved
    “We have a committee subgroup which starts the early work, but everyone gets involved in reviewing abstracts and the later stages of planning,” explains Rachael.
  • Have back-up plans
    Recording sessions ahead of the event meant the committee could watch these and prepare to step in to facilitate a discussion should any technical issues arise. Sarah says: “You may not need to use your back-up plan, but it gives you confidence knowing you’re prepared.”
  • Make use of the RCN’s events team
    Rachael says: “The team is brilliant and will help guide you through. They are the key people."

The committee will be calling for abstracts for next year’s conference soon. Visit the RCN Education Forum page for more information.

Want to join a forum steering committee?

Applications are now open to appoint members to 31 RCN Forum Steering Committees. The closing date for applications is 9 August 2021. Find out more.

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