As Covid-19 shut down in-person events, online programming became the de facto alternative. But digital audience engagement — keeping people watching and participating — isn’t a simple task for science communicators. With virtual events, audiences have grown accustomed to switching between tasks and tabs. It’s commonplace for people to do several things during a digital event, from checking the chat text to clicking on relevant links to checking for emails that come in during the seminar.
Diana Montano, events producer at the Science Friday radio show, decided to take a collaborative approach to finding solutions. In a tweet, she asked if anyone else was working to organize effective communication with an online audience. The responses she received grew into the LiveSci Collective.
The LiveSci Collective is a growing community of collaborators who support the creation of virtual scientific outreach. In addition to Science Friday, the collective includes BioBus, Data for the People, Scientists Inc., Skype A Scientist, and the Story Collider. Each organization aims to engage with audiences that may not typically associate themselves with science or have access to science content.
Since the collective was formed in spring 2020, the organizers have worked to create a safe space so people feel valued and comfortable challenging rules. “The original version was meant to support us for a few months, maybe publish some toolkits, discuss the field, elevate each other’s events, attend each other’s events and maybe give feedback,” says Montano. “But as we started meeting more, we thought, ‘We can build and make this a sustainable place.’”
In addition to creating online science communication events, organizations in the collective help other organizations evaluate their strengths and weaknesses and establish best practices for achieving their goals. One internal seminar, run by BioBus, tackled how to digitally engage K-12 students from marginalized communities.
“One funny thing has been understanding the amount of production required for an online event. We need many people coordinating, regardless whether the audience is 10 or 1,000,” says Parmvir Bahia, the CEO of Scientists Inc and a founding LiveSci Collective member.
These coordinators include a ‘hype person’ who gets the audience to open up through introductions or an icebreaker. Meanwhile, a tech support person controls cameras to spotlight the host, guest or panel, which helps the audience pay attention to the right people. During the event, a coordinator may share relevant links and media such as a paper, a video or a scientist’s Twitter handle. One person may manage the social media while another compiles questions from the audience for the host to answer.
Online events come with benefits that in-person events may not have. For example, digital venues can be more accessible. Personalized volume control can enable audiences to hear better, and closed captions are available. Furthermore, people who are unable to attend can view recordings after the event.
However, not everyone can fully participate in digital society. Some are unable to afford hardware, electricity or internet access, and others are unfamiliar with the technology needed to connect. But the digital divide is waning over time with increased availability of technological resources. Cheaper hardware, user-friendly websites and free internet connections in more areas of the U.S. all contribute to digital equity. After the pandemic, we may see organizations adopt best practices of online and in-person events to create hybrid experiences.
To help organizations evaluate the effectiveness of their digital events, the collective set up an internal evaluation group where organizations can learn how to create and interpret evaluation methods. They also hired Scott Burg to conduct a process evaluation of the collective as a whole. Burg is a senior research principal of Rockman et al, a consulting firm focusing on education, technology and media. He examined what the collective produced, how it was set up, and how it was moving toward its goals. He also spoke directly with participating communities and individuals and sat in on internal evaluation-group meetings.
“The collective is working so well because communication has to be open and transparent,” says Burg. “When assessing success or failure, oftentimes that message can be a difficult one to hear. So you have to be transparent about how we’re doing and what we have to collectively achieve.”
As the collective grows, its members intend to integrate justice and equity into the way they welcome new member organizations.
“Diana’s callout on Twitter meant the usual suspects came to this group, we all know each other from beforehand,” says Bahia. “So rather than asking, ‘Who do we know that we can invite?’ we’re looking at best practices to select incoming members, whether we learn from each other, and if they feel comfortable in the LiveSci environment. We want to be easily accessible for people who do things that maybe actually even aren’t considered science communication sometimes.”
LiveSci’s website has an inquiry form for anyone interested in joining.
“Essentially we’re trying to say, ‘Which communities aren’t easily reached? Who is doing really unique work?’” says Bahia. “Because one of the arguments that’s taking place within science, communication and outreach overall is ‘Who is a professional in this space?’ There are some who feel that it requires very formal training — and I personally don’t have formal scicomm training. These people wouldn’t necessarily recognize that something that isn’t ‘formal’ deserves funding or public elevation. But that’s changing.”
Science Friday joined the community of Science Sandbox awardees in April 2020. This article is part of a series on how Science Sandbox awardees are navigating the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.