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EUNIS2020 Brings ‘Virtual Helsinki’ to Attendees with First Digital Congress

EUNIS2020 Brings ‘Virtual Helsinki’ to Attendees with First Digital Congress

The European University Information Systems (EUNIS) Organization was founded in 1993 and registered five years later as a nonprofit organization in Paris, France. Today, hundreds of different institutions from all over Europe are members of EUNIS, including universities, consortia, and corporations. Within EUNIS there exist several task forces and special interest groups (SIGs), each of them working on highly specific key areas related to information technology in higher education. Their mission is to help member institutions develop their IT landscape by sharing experiences and working together.

Bringing the value of in-person events to the virtual space

Every year, the EUNIS community gathers at its Annual Congress. This congress usually takes place in an extraordinary location in Europe to reflect the diversity of the community they serve. The goal of this event is to bring people together – face-to-face – so that they can share best practices with each other and collaborate on research within their SIGs.

The EUNIS Board, in line with the agreement with the University of Helsinki, planned to host this year’s Annual Congress EUNIS2020 in Helsinki, Finland. 

All their initial plans changed when COVID-19 swept across the globe. The team was forced to cancel EUNIS2020, and as they received many reactions on the cancellation from EUNIS members, they decided at short notice to hold their first digital congress in “Virtual Helsinki” instead. The biggest challenge was to deliver the same values of the physical experience in a virtual event. 

Gill Ferrell, Relationship Manager and Learning and Teaching SIG Leader at EUNIS, Anna Pacholak, Administration & Communications Manager at EUNIS, and Suvi Valsta from the University of Helsinki took the lead in organizing the online event with the support of the Board members and EUNIS friends who volunteered to Virtual Organizing & Programme Committee.

“The cancellation of EUNIS2020 in Helsinki, due to Covid-19, was a great disappointment. When we decided to run our first online Congress with Zoom instead, we felt we had to do it in a way that reflects the spirit of our community. It seems ‘Virtual Helsinki’ did just that!”

Gill Ferrell, Relationship Manager and Learning and Teaching SIG Leader, EUNIS

Leveraging Zoom for a secure, engaging event experience

Based on the technical nature of the organization, EUNIS had already evaluated and put several video conferencing platforms, such as Zoom, in place a few years before. The group had to identify which solution would fit their needs and could help them best execute a successful virtual congress. As the user should be the focus of the congress, the tool had to be as intuitive as possible. That’s why the decision was made to host EUNIS2020 with Zoom. 

“Our team worked extra shifts in order to make EUNIS2020 in ‘Virtual Helsinki’ happen,” Pacholak said. “The Zoom team supported us tremendously to ensure that the technical components of the virtual conference were set up correctly beforehand.” 

The complexity and duration of the conference and the short preparation time did not prove to be an obstacle to creating a smooth conference experience. The Zoom team worked with EUNIS to ensure their ambitious vision came to fruition, running parallel sessions, keynotes, mindfulness and fitness sessions and coffee breaks – all as a single immersive experience. Security was a top priority, and security features in the Zoom webinar platform, such as passcodes, were enabled to ensure the sessions were disruption-free.

Expanding access to EUNIS2020 with Zoom

Whilst the EUNIS event averages around 350-500 attendees at its Annual Congress, they registered more than 600 participants from 35 countries for the virtual event, including Indonesia, Australia and the United States. People who initially were not able to attend the event due to costs or travel restrictions could now join the congress via Zoom. 

The attendance rate of 78% surprised Gill and the team: 497 out of 640 registrations attended. “We were expecting an attendance rate of around 25%, so I was over the moon when I saw the results,” Ferrell said.

During three days, over 30 separate sessions were hosted virtually, including plenaries, parallel sessions and workshops of the SIGs. To keep the attendees energized and engaged, the EUNIS2020 team organized polls during several Zoom webinar sessions, fitness workouts, mindfulness sessions and virtual saunas during the breaks. 

“The virtual saunas were especially well received by the attendees as they brought Helsinki and the Finnish culture to their homes. One attendee even joined from his real sauna,” Ferrell said. 

“On the virtual Gala Dinner of the Congress we were celebrating the people who had won the EUNIS prizes by raising a glass together and having a great time,” Pacholak added. 

Ferrell highlighted the great feedback that they received from the delegates:

“With EUNIS2020 being such a huge success, we would like to experiment with hybrid events using Zoom to bring our delegates from all over the world together. And maybe all of our events will be hybrid in the future,” summarized Ferrell. 

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