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How to Illustrate a Virtual Seminar

By Theresa Barosh, graduate student in the Graduate Degree Program at Colorado State University, in the home Department of Agricultural Biology.

Theresa editing her virtual defense

Defending a Masters or PhD thesis is hard enough without doing it virtually. Yet, graduate students across the United States are making excellent remote presentations during this pandemic, and they are making it fun. See this twitter thread for some general virtual defense advice.

I successfully defended my PhD in Ecology at Colorado State University on March 25, the day before the Colorado stay at home orders took effect. With support from my advisor, my committee members, other mentors, and the CSU Graduate School, I managed to have some fun while making my illustrated seminar available and accessible for my family, friends, and colleagues. Below are my recommendations for other students defending remotely.

Survey your resources and get creative.

touchscreen devices
Consider a touch screen device or drawing tablet for interacting with presentation slides.

What technology do you have available? Do you have a microphone, camera, and access to an editing program? Try out some different options to see what you find most comfortable, and make sure to set up your work space purposefully. Keep it simple and easy on yourself. While it can be fun to learn new skills, you do not need to become an expert videographer and editor over night. Use what you have easily available and keep your goals achievable.

There is no such thing as a perfect presentation, so do not make the mistake of believing that the option to pre-record will give you the ability to make a perfect cut. If you start out expecting perfection of yourself, you could spend hours taking the same video over and over. This is not the best use of your time.

I chose to draw over my slides in Adobe Acrobat Pro after giving a test run of my presentation to colleagues over a video chat. Aware of criticism of voice-over slide presentations in on-line teaching, I initially wanted to record myself standing in front of a large screen with my slides. Unfortunately, the lighting on my screen at home combined with my video equipment did not allow for a clear image. My attempts to point and interact with the slides made it even harder to see the presentation. My colleagues reported that they had a hard time seeing most of my graphs. I decided that I needed another solution.

If you have a touch screen device, drawing tablet, or other method of writing over your slides while capturing your screen, try it out. This can be a nice way to make the presentation engaging without making an appearance in the video. Despite being camera shy, I wanted to appear on the video. So, I asked a friend to take a short video of me introducing the seminar. This worked for me as an easy edit. If you do not have access to or comfort with a video-editing program, this may not work for you.

By the end, I used a headphone set with a built in speak, a tablet, a smart phone, and my MacBook Pro to record. Programs that came in handy include Adobe Acrobat Pro, iMovie, and a phone app called Voice Recorder.

Find the right methods and style to fit you.

I enjoy sketching concepts out. I prefer to give a chalk-talk over a slide presentation. It comes more naturally to me. Consider how you best present and use that to guide your presentation planning.

Here is the biggest secret to my presentation style: I recorded the voice-over before the sketching. On the first take, I drew in the air while making my audio cut as clear as possible and slowing down when I needed more drawing time. On the second run, I recorded my screen while drawing and listening to my voice-over. This is why I have periodic ukulele sounds for slide progressions – to help myself know when to move to the next slide while making the visual part of the presentation. If you choose to illustrate over your slides, try recording your voice and visuals separately if you have trouble speaking at the same time as writing or drawing. Otherwise, you can embrace the chalk-talk style and pause to write on the slides.

Fit your presentation style to your strengths. You have flexibility with how to present. Is it better for you to stand in front of a screen or voice over a shared screen? Some graduate schools are no longer requiring a public defense during the pandemic, so you can get creative with your presentation. There are no regulations holding you back. There are academic traditions for what a seminar looks like – this is your chance to challenge those preconceptions. While a public defense seminar can be satisfying and cathartic, it is also a completely valid option to skip that for now if your advisor and committee members concur. People understand that this is a hard time. Please, prioritize your emotional health.

Remember, you have access to a college tech support team. Use the resources that the university provides.

Getting assistance from someone you cohabitate with can also help with brainstorming, setting up your space, or running the technology. Do you need an extra computer for streaming? Do you need someone to manage sound? Depending on your comfort with multitasking and your setup, an assistant may be necessary. These considerations can also help you determine whether to stream your seminar or make it available for people to watch at any time.

Theresa's grandpa watches her defense
Theresa’s Grandpa listens to her defense seminar

I wanted my video to be easy to access and share so my family and friends around the world could tune in. Thus, I chose to make an asynchronously available seminar. With the auto-captions option and no log-in required, YouTube is easy for many people to use. Teams and Zoom may or may not be easy for your target audience to access. On the other hand, YouTube is perhaps too widely accessible. If you want to make your seminar completely open to the public, a chat with your advisor and co-authors may be in order depending on your content.

Once you share your seminar, you open yourself up to comments and questions. Depending on your schedule, it may be best to share after your final exam. I shared two days before my actual defense. While supportive comments helped build my confidence, they were also distracting from my defense preparation. On the evenings, I turned my phone off for short study sessions.

Learn and have fun.

For my own personal enjoyment, I made my public defense preparation a learning experience and an opportunity to try something new. For others, this strategy may be more stress-inducing than motivating. Figure out the best way to motivate yourself and make the experience as fun as possible.

General defense advice still applies.

Make yourself as comfortable as possible for your defense, whether that means eating your favorite breakfast or listening to some pump-up music beforehand. Maybe it is important to get in the right mindset. The night before my defense, I revisited my written preliminary exam questions and answers. This was a fun blast from the past, and it helped me get into the mindset of my committee members to think about what questions they may have.

Learn from science communication and teaching resources. Resources are widely available to support teaching, including how to present remotely. For example see this article on remote teaching and advice from CSU faculty.

Setting reasonable goals and priorities can help with building a realistic timeline. Check in with your committee members to make sure you know what to expect at the defense and what they expect of you. Put the most time and effort into what you decide collectively is the most important. This might mean that your public seminar gets bumped down in priority. In that case, give yourself a limited number of practice runs, especially if you are taking video for an asynchronous audience.

You worked hard to get here. You earned this. Make sure to take the time and best prepare to get what you want out of your defense, whether that means sharing with your family or getting critical feedback from your committee members.

Unfortunately, this day and the resulting celebrations may not look the way you had originally envisioned due to the current pandemic situation. Please celebrate afterwards in a way that is safe and feels most special to you.

Theresa author of blog
Theresa researches plant mediated interactions in gall forming insect interactions and was a pioneer during this season of remote graduate defenses. Theresa has worked with state agencies and local land managers to improve weed management strategies. With a keen interest in science communication, Theresa is working full time on communications for the Colorado State University Graduate School. Check-out Theresa’s webpage and follow on Twitter @cecidologists.