Conducting virtual defenses

University offices may close in the midst of COVID-19, but our graduate students still need to defend their theses and dissertations. I have two doctoral candidates defending dissertations in two weeks, and I’m a committee member on a third defense that week as well.

I’ve done defenses where 1-2 people have been at a distance before, and it works to an extent. However, the event is still very location-specific, and the transactional distance between the people joining virtually and those in the room is palpable. Everyone has to be very conscious of including the virtual attendees.

A fully virtual defense is different. Everyone joins from their own location, and has equal presence in the room. It’s basically a web conference with a presentation followed by a Q&A session, with a few important differences.

Here is the protocol that I’m using:

  1. Set up the defense meeting in zoom. I’m setting as a private meeting, and enabling the waiting room (I’ll explain why later).  I have the settings adjusted so that others can screen share. I want to control the meeting, but to allow the students to control the presentation part.
  2. Send reminder and protocol to committee. I will be sharing the following information and comments with the committee prior to the defense:
    • Link to join session.
    • Please find a quiet location for joining the meeting. I recommend that you use headphones to listen, because that will help reduce any feedback.
    • Please plan to have your webcam on. This is a small meeting and we do not anticipate bandwidth issues. It will be helpful to see each other’s faces, and will make it a more personal experience for the candidate.
    • Remember to be on mute when not speaking.
    • When we reach the Q&A section, we will take turns asking questions as usual. At this time I will recommend that you adjust your screen so you have the gallery view on and can see everyone’s face. Gallery view is the one that looks like the opening of a The Brady Bunch episode. If you need practice using the settings, please just ask. I’m happy to help you.
    • If you have a question or comment and it is not currently your turn, please don’t interrupt the current speaker. We will likely notice via your facial expression/body language, but you might also type “I’d like to add something” into the chat, and we’ll make sure you get to speak next.
  3. Rehearse with student. It’s important to give the candidate a chance to practice presenting and handling Q&A in this format.  I’ve already run a practice session with other graduate students attending. We ran through the presentations, did Q&A, and then debriefed at the end. It was valuable, and we’ll do one more
  4. Day of set-up. I will ask the candidate to log in at least 15 minutes in advance and set up their screen share. I will have to be monitoring so I can let people in from the waiting room. When the committee enters the meeting room, they should see a title slide.
  5. Start the defense. At the appointed hour, welcome everyone and give a reminder of the overall protocol (detailed in #2, above). Allow for social niceties. Then introduce the dissertation and hand over to the candidate. Remind everyone to mute themselves, and turn off the webcam if they wish.
  6. Beginning the Q&A. I will remind everyone to turn webcams on and stay muted unless speaking. We will choose an order for questioning, and invite the first questioner to begin. I want to take notes for my students, so I will use my second laptop or my iPad for that purpose. That way I can have one device fully devoted to the defense. If I didn’t have multiple devices, I’d take notes by hand.
  7. Transitioning to committee discussion. When the Q&A is over, I will place the candidate back into the waiting room. This is why it was important to enable the waiting room and for me to be the meeting host. An alternate approach would be to ask the candidate to leave the meeting and await a message (such as a text message) to rejoin the meeting. That’s doable, but the waiting room is a more elegant option.
  8. Transitioning back to the student. Once the committee deliberation is over, it’s time to invite the candidate in from the waiting room for the results and feedback. Normally this is the time where we all shake hands in celebration, and take photos in front of the title slide. That won’t happen in a virtual defense, but I have a plan. Before I bring the candidate back in, I’ll be screen sharing something like this:
    defensecongratulations
    I’ll also get us to all pose for a screenshot to commemorate the event.
  9. Debriefing. I’ll debrief with the candidate via zoom after the committee leaves — or maybe the next day, even. Two hours is a long time to sit in a virtual meeting.

Guests (a variation): We typically allow guests to attend the public presentation part of the defense. The Q&A is closed. This is still doable. We can allow guests in from the waiting room at the start of the defense, and then ask them to leave after the presentation. If they don’t leave (some people walk away, leaving their computer on), it’s possible for the host to kick them out of the meeting. Because the waiting room option is on, it won’t be a problem if more people have the meeting link. They can’t join if I don’t let them in. I can also shut off their cameras and mute them, if necessary (but I will also send out a protocol for joining and what to expect when sharing the join link).

Oh, and one more VERY IMPORTANT thing: I’m planning a virtual party so my research group can celebrate these new PhDs. Celebrating the accomplishment is pretty darn important. I might even don my cap and gown at the beginning, and offer a little speech in honor of the soon-to-be graduates since they won’t be walking across the stage and getting hooded at the end of the term.

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