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Feature Article

The Stanford’s Virtual Learning Conference Experience
By Mila Kostic, CHCP, FACEHP 

In the middle of this unusual and difficult year for all of us, together with my colleagues from Stanford CME, I was fortunate to be part of the unique experience of developing and delivering a massive virtual conference in record time. Stanford’s CME Live 2020, August 19-21, was developed for and with our community of CME/CPD providers to create a forum for learning new skills and exchanging challenges, thoughts and best practices for effective and more intentional transition from face-to-face educational offerings to online learning environment. 

We employed elements of design thinking from real understanding of who needs, wants, and will use the program and clarity about the purpose for the event, through a creative process of ideation and prototyping to the final design of the immersive experience - a virtual conference simulating best elements of a multi-day, in-person meeting. 

Technology tools in support of education and accreditation compliance, online learning strategies and pedagogy, stories of pivot from the organizational point and a variety of contexts, productivity and business of CME/CPD were the major themes and tracks that were carried through from the analysis of the comprehensive needs assessment survey and the call for abstracts to the final program. We placed a particular emphasis on social elements of learning and engagement. Opportunities for active learning within sessions consisted of very active and ongoing chats, break-outs, polling questions, live discussions, additional resources and evaluations.  The overall agenda ensured spaces were built in for networking, personal and professional enrichment, individual and collective reflection, and many sessions under the banner of socials.

The program consisted of more than 150 sessions, some pre-recorded, most delivered live, then recorded and archived. The variety of formats included a modeling of an extended event consisting of asynchronous and synchronous elements extended over time, languages, and platforms, many pre-conference workshops, plenary talks, expert panel discussions, demonstrations and how-to sessions, best practices, shorter lightning talks, e-poster gallery and facilitated showcase, a virtual exhibit hall, and a daily recap communication. 

The timely topics and exceptionally high quality of keynote presentations inspired us and set the tone for the program. Dr. Abraham Verghese, physician, humanist, famous author and the director of Stanford Medicine’s Presence Center, reminded us that humans are always engaged in a story, and must understand historical narratives and knowledge to further both individual and collective education.  Stanford historian and professor, Dr. Allyson Hobbs inspired and moved all the conference attendees with her talk titled Black Lives Matter: The Power of Protest and the powerful message that in the midst of historical crises, art and personal stories provide the means to examine ourselves and think critically about our own place in history - we can draw parallels between the events that formed the civil rights activists of the past century, and those that move us to claim our and our neighbors’ humanity today.  In a different but related way, Pixar animator and storyteller Matthew Luhn shared memorable takeaways for creating meaningful stories.  Heather E McGowan, the future of work strategist, titled her presentation Future of Work is Adaptation. She framed her presentation by focusing on a tremendous opportunity we were provided with by the pandemic to let go of old ideas – to “unlearn” how we frame success, to evolve our understanding of leadership and skill-building, and to find purpose through our work rather than believing our purpose is only to work. Life-long-learning and retooling our skills is critical in unleashing human potential. One of the top-rated talks was Mind Mapping, Creativity, and Systemizing Innovation delivered by Chris Griffiths, CEO of Open Genius who left us eager to review in more detail many resources and tools he shared with our learners. 

In many ways, this was a very successful program that energized not only our team, but also our CME/CPD community and provided direct opportunity for learning and engagement to approximately 700 colleagues across the USA and internationally. We used only qualitative questions for evaluating individual educational sessions and most comments provided were highly positive and complementary about the quality of presenters and usefulness of the sessions. Most learners appreciated very specific practical tips and tools provided about how to implement strategies in their programs. In addition, some specific positive comments focused on engagement and interactive features of the sessions. We hope that sharing some of the summary data from the overall quantitative evaluations will be helpful to our colleagues as they think through the elements of the virtual events that they are working on.

Rate the following aspects of CME Live on a scale 1-5 (poor to excellent)


Call for Abstracts






Registration process


Virtual conference platform




Technical support


Most attendees who responded to the survey would recommend CME Live to a friend or a colleague - 81%, and almost 90% of participants were likely to watch recorded sessions if provided access.

Were there any barriers or challenges that you encountered related to CME Live? Select all that apply.

Choice %



Time constraints/Conflicts


Technical issues


Team members unable to attend/participate due to budget restraints



  • Conflicting presentations, how to attend 4+ meetings at the same time
  • Unanticipated work events that came up and had to be dealt with
  • Fatigue at some point
  • Difference in time zone. E.g. very early first session PT
  • Technical difficulties with chats and Zoom on mobile devices


I encountered no barriers or challenges related to CME Live. 



We have received a lot of really positive and encouraging comments about the program, here is only a small representative sample: 

“I found myself engaging more with individuals via this platform than a live meeting. Sure, we all love meeting in person but I got just as much, if not more, networking access through this meeting than in past in-person meetings.” 

“This was an incredible meeting in all aspects - logistics, content, accessibility, inclusiveness, and more. The collegiality of the team and attendees was phenomenal. Thank you!”

“Thank you for connecting the CME community with such hopeful, inspiring content during this uncertain time!!”

“I've been in CME for 15 years + and this has been the most rewarding CPD program geared to our profession that I've attended.”

I was grateful to many of my SACME friends and colleagues for their continued generosity in sharing their expertise and experience across the invited sessions and in responding to the call for abstracts, as well as to many more who attended the program, it was wonderful to work with you again and to see you all in ZOOM rooms! 

Here are my 5 tips to keep in mind if you are thinking of developing effective virtual events: 

  1. Keep your learners’ needs and wants front and center, engage them early, directly and often – as advisors, as faculty to provide cases and local context, and have a say in the design of the program.
  2. Design for longitudinal learning by carefully and intentionally spacing your interventions in a variety of formats that may include formative assessments to deepen and reinforce learning.
  3. Make good use of technology to enable engagement and employ active learning strategies – remember that virtual learning environment can simulate some face-to-face strategies and provide many additional ones. Let good educational strategies and your business needs guide your technology choices.
  4. Be intentional about providing space and time for social interaction of learners and provide support and facilitation for extending the social engagement. Recognize the value of learning that happens in the learning communities.
  5. Build in time and materials for faculty training and practice:
  • using consistent technology can be efficient
  • teaching presentation skills for online learning is important and still novel
  • teaching facilitation skills specific to longitudinal, technology- and socially-enabled learning is critical.

We have learned a lot in this process and as our Director and the Chair of CME Live 2020, Kurt Snyder, JD always emphasized, we intend to share the learnings with our professional community in a variety of ways, including future presentations and publications. Personally, it will always be one of my success stories, the one about how grateful and honored I was to be a part of this talented and hard-working team at Stanford CME that exhibited endless energy, innovation, collaboration, inclusivity and team spirit at every step in this process and managed to have fun along the way. I certainly learned a lot!

Mila Kostic, CHCP, FACEHP  is the Strategic Advisor, Stanford Center for CME Stanford Medicine and served as Vice-Chair, Educational Strategy Committee for CME Live 2020.

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