Online vs. Face to Face Conference – What’s the Difference?

21st Century Learning has facilitated a wide variety of online professional learning courses and events since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 – everything from webinars, to online social activities (TeachMeets), courses and workshops, ranging in duration from one hour to 14 weeks. Each of these event types offers advantages and disadvantages between Face to Face (F2F) and Online delivery. This article explores online conferences and in particular how they differ from face to face. Having run two successful major online events, we are in a position to look at what works and doesn’t work, and this has been augmented by many conversations with Principals, Professional Development (PD) Directors, and Learning Coordinators about their experiences.

Anyone Can Attend

One key advantage of an online conference is the accessibility and openness. Having to pay for hotels, food and flights, not to mention temporary staff to cover the absence from school, means attending a F2F event can be onerous for a school or an individual, and the cost for one person attending can be thousands of US Dollars. With the online format, the cost can drop to as low as 30 to 50 US Dollars per person for an event offering 10 days of PD. Rather than picking and choosing who should attend an event, it is realistic and cost-effective to open access up to everyone, including administrative and support staff. Our 21C school passes allow equitable access to PD for everyone on staff. 

Preaching to the Converted

Anyone that attends conferences knows there is an element of “preaching to the converted.” There is a positive and a negative to this element of face to face conferences. People often talk about face to face conferences as being “renewing” and a big part of that is hearing particular messages with like-minded colleagues away from the day-to-day life of family and work.

On the other hand, how many times have you been at a conference wishing that others in your organization could “hear what I’m hearing” or receive the training you are receiving? With an online conference, everyone can have access and the content of the sessions does not need to be replayed or regurgitated by those who attended the event. At 21C Conferences, all conference sessions are recorded giving everyone the choice of watching the sessions they are interested in live or alternatively, at a later date that is more convenient. 

Even better, recorded sessions mean you can use one or more sessions as stimulus material for staff, departmental, or curriculum meetings at any time post-conference. 


With face to face conferences, you are bound by constraints of time and space. If there are 15 simultaneous sessions you can only be in one at a time. You can’t ask a presenter to speed up, go back, or pause. If you’ve chosen a seat at the back of the room it’s impolite to walk out if you find it’s not quite the right fit. You may only be interested in a subset of the sessions available but you still need to be away for the duration of the entire conference. 

With an online conference, the opposite is true and you can just watch what interests you when it suits your schedule. That might be one day after the live session or several months later.


Face to face conferences are necessarily limited in the number of keynote speakers who can be invited to attend due to budget constraints. The relatively lower costs of engaging a keynote speaker for one or two hours means you can have more keynote speakers participating in the conference thus allowing more diversity, and the same logic applies to how many presenters can deliver at the conference. 

Attendees are generally limited in how far they can travel to attend a conference. With online events you can have participants from anywhere in the world 

Here is a summary of the key points above:

We will be excited to return to face to face conferences when the pandemic conditions and controls allow this to happen in a safe manner for everyone. We believe that the future will see a mixed model of delivery with some events being delivered online and others delivered F2F. 

We look forward to welcoming you to our future events whether F2F or Online. 

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