As more academic conferences go online, how can attendees make the best of them?
The conference is one of the cornerstones of academic life. Assembling with our peers to learn, share, network and sometimes even to carouse, usually in a pleasant location away from the distractions of home and our everyday work, has become something that most academics look forward to with relish.
We write abstracts and craft short presentations of our work, design posters and slides and pore over the agenda of the meeting working out what can’t be missed, and when there might be a space to meet with old friends or the time and opportunity to make some new ones. We attend conferences not just because it is expected of us, but because they can be a rich source of professional exposure, opportunity and feedback. They might even be inspiring and we all need that. And, of course, they provide a change of scene and of pace, adding colour and interest to the oftentimes drudge of solitary scholarship.
However, all of this depends on often hundreds of people travelling to a venue, maybe in a foreign city, rubbing shoulders and shaking hands and doing everything possible not only to encourage the spread of ideas but also of Coronavirus. As such, the current pandemic has forced a speedy rethink on how and whether the academic conference can continue. In truth, even before the world awoke to the need for social distancing, many were already sounding the death knell of the traditional conference. Can we really justify flying half-way around the world to deliver a ten minute presentation of our research work, either economically or environmentally? And even if we think we can, there are a growing number of researchers who can no longer find the financial support to make it a reality.
Already, many academic conferences were reinventing themselves as hybrid events — a traditional face-to-face extravaganza, but with online options for those who could not attend in person to share the experience. This undoubtedly democratises the academic conference ensuring that anyone with an internet connection can take part, not just those who can afford the plane ticket.
Now, however, conference organisers are being compelled to overhaul their whole approach and deliver entirely virtual events. Of course, this presents a number of challenges, especially when we think of all the things that conferences do. But, might it also offer some opportunities — could the entirely virtual conference be an even better experience for attendees?
We go to conferences, probably first and foremost, to learn. All conferences, whether traditional or online, will be judged by the quality of the programme and the speakers. In every field there are top-tier events that everyone would like to attend largely because they know that’s where the real action will be —the leading lights in the subject presenting their latest findings. But there are also a host of smaller, second-rate, maybe even third-rate, events that you might think twice about putting the effort in to attend.
This aspect of the academic conference is probably the one most easily translated into an online format. After all, how different is it to sit at the back of a very large auditorium listening to a recent Nobel Laureate explain her latest discovery while looking at her slides but barely being able to see her face, than to watch the same presentation from the comfort of your own desk? Alright, you can’t put your hand up and ask a question, or corner her afterwards to strike up a discussion — or can you? Most virtual learning environments will not only allow you to listen and view a presentation, they will also allow you to ask questions and interact with speakers in a variety of ways. And as for cornering the speaker afterwards, you will have her contact details and if your question or comment is compelling enough, you might even get an answer. Of course, one big advantage the online conference has here is that all the presentations can be recorded and made available asynchronously to attendees. No more worries about falling asleep in the middle of that keynote lecture because of jet lag.
What about presenting? We go to conferences not just to listen to others but also to talk about or display our own work. We do this partly in the hope of getting valuable feedback, but also to raise our academic profile — to become a player in our field. Many virtual conference organisers are trying a variety of formats to offer online substitutes for this aspect of the conference experience. At the low-tech end of the spectrum, you will still be invited to submit a written abstract of your work, which will be curated and made available for all attendees to read. A little further up the scale, you might be invited to submit a virtual poster or a short stand-alone slide show. And at the top-end you might be asked to record a short presentation or even deliver one live. Again, if the conference has your presentation recorded, it can be made available to a much larger audience than you might ever expect to address at a traditional conference. If you do have to deliver an online presentation, do take the time to learn how to do it (have a look here). Remember, as with all academic presentations, the quality of your work will often be judged by the quality of your talk.
Probably the next most important reason for going to all the bother and expense of attending a conference is to network. Meeting your peers and mixing with the great and the good in your field is an essential first step to building those lasting professional relationships that will form the scaffolding of your career.
But, if you can’t meet anyone, look into their eyes, offer them your hand and your smile, how can it work? Well, networking at its most basic is about making contact and then nurturing that contact. Many virtual conferences are currently making use of all sorts of different apps to allow for networking. Some of these are undoubtedly better and easier to use than others, and I suspect we will see a few becoming the dominant tools of the trade as we gain more experience with virtual conferences. You may, for example, be put randomly in a virtual meeting room with several other online attendees and asked to introduce yourselves and discuss a specific issue. This forces you to meet and interact with new people. Another app acts rather like a speed dating service where you are serially assigned to other attendees, one by one. You both have a few minutes to discuss who you are and what you do and in each case at the end you can agree to exchange contact details for further follow up, or not. Not quite Tinder, but almost. Some conferences encourage virtual community groups to form before and during the conference with a view to extending those new-found contacts after the event is over. If the conference makes available lists of attendees and their contact details before the conference, you can also identify those of interest and contact them ahead of the event.
In every case, you are being given an opportunity to make first contact and forge new professional friendships, but the ongoing nurturing that is so important to effective networking will be up to you, and that requires being pro active, just as it does at the traditional conference.
Closely related to this networking are the social aspects of conferences. At meetings, we eat and drink together, we chat about matters other than work, we sometimes enjoy entertainments, especially if the organisers wish to showcase some of their local culture, and we may even get a chance to see the sights. Some conferences are working hard to replicate these aspects of conference attendance in the virtual environment. Why not have coffee breaks with forums dedicated to non-conference chat? What about an inspirational speaker, such as an Olympian or an Astronaut to close the day? What about a virtual walking tour of the local art gallery? What about some national singing, dancing or even a cookery class teaching you how to make a local delicacy? All of these and more are being explored in an attempt to flesh out the programme and to provide virtual conference attendees with an experience far richer than just a series of poorly delivered webinars.
And of course, let’s not forget the freebies that you might spend your conference time hunting down. If there are conference sponsors, they may have trade stands where you might delight in picking up that free pen, post-it pad or even key ring. Can’t fill a swag bag online, can you? Of course you can, it just has to be with digital freebies. Useful downloads, free apps, discount vouchers, zoom backgrounds, clip art libraries for your slides — the list is almost endless, and I am sure virtual conferences in the coming months will surprise you with digital delights that you never even knew you needed.
Ultimately, attitude is everything for the attendees at a virtual conference. All the opportunities are there but you do have to engage with the conference, and you do have to work at ensuring you get what you need out of it. If we approach the virtual conference with a preset notion that it will be a pale imitation of the last face-to-face meeting we attended, then it will be. But, if we sign in and really take part, making full use of all that is on offer, we can get as much, maybe even more, out of the virtual conference than its traditional alternative. It will certainly cost us less money to attend, it is likely to be a more efficient use of our time, we will be able to revisit presentations we found particularly useful as often as we like and there will be a host of networking opportunities there for the taking.
Going forward, we can expect huge variability in the style and quality of online conferences — as disciplines vary the emphasis they place on different aspects of the conference to suit their own specialist needs and as different virtual platforms are tried and tested. The organisers of such events are, of course, also still learning how to do it, and mistakes and missteps will inevitably be made. But, while the pandemic will come and go, the virtual conference is certainly here to stay. No, it won’t be quite like getting on a plane for a three-day conference in Edinburgh or Florence or San Diego or Kyoto, but it will be cheaper, greener, smarter and quite possibly better for your academic career in the long run.
© Allan Gaw 2020
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