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What is it like to attend a ‘virtual’ conference? Reflections on IAPS 2020

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Blog picture: What is it like to attend a ‘virtual’ conference? Reflections on IAPS 2020
Quebec City

By Alice Hague, Christina Noble, Nazli Koseoglu, Kathryn Colley, Liz Dinnie, Tony Craig.

Academic conferences are an important part of an academic career, as key places for sharing ideas and engaging with others. With the global impacts of Covid-19 many conferences have been cancelled or moved online to become virtual conferences. But what is it like to attend a virtual conference? The authors of this blog, all social researchers at the James Hutton Institute, recently attended the International Association of People-Environment Studies (IAPS). The organisers took the bold decision to go entirely virtual with its 2020 meeting, held from 22-26 June. In just three months, what had been planned as an in-person conference hosted in Quebec City became an entirely online conference, streamed to hundreds of living rooms/spare bedrooms/garden sheds across the globe. Thanks to a superhuman effort from the organising team, conference rooms became virtual conference rooms, keynote addresses became livestreamed presentations, and panel discussions were facilitated across different time-zones.

Given the likelihood of continuing restrictions on travel and large group gatherings for a few months at least, here are some personal reflections on what worked and what didn’t work quite so well, along with some thoughts on whether an online conference can replace an in-person conference effectively.

What worked well:

- Attendance was close to what would have been expected in person, with over 450 people switching to virtual attendance. Indeed, holding a virtual conference improved access. People who would not have been able to travel to Quebec City in person (including some of the authors of this blog) were able to participate fully in the online conference. Participation was truly global, and the financial cost of attendance was limited to the registration fee with travel, and accommodation negated.

- Ease of accessing different sessions and presentations – it was easier to attend different research presentations, by moving virtually between different ‘rooms’ without interrupting the presenter. Recordings of the talks are available online for another few months, increasing accessibility for participants.

- Thematic network sessions – we all found that smaller, less formal gatherings that were discussion-focused, were crucial for creating informal spaces to chat with other researchers. There was more opportunity for interaction – you could use the ‘chat’ function to communicate with others either individually or within a group context, which could highlight areas of common interest.

- The timing of the conference worked well for European time zones, with sessions being held from 12-6pm each day. For the Americas it was a somewhat early 8am start, while for Australia it meant sessions ran late into the evening and even into the early hours of the next morning for those in New Zealand. The time zone difference could be offset to some extent by the option to pre-record presentations. However, not attending a session in-person meant it was not possible to ask questions.

What worked less well:

- Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for attendees was to stay engaged. Attendance via a screen, often on mute, meant emails could be answered, and other distractions crept in. Zoom fatigue certainly kicked in. But maybe this is not so different to an in-person conference, where attention can wander when there are too many presentations and discussions are not particularly well-chaired.

- We all missed social interactions, and everyday informal communication. There was no opportunity to follow up with presenters over lunch or coffee, the spaces where researchers often have creative discussions following up on areas of common interest. About what was missing, one participant lamented: “Definitely the informal social interaction, humour, fun, enjoyment of a conference, being away from home… seeing something new, finding out about a place, trying new food, going out in the evenings, talking with others about the experience, meeting new folk. A conference is much more than just the presentations, it’s the whole experience of making the effort to go, being in a different environment with people. I miss that. A lot.” So, while much was done to make sure that the knowledge transfer nature of a conference was replicated (through panel sessions and presentations), the creative, stimulating knowledge exchange aspect was definitely lacking.

- Watching from a screen also meant we all found ourselves distracted by additional meetings, email inboxes and other things on our ‘to-do’ lists that might normally have been left for when we got back home. The challenges of working from home still apply when attending a conference – trying to fit sessions around family life, with children, parents, flatmates, pets and delivery personnel, all vying for our attention.

- While some universities (such as The Open University) do a lot of work online, many in academia have had to upskill in online working over the past few months, and while things ran smoothly for the most part, the conference wasn’t without technical hiccups. There were presenters who struggled to share their screen with the audience or lost their internet connections midway through presentations. With no ability to ‘read the room’, it was impossible for presenters to respond to the audience and adjust as necessary during a presentation. The different style of presentations, with some being pre-recorded, added to the sense of just being a spectator at times. With a tight timetable, some discussion sessions were cut short. As one presenter commented on their experience of presenting to the virtual audience, “Nobody stays after for a chat.”

What is the future for virtual conferences?

The twin challenges of controlling a global pandemic and tackling climate change mean that travel is likely to be restricted in both the short and long-term. Online conferences have clear advantages in terms of access, affordability, and carbon emissions reductions. They remove the borders and visa requirements, and are much more accessible for those without the financial means to attend in person, due in large part to reduced fees and removal of travel and accommodation expenses. They enable participation for people with caring responsibilities or disabilities, who might not normally be able to attend. Reduced air miles contribute to reductions in GHGs, which helps to tackle climate change.

These are important considerations.

However, organising an online conference requires more attention to be paid to the opportunities for interaction. Maybe the whole academic conference format, with keynote lectures and panel presentations, needs to be reconsidered. Special attention needs to be given to the creation of spaces for social interaction, and to the needs of early-career researchers and first-time attendees – it definitely seemed easier for those who had attended previous IAPS conferences to make connections than for those of us who hadn’t. After all, at ‘normal’ conferences, it is not uncommon to meet people by being introduced to someone who is walking past. It is not impossible to recreate this type of encounter virtually, but it is of course different.

Going to academic conferences is not purely about knowledge exchange: it is about making connections, culturally and personally, which spark conversations that lead to new ideas and opportunities laying the ground for potential future research collaborations. To preserve this side of conference-going, it may be that future conferences could be organised as hybrid events that allow the possibility of "telecommuting" while also providing a space for those that can attend in person to do so, to accommodate a wider range of access and choice of participation. Such an arrangement would need careful managing to avoid creating a two-tier system between those who attend in person and those who attend virtually.

Another way of maintaining some of the benefits of reduced carbon emissions would be to host local conference hubs that connect virtually for joint keynote addresses. This would mean long-haul flights could be replaced with trains or other forms of low-carbon, climate-friendly transport. Indeed, one can easily imagine conferences of different academic organisations or scholarly communities working together to innovate in this regard. Imagine sharing a keynote lecture between two different conferences in two different countries and facilitating interdisciplinary conversations in an online format.

There was a strong sense among all of us that, while there were highlights and definitely things to be celebrated, a virtual conference cannot reproduce the engagement, synchronicity and social richness of being away with other people. That said, at the end of the week, there was a definite sense of having participated in an event, even if the actual feeling of having “been away” was absent. In some ways, this is perhaps the best indication that the virtual nature of the event managed to recreate at least some, if not all, of the psychological components of being present at an academic conference.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog post are the views of the author(s), and not an official position of the institute or funder.



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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.