Examining the Future of Academic Events (guest post)

Following up on yesterday’s piece regarding online conferences, Heather Douglas, professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, in this guest post,* asks us to consider: “When is it worth it (in terms of financial and environmental cost) to gather together in person?”

Examining the Future of Academic Events
by Heather Douglas

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced an unprecedented change in academic practice. It used to be travel difficulties would cancel speaking events. Online meetings were rare, usually one-on-one or small group stopgap measures until we could meet in person.

The stringencies of the pandemic have forced a change in academic culture, and one which requires our examination and reflection. While many have missed the in-person meeting and traveling, many have breathed a sigh of relief at the easing of travel demands. Many have also noted the drop in carbon footprint of academic activities, and seen signs for hope.

As the end of the pandemic appears in sight (sometime in 2021 hopefully), we now need to reflect upon this period of transformation and ask seriously: what worked well in videoconferencing and what is lost?

There is much to be gained from events that take place solely online. It is clear that purely videoconferenced events are less expensive to run than purely in-person events, both from a financial perspective and from an environmental impact perspective. They also enable people who are unable to travel (due to disability, family restrictions, financial and time constraints, etc.) to participate on an equal footing. This has broadened (and often increased) participation in a number of events. Online events also offer easy recording and archiving for future use.

Running online only events requires some practice shifts. Being online is tiring, and events need to be more spaced out, with substantial breaks. Because we are not gathering together, there is no need to compress events into consecutive days. We can space out themed events over days or weeks for a “conference.” We must be mindful of time zone differences in scheduling (this difficulty is mitigated somewhat by recording and posting events). New conference platforms can reproduce the serendipity of conversation that arises from self-organized social groups (e.g. Spatial Chat).

Given these advantages of online only events, particularly well-curated ones, we need to think carefully about what the advantages are of in-person events. When is it worth it (in terms of financial and environmental cost) to gather together in person? We cherish the serendipitous meetings and hallway conversations of in-person events, but some of that can be captured online with platforms more flexible than Zoom.

Rather than a norm of in-person events, the pandemic has given us the opportunity to shift the burden of justification to why an event needs to be in-person. What is gained by the additional expense (financial, environmental, accessibility reduction) of the in-person event? Thinking carefully about this will allow for better decisions about academic event planning. The normal baseline should not simply move back to what it was pre-pandemic. The new normal of online only events should be the baseline, and we should ask, specifically and clearly, what motivates in-person events in the post-pandemic world.

There are clear reasons to meet in person in many cases. For example, when research involves interacting with a specific location (such as a particular ecosystem), meeting in person on that landscape has clear advantages. In addition, when workshops require creative and active participation, generating collaboration facilitated through shared physical materials, holding them in-person can be essential. Another reason for in-person meetings is the commitment in participation that being in-person produces. It is relatively easy to walk away from an online event compared to walking away from an in-person conference. The intensity of such events, and the ability of participants to carve time out to focus on the event, is part of their value. Other important aspects of in-person events need to be articulated, scrutinized, and weighed carefully.

Finally, there are reasons to be cautious about hybrid events. Those who participate remotely in such events are sidelined generally—the people on the screen are just not as engaging as those in the room, and the conversations that happen once the official parts of the program are over are inaccessible to those online. While hybrid events allow those who cannot travel to participate to some extent, it is not on an equal footing with those present in person. Hybrid events also add significantly to the cost of in-person events, because the technology is rarely in place for supporting such events in meeting rooms (at least for free).

In sum, the new normal should be online only events, with clear justifications offered for in-person events. What those justifications are needs to be elaborated, with the aim of making our academic events better across the board.

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Matt Zwolinski
3 years ago

“We cherish the serendipitous meetings and hallway conversations of in-person events, but some of that can be captured online with platforms more flexible than Zoom.”

I’d love to hear more about some of these other platforms, if you wouldn’t mind sharing your experience!

Heather Douglas
Heather Douglas
3 years ago

When holding the Public Engagement with Science online conference in September, we used Spatial Chat to allow for self-organized and spontaneous conversations. Other platforms are discussed here: https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/covid-19-ushers-in-the-future-of-conferences-67978. It would be very helpful to hear about others’ experiences with various options.

Torsten Wilholt
3 years ago

In our research training group “Integrating Ethics and Epistemology of Scientific Research”, we’ve been having regular “coffee meetings” online since April. We’ve recently experimented with http://www.wonder.me — a platform that allows you to wander between groups. The platform is cleverly designed, but it is fairly new and still seems to have quite.a few bugs. We usually just use Zoom and spend most of the meeting in randomly created breakout rooms of 3 to 4 people in order to enable small talk and personal exchange. With regard to more creative ideas for facilitating social interactions at online events, I recommend C. Thi Nguyen’s recent post: https://philosopherscocoon.typepad.com/blog/2020/11/bringing-some-social-life-to-zoom-conferences-guest-post-by-c-thi-nguyen.html

Shelley Lynn Tremain
3 years ago

Heather, thank you very much for this post.

In December, Jonathan Wolff and I ran “Philosophy, Disability and Social Change,” an online conference that took place over three UK afternoons (Dec. 9&-10, 1-6:30; Dec. 11, 1-7:00 GMT). The conference, for which the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford provided financial, technical, and other promotional support, was a huge success, with a number of the disabled participants indicating that it was exemplary in terms of offering them a sence of community, the extent that they felt included and involved, and the attention that had been paid to accessibility (in a broad sense).

The conference was held on Zoom, live captioned, comments and questions (both to presenters and in the chat function) were moderated, and there were had 10-minute breaks between the first and second sessions, the second and third sessions, and the fourth and fifth sessions on each day. Between the third and fourth session on each day, we scheduled a 35-minute break. At the end of the conference, that is, on Friday, Dec. 11, we scheduled a “social” during which conference participants and attendees went into break-out rooms to continue discussions initiated during the sessions or in the chat, to network, meet other attendees, etc. The feedback that I received about the break-out :social event was very affirming.

All in all, the conference ran quite smoothly, with only minor technologial glitches during one presentation on the morning of the first day of the conference.

The people at the Blavatnik School of Government thoroughly enjoyed their role in the conference and the conference provided opportunities for disabled philosophers (who are ordinarily excluded from most philosophy conference, workshops, and other events) to present their cutting-edge work in a friendly and engaged atmosphere.

Jonathan and I have already decided to host another incarnation of the event — “Philosophy, Disability and Social Change 2” — in December 2021!

The sessions of the conference were recorded and the videos are available on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=philosophy%2C+disability+and+social+change

Thanks again for your post.
Shelley Tremain