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Rethinking academic conferences

Flabby and past its best’ – that’s the stinging judgment of Birmingham City University’s Professor Craig Jackson on the traditional academic conference. He is not alone. While the opportunity to take focused time out with peers in a new (and sometimes exotic) location has its attractions, the costs incurred (in time, money, impact on precarious work situations and a planet under strain) were already prompting many to rethink.

The traditional model – available only to those able to afford the conference fee and plane ticket – has been profoundly challenged by the greater accessibility that online conferences make possible. The rise of this new kind of conference is helping to dismantle longstanding divisions, such as those between academics from high and low-income countries, or those with and without a disability, neurodiversity or significant caring responsibilities – all while offering valuable opportunities to improve work/life balance and shrink carbon footprint.

But many features of the traditional model – such as the fostering of new friendships and collaborations – are well worth preserving. Anyone who’s switched off the alarm they set for a 3am presentation or battled poor Wi-Fi connection during a much-anticipated talk knows only too well that there are plenty of teething issues to address as new conference models are developed. So given that virtual conferences look set to stay, how can they be refined to deliver the best possible experience? Here are a few suggestions.

Clarifying the offer

As attendees enjoy cheaper access to a growing number of conferences, making the offer as clear and compelling as possible is key. It’s worth bearing in mind that in the current context some may prioritise a narrower aim – such as learning or developing a specific skill – over a broader, more general approach.

Timings

With an audience scattered across the globe and multiple time zones, giving careful thought to the scheduling of synchronous sessions is crucial. A prominent consideration is the time zone speakers find themselves in, but perhaps equally if not more important are the regions in which registration data indicates the majority of attendees are clustered.

Extending the length of a conference to allow more space in between sessions may increase the number of people able to access them. That said, the fact that attendees do not need to empty their diary in order to attend can leave them less motivated to get up in the night for a talk and more likely to be distracted by ongoing tasks. Encouraging attendees to block time out, switch off notifications, and find a space away from their desk, can help them devote their full attention and make the most of what’s on offer.

Live or pre-recorded?

Pre-record too high a proportion of talks or content and organisers run the risk of doing away with the need for a conference at all. But an engaging mix of pre-recorded material and interactive live sessions can ensure a high-quality conference experience.

This hybrid approach can yield invaluable benefits for:

  • speakers who may actively appreciate the opportunity to prepare, record and edit in advance because they are, for example, at the start of their career, using a second or third language, balancing caring responsibilities, or based in an environment with tricky technical or noise issues
  • attendees who now enjoy more accurate captions, time to reflect on material before a Q&A, or the opportunity to return to recorded sessions for note-taking.

The power of connection

Traditional academic conferences have long been an excellent source of new contacts, collaborators, and even friends. The injection of fresh energy and inspiration they can bring to a researcher’s sometimes solitary, often pressured life is very welcome. It’s therefore key that virtual conference organisers find ways to promote engagement and community, and that attendees respond proactively.

Good ways to achieve this include live text chat and structured online networking opportunities – perhaps in small breakout rooms. Conference hashtags on social media before the event can also help people find and connect with other attendees in advance, perhaps scheduling a virtual coffee in a break. Speakers may also like to invite people to take a minute to connect with someone on the call – looking for those they know or introducing themselves to another attendee if they don’t know anyone yet.

After all, with a virtual conference hall packed with academics from across the world, now’s a prime time to forge connections which could lead to all kinds of new discourse, network or job role.


Further reading

Maximising virtual meetings and conferences: a review of best practices Rubinger, L., Gazendam, A., Ekhtiari, S. et al. 

University of Alberta’s Moving Ideas Without Moving People

It’s time to open up academic conferences to the wider world by Matthew Flinders, professor of politics at the University of Sheffield

Jo Mitchell is an experienced writer and editor. After studying Modern Languages at the University of Oxford she worked in fundraising at Oxfam GB and Viva, where she specialised in writing communications for major donors. She now provides freelance editing and copywriting services at Nightingale Ink in the firm belief that sometimes words can sing.

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