Conferences make up an important part of our lives as researchers. We present and hear about the latest findings, meet colleagues old and new, network over dinner and drinks, and often get to travel to nice places. We also spend hours at airports, worrying about CO2 footprints and frantically fending off jet lag with copious amounts of coffee.
But now the coronavirus determines our lives. Conferences have been
moved into virtual space. In this article, we look back at the unusual
virtual-conference summer of 2020 and share our experiences - ranging
from preparations to pleasant surprises and challenges.
Before the conference
One good reason to attend conferences is to meet new people. At in-person conferences, this often happens during social events such as coffee breaks and dinners. Meeting new people at virtual conferences can be harder, but with some preparation, it can work just as well.
For instance, the Applied Artificial Intelligence Conference 2020 used a matchmaking tool to schedule one-on-one meetings between participants. Upon registration, participants were asked to fill out a profile page. They could then schedule meetings during the conference, giving them the opportunity to network not only with established contacts but also to make new acquaintances.
Rasmus Ischebeck, one of the authors of this blogpost, attended the conference. He says that this matchmaking tool gave him the opportunity to make new contacts: “Despite initial technical difficulties, I was able to get in touch with researchers from different universities and laboratories, and have inspiring conversations about artificial intelligence. I think such a tool could also be extremely valuable to students who are looking to get their foot in the door of a research community.”
Thus, matchmaking at virtual conferences can even have advantages as compared to traditional meetings: Checking out other participants' profiles and actively looking for common interests may be more productive than introducing yourself to random people during a coffee break.
At the conference - a pleasant surprise
Sandra Volken is optimistic about virtual conferencing: “As a PhD student, I was happy to be accepted to present at the 38th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society (ISDC2020) this July. Sure, I was a bit disappointed when I heard it would move online, but I was glad that it was not canceled like many other conferences. I realized, from day one, that this conference was much more than “better than nothing”.
The highlight of the online conference was a virtual 3D world. After downloading a desktop app, and choosing an avatar (a cowgirl, a scuba diver, an astronaut, or an “ordinary” girl) participants entered a 3D replica of the conference venue in Bergen, Norway. They got the opportunity to walk around platforms with posters along the walls, view them in detail, download them, or enter a Zoom link with the speaker. Using the keyboard, it was possible to hear people nearby talking and vice versa. As every avatar was labeled with the participant’s real name, it was easy to recognize and approach speakers whose name sounded familiar from the conference agenda or from journal articles.
Another good idea was that all presentations were being recorded, which allowed participants to watch them at different times. Follow-up discussions with the speakers took place during Echo sessions at different hours to accommodate participants logging in from other time zones. “I had a really nice chat with a researcher in my field who came to give me some feedback at my Echo session, at half past 6 in the morning”, Sandra says.
There are many creative ideas for virtual conferences, but there are also unique challenges. Keeping an audience engaged is hard enough in a physical conference room, let alone on a computer screen. Motivating the audience to ask questions is one way of keeping participants on their toes. Depending on the size of the audience, this can be done either directly through video-conferencing software, or by first gathering questions using chat functions or tools like Slido. Speakers need to allow time for questions from the audience when preparing their talks - and if they gather questions first, it helps to have another person around to manage the questions and pass them on to the speaker.
At in-person conferences, the most important discussions often happen after the talks. To replicate this, conference organizers do not have to go as far as creating a virtual environment, but they should provide opportunities for such discussions, for example by preparing virtual breakout sessions or by making it easy for participants to contact the speaker.
Despite these challenges, talks might be the easiest part of conferences to transfer to a virtual setting. Replicating coffee breaks and conference dinners is much harder. It is all too easy for participants to disconnect right after the talks have finished and to have a coffee by themselves. The audience should instead be encouraged to stick around with the help of virtual rooms or one-on-one meetings in which the conversation can continue, even if everyone needs to prepare their own coffee.
Moving conferences online also comes with technical challenges. Participants need to be sure that their data and privacy is protected. Finally, technical glitches are still all too common: A switched-off microphone or a frozen video chat can spoil the conference experience. Participants and organizers need to take it upon themselves to make sure the technology is working.
Virtual conferences are a necessity during the COVID pandemic, but are they here to stay? If done right, virtual conferences can be more than just poor imitations of their physical counterparts. They can be more inclusive, as geographical and financial barriers to participating are lower. They can offer researchers new ways to interact. They are definitely good for the environment. However, they also deprive participants of the fun of conference travel, like going to Bergen in Norway. Are virtual conferences the future, or can we have the best of both worlds by creating hybrid models with physical and virtual elements? The academic community needs to keep experimenting, but the old physical-only conference might be a thing of the past.
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