Tuesday, 21 April 2020

Virtual Conferences - Part I

It's now been 6 weeks since I last stepped foot in my office.  6 weeks of trying to be productive from home, and it feels like a vast swathe of my working time has been spend on virtual meetings via Zoom, Skype, Teams, BlueJeans, Webex.... I've even taken the lead on a few.

They're not great - lots of hours spent in front of my computer (sometimes listening via my mobile phone), often at inconvenient hours because of differences in time zones, and usually wishing the speaker would've just summarised their thoughts in an email.

And now we're facing the prospect of some of the major planetary science conferences moving online, and it's abundantly clear that WE CAN'T EXPECT THIS TO BE BUSINESS AS USUAL.  There has to be a better way for doing this.  Thankfully, this is an issue that's already been considered by much more thoughtful people than me.

Benefits of Virtual Conferences

Here are some of the reasons why virtual conferencing really should become more frequent in the 21st century, even without global health crises preventing travel:
  • Climate, climate, climate:  The carbon footprint of academic departments is usually overwhelmed by researchers travelling across the world for meetings, and its time for a culture change if we're to do our bit.  I think it's fair to admit that some of this travel is unnecessary.
  • Work-life balance: how many weekends have been lost to travel, ready to start a meeting at 9am on a Monday?  Family life disrupted because of the need to start at the beginning of the "working week?"  
  • Inclusivity:  How many members of our community are we missing because of parental and other carer responsibilities?  How many voices are absent because travel poses extreme challenges, financially, physically, or mentally?  Shifting online might open the door to a more inclusive conference.
  • Less time wasted on "marginally-useful" meetings: We all know them - the meetings we felt we had to show our faces at, even though we didn't have a lot to contribute, and didn't learn a lot as a result.  FOMO - fear of missing out - often drives us to attend.  Now we can attend them virtually, and possibly even multi-task to get other things done at the same time.   

Problems with Virtual Conferences

Here are some common problems with virtual meetings, some easier to solve than others:
  • Stifled Discussions:  Virtual conferences are great as a one-way flow of information, either as live talks or pre-recorded presentations.  But new collaborations and ideas often stem from the more informal coffees, lunches, poster sessions, and chance encounters.  These casual "in-person" chats are currently hard (but not impossible) to replicate in the virtual world, and lack the "spontaneity" of people meeting in the same physical location.  There's also the question of the lack of human contact, where in-person conferences might be the highlight for those working in isolation.
  • Multiple time zones:  My work is very Europe/US focussed, meaning lots of late-afternoon and evening meetings.  The idea of running an 8-hour conference day virtually is just a nonsense - no one is working at their best under those circumstances, and I personally struggle to keep my brain going late in the evening.  Not to mention those colleagues trying to follow from the east, in the middle of the night...  so: make one-way information delivery (i.e., talks) available to watch during preferred timezones, and keep discussion meetings for a mutually-convenient (and shorter) time slot.
  • Lost voices:  Raising your hand in a big meeting can sometimes be nerve-wracking.  Doing it online, when you're not sure who is listening, and in the absence of virtual cues to know how they're responding to your question (rolling their eyes, or wide-eyed astonishment), it can be extremely daunting.  We need a way to make all participants comfortable and willing to contribute.
  • Loud voices:  In the same vein, some speakers will dominate the Q&A and discussion,  overwhelming everyone else, and hogging all the precious time.  A strong moderator, able to recognise and involve everyone, is a must for inclusive virtual conferences.
  • Can you hear me now?  I was on mute... You can play conference bingo, with phrases like this on almost every meeting.  The technology is getting better and better, but often relies on the skills of the users - we shouldn't assume that all participants have good microphones, good cameras, quiet environments conducive to chats, sufficient broadband to connect, or know how to share a screen, presentation, or virtual whiteboard.  
  • Promotion and career progression:  Standing on stage and delivering your first conference talk is a tremendously nerve-wracking experience, but can open doors to future jobs and collaborations.  Early-career researchers rely on conference networking for opportunities, mid-career researchers need keynote and invited presentations for promotion, and the virtual world is hard-pushed to deliver this.  UCSB professor Ken Hiltner describes this as "present or perish."
  • The art of presentation:  I've given short lectures via web conference, and they're hard - when I'm in front of an audience, I try to read the energy, knowing when to ramp up enthusiasm to keep people going, or when to go back over a concept because of blank, horrified faces.  You play to the crowd.  You don't get that sat alone at your desk.  But that's a small price to pay.
PS:  Trying to blend virtual conferences and in-person meetings together invariably leads to problems.  It's a nightmare dialling in to a meeting when the room is full of people talking to one another.  Far better to go all-or-nothing, and to have everyone participating remotely so that they're on an equal footing!

Another Way...


Virtual conferences will probably never replicate the face-to-face interactions that we're used to.  However, the COVID-19 crisis is, by necessity, leading to innovation in virtual conferencing, but this is a challenge that was already being considered as part of the nearly carbon-neutral (NCN) conference model.  That helpful guide suggests:
  1. Speakers pre-record their conference presentations for hosting on a conference website (which can be as simple as a Wordpress site) so that they may be viewed at any time (i.e., removing the real-time requirement), giving the viewer time to think and come up with questions.  Pre-recorded videos can also be better-rehearsed and polished, and also closed-captioned (in multiple languages) for greater accessibility.
  2. A shared online Q&A session (organised into themed sub-panels) over 2-3 weeks, with written questions and answers, where the members of a panel respond to audience queries.  Eliminating the "live Q&A" and making them "asynchronous" means that the problem of multiple time zones is removed, and removing the pressure of "on-stage" questions might allow more time to think and develop robust answers.  Breakout sessions on specific themes could also be organised.
  3. Archive of content (talks and Q&A transcripts) after the conference, open access across the globe.  This one I worry about a little - sometimes conference talks are used to present data before publication/peer-review, and authors may be reluctant to risk any (social) media coverage ahead of key publications.  Maybe a "do not cite" or a time-limited shelf life could be incorporated?
I particularly like this paragraph on Hiltner's website: "Such events can result in far more efficient use of a conference goer’s time, as one can quickly scan through the text of a talk or a Q&A session for material of interest. Consequently, this NCN approach allows us to listen to all the talks of interest to us – and none of those that are not – in the order, and at a time, of our choosing"

Hiltner encourages conference organisers to experiment with this scheme, and I personally feel that a blend of pre-recorded talks (sometimes called "asynchronous" content), real-time live discussion ("synchronous"content), and Q&A might be the right combination of flavours, and I hope that our planetary-science conferences (DPS, EPSC, AGU, EGU, LPSC, COSPAR) find a balance.  Tanja de Bie of the Leiden Centre for Innovation also has a handy run-down of remote conference pros, cons, and suggestions. 

And the ACM guide for virtual conferences provides a low-overhead virtual conference:  "First, ask authors to pre-record their talks and upload the videos to YouTube. Link those video from the conference website. This involves very low overhead on the part of the conference organizers, as they do not have to deal with supporting the live presentation of all these talks. Additionally, set up a few synchronous sessions for Q&A with groups of authors and panels using one of the videoconferencing and/or Webinar systems (e.g., Zoom). Consider also setting up a Slack workspace for participants to chat before, during, and after the live sessions. The links to the live sessions can be disseminated in Slack."

In particular for planetary science, there's an opportunity for short, focussed sub-meetings (i.e., a week-long meeting on one topic), eliminating the nightmare of overlapping parallel sessions that plague the major meetings.  Why be constrained to a single week?  Why not have the conference over a month, spreading out the themes?  I think you still need to make it "an event" over a limited time period, so it doesn't just feel like a series of talks on a website.  Provided everyone is in the same boat, why not have regional hubs, so some people could meet in person to watch presentations and hold panels?

In Part II of this post, I'll try to look at some examples of virtual conferences being held in 2020, to explore the pros and cons....

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