Looking back on the EASST-4S virtual conference: Are virtual conferences here to stay?

Have you ever wanted to have more hours in a day?

Have you ever wanted to be in several different places all at once?

Interested in time travel or superhuman productivity?

Well, unless you found a way to bend the time-space continuum, these things are not possible yet! However, I think that virtual conferences* are transforming the conference experience and bringing us one step closer to extracting maximum value out of our conference attendance.

*The crux of this argument rests on the availability of conference recordings and conference materials after the conference has ended. While I’ve discovered that there are many benefits to attending virtual conferences, upon hearing others’ stories about attending non-recorded conferences, I’ve become fully convinced that recordings are what makes the virtual conference format really shine.

Earlier this year, I went to the EASST-4S conference (as a student non-presenter during my time as a Masters student at the University of Edinburgh). The conference theme was “Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and agency of STS in emerging worlds” and scholars were invited to reflect on how STS can make a meaningful impact on society.  See the quirky conference banner for this conference below:

At the time (18-21 August 2020), I was in the process of proofreading and submitting my Masters dissertation, so it was not feasible to attend every single session I wanted to attend in the time span of 18-21 August. An important point to make here is that it would not have been humanly possible for anyone to attend every single session they wanted to attend either, as this particular conference is one of those big ones where you need to craft your own personal schedule and prioritise the sessions that are most relevant to your own work and interests. To give you an idea of the scale of the EASST-4S conference – the full conference list of sessions was a whopping 383-page document!

So, I crafted my own schedule, attended the sessions on knowledge co-production and knowledge co-creation that were relevant to my own work, but my attendance and engagement with the conference didn’t conclude there. I ended up making use of the conference recordings for as long as they were available afterwards, revisiting some sessions in my personal schedule, and engaging with others that were beyond the scope of my immediate interests.

With that being said, I found that there are both pros and cons to attending virtual conferences, and there are certain things to consider when going to one. For example, a seasoned researcher may know how to navigate in-person conferences – how to craft a personal schedule, how to network, how to document the conference in a blog, how to get some work done in between sessions, and so on – but the dynamic of a virtual conference is different, and I imagine that a slightly different set of skills might be needed to navigate it.

Proficiency with technology is an obvious skill to have, but then there’s also digital distraction to beat and digital networking to be mastered. There might also be a learning curve about incorporating non-conference activities into one’s schedule; if you’re not physically at a conference, there may be chores to do, kids and pets to take care of, and a certain work-life balance to be struck!

In the remainder of this blog post, I will focus on elaborating what the pros and cons to attending the virtual EASST-4S conference were for me, and to do so, I have curated a short list of impressions. Spoiler alert: the pros outweigh the cons!


Pros and cons of virtual conferences

Pros

  • There is no need to choose between sessions if two are happening at the same time. With some determination, you can attend all of the sessions you want to attend.
  • Looking to attend conferences on the other side of the world without having to travel there? A virtual conference makes that possible.
  • The online format lends itself well to multitasking – you can check the conference schedule on one monitor while having the conference stream on your other monitor, or you can skim conference abstracts while listening to speakers talk. There is no underutilised time both during sessions and between sessions.
  • You can meet people through virtual networking quickly and easily – it’s really efficient.
  • In addition to attending the crucial sessions for your research domain, you can also branch out and cater to your curiosity. Plus, conference recordings make for great recreational viewing!
  • The virtual conference experience is quite relaxed and informal. I think some social conventions and conference conventions (think formal attire and professorial decorum) become less relevant when communicating online, so people are brought together by the peculiarity of the conference setting as opposed to ending up becoming socially disconnected by the technology.
  • You experience culture in a different way than you perhaps would in a in-person conference. EASST-4S was originally going to take place in Prague, which means that delegates would meet in Prague and have a chance to experience Czech culture. In the virtual alternative, everyone was based in a different place in the world and was in a different time zone, so not only did you get a glimpse into where researchers worked, but there was also plenty of conversation about where people are based, and what time it is there, or what the weather is like where they are. So, in a way, you get the sense that you have experienced many cultures at once through the attendees and the environments they inhabit.
  • The online conference format is easy to blog about since you can go back and review recordings or access session materials anytime. You can really sit back and enjoy the sessions wihtout having to worry about missing out on important details.   

Cons

  • Virtual conference overload can creep up on you if you don’t plan your conference engagement to implement sufficient breaks!
  • There are some non-recorded sessions – you need to check which ones these are in advance so that you can attend them during their scheduled slots and not miss out.
  • You don’t always feel like you have actually ‘met’ the people that you spoke to or whose presentations you listened to. This is particularly true of interactions that consist only of typing in the conference chat.
  • Being in different time zones can be a bummer. Imagine presenting at a conference in the middle of the night; you may not be exactly lucid! Even if you’ve recorded your presentation, you would still need to be awake to answer questions after your presentation’s been played back. Not an issue for night owls, though!

So, are virtual conferences here to stay?

In the near future, we don’t exactly have a choice – Covid-19 is still upon us and virtual conferences will continue to be the norm for a while longer.

But what about the more distant future? I envision that the demand for recorded virtual conferences and blended conference formats will continue to increase even post-pandemic, and there will be ample supply to match this demand. Researchers will have become more accustomed to attending virtual conferences and organisers will have become more proficient in delivering them. There will likely be a realisation that virtual conferences can remove some of the financial, temporal, or geographical barriers to attending conferences. While in-person conferences will always be preferred, at the very least, having options to attend virtual conferences will be better than not attending any conferences at all!


Disclaimer: I am a biased virtual conference attendee!

I’ve only ever attended virtual conferences (two so far with a few more coming up), so if I’ve missed out on the in-person experience, I wouldn’t even know what I’ve missed out on, as I do not have a direct comparison to make between virtual and in-person conferences.

From what I’ve heard, though, going to in-person conferences is great fun. I remember reading about a 5k run taking place in the morning before a conference. Even if one is closer to the ‘Couch’ stage than the ‘5k’ stage of the ‘Couch to 5k’ programme, I think that it would be great to go to something like this, and that it would contribute a lot to the overall conference experience!

I can think of many other examples of fun in-person conference activities as well, such as shopping for gifts to bring back home, taking photos, talking about research over coffee, and so many others. I think there’s a conversation to be had here about bringing this sense of ‘fun’ into the virtual conference format. If virtual conferences or blended format conferences are going to be ‘a thing’ in the future, they will need to match the in-person conference experience and reconceptualise the notion and enactment of ‘fun’ for the digital realm, whether that be through games or other interactive activities. This might apply to all aspects of the virtual conference experience, not only the ‘fun’ aspect.

Indeed, as per Suler (2015), new modes of existence emerge in the cyberspace. These are disparate to physical modes of existence, and a new, digitally mediated reality with new meanings, norms, practices, and forms of relating to others come into being. In my own research of career practitioners co-creating knowledge at work, I have observed that digitally mediated realities both mimic physical realities and establish new forms of being and relating in the cyberspace. Equally, virtual conferences of the future could both emulate in-person conference experiences where possible and expand the virtual conference experience through novel forms of engagement.

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