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Online conferences - yay or nay?

The word "unprecedented" has been given a lot of air time in the past 6 months, but it's the most accurate way to define how 2020 has been so far. The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all aspects of life; one of which is the highlight of many academics' year: attending conferences. I was due to go to at least two conferences this summer. As the pandemic grew, one of these was outright cancelled (understandable, but hugely disappointing for those who had worked so hard to organise it) whilst the other was transformed into an online event. I was part of the conference organising committee and at an early meeting when we knew it was going to be online, I proposed that it should be cancelled altogether. I was wrong.

The University of the West of Scotland's Learning, Teaching and Research 2020 conference (; #UWSLTR2020) was hugely enjoyable, thanks to the programme itself but arguably more so due to the excellent organisation that took place behind the scenes. Over 100 delegates logged onto the Zoom event and were treated to keynote presentations from individuals both a couple of miles and thousands of miles away from the university. Question and answer sessions were delivered fluidly, and break out rooms were used to facilitate smaller group discussions before being fed back to the main meeting. With all delegates on mute unless they wanted to ask a question, it was easy to stay focused on the speaker (and nipping out to the bathroom mid-presentation could be done much more discreetly than at a typical conference!)

My concerns had been around the 'clunkiness' of an online conference: how would different rooms be managed? Would everyone 'go' to where they should at the correct time? What if speakers' internet connections dropped and there was awkward silence or people talking over each other? The conference committee (me excluded) managed this excellently; it was professional, engaging and really slick. It seemed to be easier to concentrate on all sessions because they were shorter than they would have been in real life, and instead of being over a couple of days, it was condensed into 4 hours. I missed the networking aspect of attending a typical conference, but I treated it the same: I resisted the temptation to read emails whilst in sessions and it was great to talk to other academics outside of my department, having had little interaction with people over the past few months.

I wonder if such online events have the potential to (if not replace) provide competition to the way conferences have typically been delivered. They are cheaper for all involved and I got a lot out of it (though missed meeting with conference buds and enjoying a drink at the end of the day). What do you think: online conferences - yay or nay? I'd love to hear your thoughts!


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