"Please wait, the meeting host will let you in soon..." This is the new sign on the door. It's the waiting in the lobby. It's the anxious, excited anticipation of what awaits you at this next conference. It's the make-up of our new world of online shared practice and I for one am a huge fan. I'm going to explore the reasons why a little in this blog as well as some of the not so great aspects of the virtual conference. I'll also explain what I mean by the 'Conference of Care'.
Conferences were a no-go for someone like me
Simply a no-go
As a mother of two and a portfolio worker with short, precarious contracts and little income, going to conferences, or indeed participating in any CPD or shared practice event, was mostly impossible for me. I accepted that early on and tried not to lament the moments I was missing out on. Still, I did feel slightly envious of friends featuring in selfies with big names in the field and colleagues discussing their thoughts of the latest presentations and their proposals for the next big conference. For me, a conference ticket was too expensive, plus the travel, the accommodation, the food. I couldn't possibly spend money on a conference trip, on me, on my brain, on my career. That money was for electricity bills, kids' clothes, a trip to the zoo. But more than that, I couldn't afford the time. It would be a full family weekend, a chunk of the holiday, an overnight stay. No, conferences were a simple no-go for someone like me.
The majority of conference speakers are men from well-off areas
In-person can mean inequitable
A little bit of research revealed that of course I was not the only one in this situation. Research by Sarabipour et al. (2020) shows that many people are unable to attend in-person conferences owing to financial and logistical barriers. This seems to be particularly the case for women and early career researchers. Indeed, the majority of conference speakers are men from well-off areas (Sarabipour et al., 2020). The chart below illustrates this point perfectly, highlighting the shift in participation of some key conferences when conducted in-person in 2019 compared to online in 2020. Suddenly, the less wealthy areas of the globe had more of a presence, and therefore potentially more of a voice and maybe then, more of an influence.
For disabled academics the in-person access issues are further amplified. Not only might they need to pay their own conference fees, accommodation and travel but also those of a carer, automatically doubling the cost. Vasquez (2020) summarises this reality:
"In-person conferences are notoriously inaccessible, yet little has been done to rectify these issues. This has greatly limited the number of disabled and chronically ill scientists who can attend these meetings, as simply traveling to and from the venue can be an accessibility nightmare. Even when a disabled person is able to travel to the conference venue, the access barriers are still often present throughout the event."
Kirkham et al.'s (2015) manifesto for improving the inclusion of disabled people in conferences confirmed also that accessibly was a major sticking point. They concluded that 'supporting attendance via telepresence seems a reasonable route forwards' (Kirkham et al., 2015). For those with less visible challenges also, the online conference might have been seen as a positive development. During a period where I suffered from anxiety attacks, could I have gotten up and gone to a room full of people to watch presentations? Definitely not. Could I have watched it from the safety of my own four walls. Possibly. Would I have taken in anything that was said? Probably not, but I could have watched it again later when feeling a little calmer. For those with mental health challenges, they may also have been waiting at the other side of that door, without the necessary key. Many people, for whatever reason, may have been stuck in the starting blocks post-pandemic and the Great Pandemic Push has now fired the starting gun. Though it's a little sad that it's taken the majority of us being forced into this situation to make the move online and make it more accessible to minorities, at least it is some footfall on Kirkham et al.'s (2015) 'route forwards'. It will certainly be interesting to discover if we now see some quite different faces on those podiums (aka screens).
Accessible for all?
Of course, the accessibility issue isn't entirely solved through a move online and Vasquez (2021) warns us that the virtual conference might not always be as accessible as we think. As Hellerstein of the Internet Society makes us aware, 15% of the world's people have a disability and this needs to be considered in the design and delivery of our virtual conferences. Those without a reliable internet connection or a mobile device, for example, are immediately excluded. Without captions or signing, our deaf participants also are out of the picture. Switching online therefore does not suddenly open the door to those who have long been waiting on the other side. There is much work still to be done. The Internet Society provides a helpful checklist of what to consider. Our deaf participants, for instance, will benefit from captioning, cameras on, and clear focus on the face for lip-reading. As well as being much less costly than the in-person event, making the virtual conference accessible for all, Hellerstein (2020) argues, 'just requires a little will and consideration!'
I don't know about you but another thing that put me off conferences was standing on that stage in front of all those unknown faces. Everyone watching your way and waiting, waiting for you to stumble at the start, get dizzy with your data, trip on your tips and ramble through your recommendations. All those faces facing you and waiting to pick you up on every questionable quotation, slippery statistic, makeshift method or clumsy claim. Even the thought of it makes me shiver. Yet now, interestingly, there is much discussion around how the online environment gives a voice and a confidence to many who ordinarily in physical spaces would remain voiceless. In a recent research project I conducted with my colleague Dr Emma Bruce, we heard from teachers in English for Academic Purposes in the UK about their experiences of the shift online in 2020. One of the advantages they referred to was the fact that they felt shy students were better able to communicate and participate in the online setting. One questionnaire respondent commented that, "some quieter [students] flourished in the online classroom vs on campus classroom". One of my colleagues also revealed to me that she felt much more empowered to speak when speaking from behind the screen. I understand what she meant. Typically silent at such events, I now find myself happily chatting in the chat box and even willing to raise my virtual hand to ask a question. I have also presented, joined panel discussions and voiced my opinion in breakout rooms. I've even become a committee member of a community in Manchester, 1559 km from where I'm living in southwest France. At the next conference, I'll be the person 'letting people in', clicking the buttons, and what a huge privilege that will be, to welcome in those who previously may have remained firmly locked outside.
Many in the academic community might remain forever on the periphery.
Indeed, the few conferences I have attended in my life (which I should say, all had a huge impact on my thinking and my practice) saw me suffering the usual kind of imposter syndrome so many experience in academia, and probably many other professions too. I always felt more on the outside than on the inside. I never quite knew who the big names were, what topics were in vogue, who the plenary speaker was last year. I was literally and logistically lost and out of the loop. This year's change got me thinking again about 'communities of practice', a concept we learn about in education. This was a concept that evolved out of research by Jean Lave in Liberia where she observed tailors learning their trade. Together with Etienne Wenger, they described the 'newcomers' watching from the wings and the 'old-timers' acting as the experts from whom the newcomers would learn (Lave & Wenger, 1999). In theory, over time, the newcomers slowly step-stone towards the centre until finally, they become the old-timers and the process goes on. To achieve this progression, they say, there needs to be a shared repertoire, mutual engagement and joint enterprise (Lave & Wenger, 2002). Based on this model, it's easy to see how many in the academic community might remain forever on the periphery, never moving beyond the newcomer status. Indeed, it's taken me personally 18 years in the profession to make a move.
The move online has certainly been unnerving for some and it has forced a number of organisations and individuals to re-examine who they are and who they will be in this new virtual world. Some organisations, previously loyal to a local membership might now find themselves talking to a global audience. Suddenly, there are cultural, intercultural, international aspects to consider. There are time zones, timings and turn-taking to think about. And there is the question of how they maintain loyalty to their locals while galloping towards the global. I personally think both are possible. We all have our roots, our local life and culture that influences all we do. This can be maintained, in-person presentations can go on, conferences of coffees and cakes and cosy conversations don't have to stop. But the wider audience can be embraced too, those at a distance (for whatever reason), can be warmly welcomed into the fold through the wonders of technology.
Conference of Care
Moving forward, I can envisage so many exciting possibilities for the delivery of conferences. Blended can certainly be beautiful. Each organisation can offer a proportion of their events online and others in-person. Hybrid might also not be so horrible with some of the audience attending from home and others sitting physically in seats. Presenters could also present at a distance to a live audience, providing food for thought for conversations during those tea breaks and luxurious (or not-so-luxurious) lunches. Conferences can also be recorded and watched at a later time for those who are working, caring for family members or simply with other commitments. The possibilities are endless, and I suppose they always were. Many may also have been doing all this previously, it just wasn't as visible. We must also mention the positive impact more of a move online could have for the environment, something which, as academics, we claim to care so much about. I do, however, see a possible three-tier system opening up, which arguably could still be seen as inequitable. This is presented as the three-tier conference above. Nevertheless, this model would allow many previously marginalised members to see the show at least, and maybe even to steal the show, if they are the ones presenting. In Maha Bali's recent post entitled a Pedagogy of Care: Covid 19 edition, she talked about how educators can create a more caring community within their online class, through their course, and on an individual level. The same could be said for conferences. As Maha Bali talks about equity, accessibility, care and consideration for each other in the online classroom context, I'd like to propose we do the same when it comes to conferences. Perhaps now is the time for the 'Conference of Care', something already so long overdue.
Bali, M. (2020). Pedagogy of care: Covid-19 Edition. Available at: https://blog.mahabali.me/educational-technology-2/pedagogy-of-care-covid-19-edition/
Bruce, E., & Stakounis, H. (2021). The impact of Covid-19 on the UK EAP sector during the initial six months of the pandemic. BALEAP-funded report. Available at: https://www.baleap.org/resources/baleap-publications
Hellerstein, J. (2020). Are your virtual meetings accessible for people with disabilities? Start with this checklist. Available at: https://www.internetsociety.org/blog/2020/07/are-your-virtual-meetings-accessible-for-people-with-disabilities-start-with-this-checklist/
Kirkham, R., Vines, J., & Olivier, P. (2015, April). Being reasonable: A manifesto for improving the inclusion of disabled people in SIGCHI conferences. In Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 601-612).
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1999). Learning and pedagogy in communities of practice. Learners and pedagogy, 21-33 in Leach, J., & Moon, B. (Eds.). Learners & pedagogy. London: Sage.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (2002). Legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. Supporting lifelong learning, 1, 111-126.
Sarabipour, S., Schwessinger, B., Mumoki, F. N., Mwakilili, A. D., Khan, A., Debat, H. J., ... & Mestrovic, T. (2020). Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements. BioRxiv.
Sarabipour, S. (2020). Research Culture: Virtual conferences raise standards for accessibility and interactions. Available at: https://elifesciences.org/articles/62668#metrics
Vasquez, K. (2021). Virtual Conferences Aren’t as Accessible as You Might Think. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/virtual-conferences-arent-as-accessible-as-you-might-think/