by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)
If some feel that participating in virtual or video conferencing would be “boring people to tears” as a recent Forbes article noted, “the reality is virtual conferences and events are going to be a big part of our future, definitely in the short term and possibly much longer than that. Nor is that all bad news- in terms of accessibility, cost savings, environmental footprint, etc., virtual events have a lot going for them. In fact, the value is proving to be more far-reaching than this.”
Over 6 million Americans are taking online classes and looking forward to getting degrees today. “What is clear so far,” notes a recent study, “is that the coronavirus pandemic has shown the need for new, innovative ideas in the delivery of education. Students need a new way to learn while young workers could use online platforms to advance career skills.”
Even after COVID, virtual conferences are expected to be a major part of our future. Technology has changed reference services and meetings with Zoom and other types of personal interactions and instruction. And there is an upside: rather than getting official permissions, making flight and hotel arrangements, getting your presentation slides and handouts ready, today most professional conferences are either being cancelled or organizers are seeking alternative ways to ‘gather’ people in ways that most successfully will give everyone- speakers, vendors, and attendees – the sense of “being there.”
“Work from home is now the only option for many. In this crisis, cloud companies suddenly are the backbone of a global virtual learning and collaboration experiment on a scale never previously experienced. While the Internet backbone has long been a lifeline and reached over half the world’s population in 2019, without scalable cloud services, the current disaster would be unimaginably worse,” Syracuse iSchool faculty Lee McKnight and John Jordan explain. “We expect in the future smart managers will find the best of both worlds, creating more flexible hybrid models of co-located and distributed work. These new work practices will prove their worth in multiple ways, from increased resilience to better utilization of real estate. Second, education will no longer be segregated into ‘online’ and ‘physical’.”
In a recent article, Russ Altman, Associate Director of the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence describes how what had been intended as a traditional conference in April before COVID forced organizers to go back to the drawing board. Moving to an online, virtual format, they created an amazingly open and vibrant global success with over 30,000 people participating, and the conference sessions are still open for viewing and commenting today.
As the website Mighty Networks notes: “While it may feel like the only reason to have a virtual conference over a physical one is because you are forced to, the early adopters of virtual conferences will tell you a very different story. It turns out that virtual connections and conferences allow for a better experience and deeper relationships for attendees, and therefore significantly more value, over time.”
WHAT DOES A SUCCESSFUL VIRTUAL CONFERENCE LOOK LIKE?
“Uberfication of Education” is a new phrase introduced this year by Dr. Nicky Mohan, who believes that technology is making high-quality education available to everyone as “mobile devices, social networks, games-based and virtual learning environments, and hybrid classes will have a democratizing effect on our society, as all these things will expand access to high-quality education.” And in this swiftly developing area, West Virginia University researchers believe, “virtual conferences have the potential to democratize academic spaces. For example, virtual conferences make it possible for faculty members from underfunded universities and those who cannot leave family for days at a time to attend and promote their research and network in ways that were otherwise not possible.”
“Community can provide myriad forms of social support, including informational, emotional, and financial. People can learn from others with different experiences and use that knowledge to inform their local situation,” Syracuse University School of Information Studies professor Bryan Semaan believes. “Across my studies, people have described how the Internet, particularly the ability to connect with others, has been the most important factor contributing to their sense of safety and security.”
The Association for Computing Machinery has just released a how-to guide for planning and conducting these virtual meetings, intended as “a practical introduction to the brave new world of virtual conferences, assembled and curated by member of the ACM’s Presidential Task Force on What Conferences Can Do to Replace Face-to-Face Meetings.” The 34-page guide is worth a look for attendees as well as planners of these new technology-based events.
WE ARE ALL PIONEERS ON THIS NEW FRONTIER
“Virtual conferences present many interesting challenges, some of them technological in nature, others that go beyond technology,” notes Cristina Lopes in a recent ACM article. “Creating truly immersive conference experiences that make us feel ‘there’ requires attention to personal and social experiences at physical conferences. Those experiences need to be recreated from the ground up in virtual spaces. But in that process, they can also be rethought to become experiences not possible in real life.”
“The ability to ‘talk’ during presentations,” Jill Schiefelbein of Dynamic Virtual Conferences believes is a key advantage. “When you’re at an in-person event you sit quietly, listening to the speaker (or, if you’re bored, you zone out doing something on your mobile device). With virtual conferences you have the ability to chat in real-time with other attendees, share insights and ‘ah-ha’ moments, and in many cases interact with the speakers to get more value. This synchronous interactivity isn’t easily possible in face-to-face events, as you can’t have 100 people talking at the same time. In virtual events you can.”
Jon Erskine, sales director at Influitive, believes that “networking virtually requires more intentionality and planning, but the trade-off in time will be about the same since you won’t be traveling to a conference center or hurrying from session to session.”
As the CloudApp website reminds us: “With the rise of remote work, especially in tech, SaaS, and online industries, coupled with the efforts to control the spread of COVID-19, more and more conferences are transitioning from in-person events to online-only virtual conferences. With that rise, we’ve seen a correlated rise in collaborative tools such as Slack, Asana, and Zoom, all with the intention of making remote work and virtual conferences easier and more valuable.” We are all pioneers in this new era of virtual conferencing. These conferences will continue to evolve and morph over time. So how is ATG working to transform one of the most innovative and leading information industry conferences into the virtual environment?
THE BOTTOM LINE: KEEPING UP & MOVING FORWARD
As noted in a recent Science article, “many lament the loss of in person get-togethers and fortuitous collaborations arising from coffee station eavesdropping. But, they are also finding that virtual conferences are far more convenient, less costly, more environmentally friendly, and offer moderators the opportunity to subtly direct the flow of discussion and audience questions via back channel private messaging. The result? A high-quality conference experience that is often more egalitarian, equitable, and diverse than in person conferences, they say.”
The article goes on to note that: “Scientists acknowledge that virtual conferences can’t entirely replicate the conference experience, which normally involves impromptu meetings in hallways and other social get-togethers. ‘Humans are a social species,’ notes Jennifer Kwan, a clinical fellow at the Yale School of Medicine. ‘We’re used to being able to see body language, being able to interface with someone in person.’ So virtual meetings might lose some of their appeal once stay-at-home requirements loosen, she says.”
Since COVID, many key conferences across the disciplines have been cancelled. In fact a Wikipedia page has been established to keep track of all of the conferences canceled or delayed. Still, there is a clear and essential need to keep moving forward, learning how to adapt to the current challenges and support this research challenge.
No one could have predicted this crisis, yet librarians, academics and publishers are critical professionals supporting the researchers, doctors and decision-makers working to solve this global crisis. We can’t be left on the sidelines, hoping this will go away and things will go back to normal. Today, and for the near-term future, virtual is the new norm.
Nancy K. Herther is a former academic and librarian now working as an independent Research Consultant and regular contributor to ATG.