|Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash|
Technology is often used simply to enable us to continue doing what we have always done but in a digital space. The same seems to be true for online conferences. New platforms and tools are being launched almost weekly and there is a bewildering diversity for organisers to choose between. The corporate market for online conferences is booming and will no doubt replace many of the on-site conferences after the pandemic has faded (though that could be further in the future than most would like to imagine). Digital media have the potential to help us rethink the conference into inclusive and accessible spaces for networking and sharing and there have indeed been many innovative examples in recent months, offering more spaces for discussion and networking as well as offering both synchronous and asynchronous activities. However, it is extremely hard to break from tradition and academic conferences are vital rites of passage for young researchers by having a conference paper accepted.
This week I enjoyed reading a couple of articles by Catherine Oliver of the London School of Economics. Her article in The Post-pandemic University, Post-Pandemic Conferences: Academic networks and changing conference spaces, describes how online conferences have the potential to become more inclusive but that there is a risk that we will return to the the old hierarchies and privileges. Changing traditions involves so much more than simply creating the potential for change, there has to be an awareness that things need to change. The academic conference model is tried, tested and comfortable. After the pandemic most people will want to return to their comfort zones.
The doors of the academic conference create a boundary that not only produces insiders and outsiders, but also the outsiders within. The doors of the academic conference have opened during Covid-19, but a return to in-person conferences threatens to slam them shut.There are new opportunities to open up conferences but technology does not automatically bring change. It enables change but the will to change has to be there.
Conferences are an important space for the making (and breaking) of academic communities. The doors to the academic conference are, in theory, more open than ever. But, with the UK government’s intention to get life “back to normal” by the 21st June 2021, the doors might be about to slam on accessible conferences. Conference hierarchies have not been flattened by the pandemic, but new spaces and opportunities are beginning to emerge. While conferences produce insiders and outsiders, they also allow for radical connections to be made; encounters that are more difficult to replicate at virtual conferences. Online networking comes with a host of new relations and rules. But, as we move to post-pandemic hybrid conferences, we must maintain the momentum to radically reimagine not only our academic spaces, but our academic communities.Another article by Catherine Oliver, on the LSE's site, Online conferences: opening opportunities or reproducing inequality?, looks at those who are often marginalised in traditional conferences, precarious academics such as doctoral students looking for their first foothold on the academic ladder and researchers without the resources to travel. Many have benefited from this year's online conferences, being able to participate and contribute at very low cost and without the need for travel and lengthy visa applications. Many conferences have seen significant increases in attendance by going online and reducing or even waiving attendance fees. It is important not to forget them in our rush "back to normal".
The same care and attention owed to ‘in-person’ events needs to be paid to the organisation of online academic conferences if they are to be fertile spaces for doing academia differently. As we face uncertain futures, now is not the time to abandon precarious academics but to radically reimagine our knowledge production and communication spaces with accessibility, transparency, and openness at the centre.
There will certainly be a sigh of relief when on-site conferences return and many will flock back to the sense of community and shared experience that they offer. But we must remember that such events are always exclusive and many voices are never heard there. We need to learn from the past year and create more innovative and inclusive online conferences with a much lower threshold for involvement. The traditional conferences may hopefully also widen their scope and allow a variety of forms of participation.