Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Is it still a conference if the keynote speakers are all online?

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels

Conferences are reverting to their traditional on-site format but the effects of the pandemic can still be felt in that it has become difficult to attract speakers to attend in person. Many speakers prefer to contribute online for both environmental and time-saving reasons. Travelling half way round the world to speak for 45 minutes, with the resultant massive carbon footprint, is simply not sustainable. The appearance can take several days out of a speaker's schedule and although the experience of seeing new places and making new contacts is very enjoyable, it disrupts regular work activities. During the pandemic we all realised that keynote presentations work very well online and now that the conferences are back on site many of the speakers are not. But what happens to an on-site conference when the speakers are all on screen and no one is actually on stage? Why pay high fees to watch a video meeting?

Conference organisers are now trying to put pressure on speakers to attend in person according to an article in Times Higher Education, Academic conferences scale back hybrid ambitions. Having the keynote speakers on-site means that they also attend other sessions and chat with participants during the breaks, meals and mingles. This adds value to the conference and justifies the fee. 
The moves follow concerns that the travel-free option for speakers is leading to empty podiums and an “us and them” culture between remote panellists and assembled delegates. Some organisers have also flagged the logistical complexity of enabling online speakers and the vastly inflated cost of running hybrid events, which often require numerous video and audio production staff, producers and technical support.

Many conferences are adopting a hybrid format, or at least a semblance of one, but the default is still on-site. Online participants can only attend some of the sessions and few have attempted hybrid mingling or social events. Of course there are technical difficulties with hybrid. Just as in teaching you need an advanced technical set-up to make hybrid work reasonably well and in my experience the online participants tend to take a back seat in the sessions. Online keynotes work best when everyone else is online but when you mix online and on-site there are always risks of bandwidth issues, sound and video quality or other technical hitches.

I generally present live on Zoom or Teams but when the conference venue is far away I prefer to record my session and let them play the recording in the conference hall. Then I am available live for questions afterwards. This minimises the risk of bandwidth issues and they get a high quality video to watch. At the same time I never get any real impression of the audience and no sense of place at all. The question time is often rather awkward since I can't hear or even see the people asking the questions and need to rely on a moderator. In addition, few participants are willing to ask a question in a hall at the best of times and even more so when the speaker isn't even in the room.

I have written on this theme several times here and firmly believe that large on-site international conferences are not sustainable and need to be phased out. It is absurd that while our colleagues in environmental science are sounding the alarm bells about the climate crisis, higher education is still responsible for high levels of carbon emissions due to our reliance on international air travel. On-site conferences are very rewarding but only for those who can afford them. Online conferences are not the same as on-site ones and we should stop comparing the two. They are still evolving and need time to develop new forms of interaction rather than trying to replicate traditional practice. They can be more inclusive and diverse and offer opportunities for longer collaborative processes.

But it's not a matter of a free choice between two alternatives. One offers us hope for the future, the other doesn't.