Yesterday morning on Twitter, I saw this quote: “The sudden grounding of academics has demonstrated that air travel ‒ previously deemed a necessary part of a successful academic career and university internationalization ‒ was not in fact essential.”. This, naturally, led me directly to the original article on “Online conferencing in the midst of COVID-19: an “already existing experiment” in academic internationalization without air travel” by Jack & Glover (2021).
In the article, the authors use the “already existing experiment” — academics around the world being grounded due to covid19 — to look at what alternatives for traditionally physical conferences exist and how they compare both to the traditional physical conferences, and among each other. And their bottom line is quite clear: Even though many people felt they “had” to fly to conferences to stay competitive in academia, there are other ways than physical presence to network and lead scientific discussions than being physically present (or, and that’s my comment here, at least as long as that’s what most people do).
Both synchronous and asynchronous virtual conferences have many benefits over actual physical conferences, for example that they are a lot easier to attend: they are cheaper, reduced travel time makes it “worthwhile” to attend more events, combining them with e.g. caring responsibilities is a lot easier since they can be attended from home. This leads to academics attending more, and more diverse, events, possibly organised in regions of the world that they would otherwise not have considered for physical conferences, which means that access to conferences (and all the scientific discussions and networking benefits ascribed to them) becomes a lot more accessible. Also, for some academics, the threshold to network and enter discussions are substantially lowered when they are happening in an online format.
At the same time, they do have challenges that are different from the ones experienced at physical conferences, e.g. for synchronous conferences the different time zones of participants need to be considered. Conference sessions outside of normal working hours might conflict with other responsibilities (or sleep!), creating a different set of problems, or a distribution of attendants based on what time zones are convenient given their physical location. In any case, boundaries between work and home might become blurred, and participants might not be as engaged in the conference if they can use the time to simultaneously (and without detection) do home chores or other things. Also, screen fatigue is real and can become a problem. Lastly, virtual interactions might be experienced “as less energizing and inspiring than face-to-face interactions”.
And while this is certainly all true, I want to offer my own perspective on this last point. I am running a workshop on “taking ownership of your own mentoring” quite regularly, and have done so both before and during the pandemic. The workshop is always advertised as “something to do with networking”, and participants freely choose to participate (or not, which is when they are not part of my sample). This means that my participants are usually people that feel like they want to learn more about networking, and while during the pandemic there has been a very much increased amount of questions regarding building and maintaining networks online via social media, there are still many questions and anxieties related to how to use physical conferences in order to make new contacts and engage in discussions with new people. So this assumption that seems to be generally out in the world that conferences are the best way to build networks, needs at least be qualified to include “…when participants know how to do it”. Just last week I heard from a quite deflated participant of a recent networking event, one of the first in-person events taking place again, where this participant did not talk to anyone they didn’t already know and were wondering how they could have approached some people that they would actually really have liked to meet, but then ended up only observing from across the room. So I would argue that there is a need for opportunities to learn how to use both formats, physical and virtual conferences, to their best advantage!
As for the energizing and inspiring face-to-face meetings: I feel like that also depends on the kind of interactions happening virtually. Since May 2020, I have started working with a new group of people, many of which I did not know before and have never met in person, and some of the (virtual!) meetings I have had with them have been the most significant, energizing, inspiring meetings I have ever had. So I see a huge potential in virtual meetings that for many others doesn’t have seem to materialized in the same way.
I also see many people waiting “to get back to normal”, meaning flying around the world like before covid19, and it worries me, especially when those flights then don’t result in all the networking and discussions people were hoping for, but in frustrated academics that wish they had talked to someone that they instead only saw from across the room. (2021) make a strong case of the greenhouse gas emissions that can be avoided if academic travel is scaled down (which is actually an important part of their article that I just glossed over, it seems so obvious to me that we should be flying less or not at all for exactly that reason!), and call for those in charge (like funders) to make sure that air travel isn’t incentivized, but I am expecting things to pick up substantially once travel becomes easier again, unless we make sure that people don’t feel like it will be a huge hit to their careers if they opt out of flying when their peers don’t.
I think we need to work on two things: Create spaces to help fulfil people’s networking and discussion needs in virtual settings, and equip them with the skills to actually do efficient networking and discussing when they want to do it, both in virtual or in-person settings. Of course there are many awesome initiatives out there to do both, but how do we make sure people even know about them and feel comfortable and confident using them? And how do we do it before people are back to their old flying ways and feel again like they cannot opt out of it without hurting their careers?
(2021) Online conferencing in the midst of COVID-19: an “already existing experiment” in academic internationalization without air travel, Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy,17:1, 293-307,