Online Conferences: Four Reflections

In this guest post in our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online), Will Pooley (@willpooley) reflects on hosting an online workshop. 

Will Pooley

There is something odd about the effect the pandemic is having on online academic work, collaboration, discussion, and teaching. The lockdowns imposed in many parts of the world have given a renewed impetus to some forms of doing history online. The pressures of the current situation have provided momentary distractions from longstanding problems with the platforms and tools that historians have found themselves most drawn to, such as Twitter and blogging.

The challenges of the #SchOnline moment involve addressing these legitimate criticisms around issues including accessibility, abuse and harassment.

One big change has been the adoption – almost overnight – of teleconferencing software such as Zoom and Skype, to replace face-to-face meetings and events. Jan Machielsen and I decided to give an online workshop a go, to bring together people interested in talking about the broad issues of the supposed ‘decline of magic’.

I have four reflections on this.

Something Old?

The first thing I want to mention is something that Jan and I agreed on from when we first discussed the idea: an online ‘conference’ or ‘seminar’ cannot just simulate a face-to-face equivalent. It’s very hard to broadcast a 20 or 50-minute talk, especially given the unreliability of the technology, and the fact that none of us are media professionals. The videos that professional Youtubers, for instance, put out involve specialist equipment and a whole production team. Academics need to be realistic about what we can do using an old work laptop in a poorly-lit makeshift space.

Something New

The second point I would make about this is that different does not have to mean worse. In particular, if filming or livestreaming full-length papers is not going to be practical, we wanted to think about ways that we could do better than conventional formats. So in particular, we shaped our events to encourage – we hope! – more interactivity, and make them more inclusive. Instead of full-length papers, we asked for 2000 word pre-circulated papers, which were not read out, but were ‘introduced’ by the authors. These introductions were followed by responses from volunteer respondents, and finally with open questions from the audience.

We set no limit to who could take part, and made no requirement of any academic affiliation or qualification. There was no fee, no need to travel to attend. We scheduled the events based on the availability of speakers and audience using an online poll (Doodle).

In retrospect, I think we could have done even more to think about accessibility. We did not run our materials through any kind of accessibility checker and I will be drawing on resources such as the how to guide from AbilityNet to make sure the next session makes accessibility a first principle.

Something Borrowed

My third point is borrowed from one Jan made on Twitter. We set up the workshops following a Twitter discussion of a book, which escalated in a few minutes into the idea for an event. As Jan pointed out afterwards, it’s incredibly liberating to be able to organize something this quickly (we only started talking about it a month before). Online spaces provided a ready-made pool of experts and researchers working on periods from the sixteenth to the twenty first centuries who wanted to join in. And we didn’t have to apply for funding, or order sandwiches, or book a room.

Something Blue?

The fourth and final point I would make goes back to something that Mark and Laura mentioned in their post introducing this discussion: ‘the challenge of sparking interaction and dialogue’. In our first workshop, we had 65 participants, but many of them never spoke, and never typed anything in the public chat. The discussion was largely dominated by the paper authors and other speakers….

Reason for despair?

Perhaps not. One of the nicest things after the event was to hear back from a lot of silent participants saying how much they enjoyed taking part. Perhaps we would like to see more active participation in conversations. But perhaps some of this comes from our anxiety about teaching under these conditions?

And we can also reflect on the value that people get from taking part even if they aren’t actively signalling that by commenting or speaking.


7 thoughts on “Online Conferences: Four Reflections

  1. This was interesting, I wish I’d known about your conference. On you final point I would guess that if you have 65+ people at a physical conference most of them will also not actually speak either so not really surprising perhaps.

  2. On the issue of interaction, it may be that online workshops and seminars will follow a similar pattern to other online forums. The majority of users in forums and similar spaces ‘lurk’, reading the conversation but not actively taking part. There’s some research about that here:

    But that behaviour isn’t limited to online settings – I’ve been in many workshops where comparatively few of the audience ask questions or take part in the discussion. Maybe it’s just a feature of that format?

    • Many thanks – that research is an eye opener. I think partly anxieties here grow from experiences in seminars. As seminar tutors we are trained to try to ensure that everyone participates in some way, or at least that with smaller group discussion and tasks etc we provide a few different ways to hopefully get everyone to contribute. But as we move online it’s clear that we need to change our expectations around this, and not see lack of active participation as some kind of failure, rather, as you say, as a feature of the format.

  3. Pingback: #SchOnline: Scholarly Communities Online | the many-headed monster

  4. Pingback: Evading the hounds: online scholarly collaboration and crowdsourced harassment | the many-headed monster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s