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.
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.
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.
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.
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.