We are delighted to welcome our next guest blogger for our #SchOnline series (scholarly conversations online). Here Jennifer Farrell (@dr_j_farrell) reflects on her experience as a delegate of an online conference.
Last week saw the return of the International Medieval Congress (IMC) at the University of Leeds. This annual conference attracts thousands of medievalists from all over the world, eager to network with one another, to road-test their research, and to enjoy hearing about the work being done by others in their field. I have attended the IMC numerous times in the past, both as a delegate and as a speaker, but the major difference this year was that I did so from the comfort of my own living room!
The Covid pandemic has impacted researchers in various ways, but one of the major changes we are seeing is the willingness and indeed tenacity of conference organisers to find ways of facilitating networking and the sharing of research via online platforms. The sheer scale of the IMC means that its move to a virtual conference was nothing short of heroic. This year the virtual IMC supported the delivery of c.530 research papers, attended by c.3,200 delegates from across 60 countries. The organisers, moderators, panellists, and facilitators deserve to be commended for this.
Speaking purely from the perspective of a delegate, with no need to worry about my paper being interrupted by poor internet connection, bad sound, disruption from trolls, or just the generally odd sensation of talking about your research to a computer screen, my own experiences of the vIMC were very positive. Of course, a virtual environment is by no means the same as experiencing the conference in person, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Like many of the changes that have occurred to our working conditions on account of Covid, there are good and bad sides.
Here are three changes I was particularly struck by:
Once the decision had been made to hold the conference online, the organisers announced that the first 1,500 registrations would be free of charge, with all subsequent registrations incurring a cost of £5. In the event the generosity of the registration gateway provider meant that all of the 3,200 registrations were actually free. This is in stark contrast to the normal registration fees of £229 for four full days (£127 for students/retired/un-waged/low-waged scholars), or £132 for a one day pass. These fees do not include meals, accommodation, or any of the excursions offered during the conference, nor, of course, do they include the cost of travel to Leeds or to the UK from abroad.
Unsurprisingly the cost of attending the IMC is often prohibitive for those who would benefit most from it – namely PhD students, early career scholars, and those on fixed-term or casual contracts, eager to establish themselves within wider networks of specialists in their areas. This year’s vIMC presented a greater opportunity for scholars at all stages of their career or studies to “attend”. While it may be untenable to cater for so many delegates in person at lower costs, this factor goes decidedly in the ‘pro’ side of my vIMC analysis.
This is a tricky one. On the one hand, I was able to “attend” in my PJs which is a big win. I also generally found the technology used (Blackboard Collaborate Ultra via the IMC app) worked very well. On the other hand, while disruptions to audio or visual quality were minimal in the sessions I attended, it is clear that this is an area that has the potential to pose significant challenges in terms of accessibility. Anyone reliant on lip-reading, or with other hearing or sight problems, is likely to have found any disruptions to sound or visuals particularly problematic. Some speakers uploaded written versions of their papers, others made full use of slides, and sessions in which accessibility issues had been flagged up ahead of time were recorded. These were all very useful. Papers with no transcript or slides are far less effective here.
The other technology-related problem we are seeing crop up again and again is the interference of trolls, and the vIMC had its share. The organisers responded swiftly and did their best to mitigate the problem, locking virtual sessions once they had started and giving moderators the ability to disable the chat function where necessary. On some occasions, however, the chat function needed to be disabled throughout. Unfortunately this meant that presenters were met with a virtual wall of silence after their papers, which is not very encouraging, especially for those new to the experience of delivering research papers. It was certainly a far cry from the supportive applause that in-person sessions allow for.
The theme this year was ‘Borders’, and while the technology allowed us to transcend geographical borders without leaving the sofa and for minimal cost, it is impossible to recreate face-to-face interaction and the same experience of community in the virtual world. But a sense of community there was! Twitter was flooded with pictures of delegates “attending” from their homes, together with cats, dogs and nursing babies, across a variety of time-zones, some drinking their morning coffee and others having an evening glass of wine.
Speaking from a strictly personal point of view, I found this year’s conference, perhaps surprisingly, to be one of the friendliest and most welcoming. This may say more about me than it does about past conferences. I find that I am more comfortable reaching out to people via the chat boxes in virtual session rooms than I am walking across a concourse to strike up a conversation with someone I have not previously met. If, like me, you suffer from a combination of imposter syndrome and a sense that you are the only one who doesn’t already know absolutely everyone at a conference, the chance to simply type a comment or say hello through the chat option online took away all of the usual anxiety. This made me much more likely to engage with others in the sessions, and the result was that I felt much more connected to what was going on.
All in all, virtual conferences cannot replicate the experiences of being there in person, nor the chance to socialise over food or in the pub after a day of stimulating papers, nor the impromptu conversations that strike up about a paper days after it was heard. Yet for all of this there is much to recommend them as an addition to, not a substitute for, the ways in which we build networks and share research with each other.
With thanks to IMC for permission to use their bingo card – you can see a lot more about the Congress on their twitter feed.