After more than two years of having bunkered down in Cambridge, UK because of the global pandemic, I took my first international flight, and attended my first ‘real’ or ‘in-person’ conference in the United States of America. I must say it felt rather strange digging into my drawer in search of my passport. A one-time frequent traveller, I had known my passport number off by heart. That memory had faded. Living in the shadow of Covid-19 for more than two years – as you all know – has altered many things. For sure, travelling now is nowhere near as onerous as it was even a few months ago, with multiple tests, quarantine regimes, and lists of red/orange and green countries, but not everyone has decided that they are back on the conference circuit like the old days.
The conference I was attending was hosted by a major US-based academic society– historically a large gathering of some 3,000 including scholars, NGOs, international organisations, foundations, publishers, and education services providers. This number is a sizeable carbon footprint in anyone’s language. Prior to the pandemic there had been calls for new virtual formats to enable conference goers to be mindful of the part they can play in mitigating the effects of climate change. Like for many academic conference organisers, Covid-19 has simply hastened the need for engagement with new formats.
Calling for virtual formats is easy. It is more complicated when the task is embraced with a view to pleasing the majority, but in this case, a majority spread over all of time zones of the world. Someone somewhere is going to be up either very early or very late, depending on what gets established as ‘local’ time.
So, what did this first attempt by the conference organizers to come out of the shadow of Covid look like? To begin, a good number of participants chose not to travel to the venue but rather engage in the virtual format. Decisions as to whether to go or not are complicated, and no less so in terms of getting into the USA with the right tests and paperwork as proof. There were also two conference programmes – one virtual and one in-person – a herculean effort by the organisers. Delivering one programme is hard enough work, let alone two. However, in effect, the conference programme was a hybrid mix of sessions, with in-person presenters along with virtual presenters being ‘zoomed’ in. So far so good, you say. To cater to the extremes of time-zones, the organisers offered early (6.00 am) and late (9.00 pm) sessions as a fully virtual experience, though in some cases these virtual formats included presenters who were physically present at the conference.
My sense is that there is still a long way to go to getting it right. To begin, the bandwidth at the hotel was often not good enough to secure stable connections for the various panels zooming in a presenter or panel member. The onus was also on the overall organiser of the individual session to ensure that it all worked fine. That’s quite a big ask and the model, if adopted into the future, will hugely depend on a ramped up level of technical support to make it work seamlessly. For the moment significant time is lost getting connected or indeed reconnected, limiting the time available for presenters, and for questions from the audience. It is a long way to travel to find that your time to present has been eroded by the challenges in connecting the real with the digital world. And how do you artfully attract the eye of the presenter; not always easy when it is in person and definitely harder when body language does not travel well between the real and the virtual.
These large conferences also have their own political economy: use of hotel conference rooms for free when a particular percentage of hotel accommodation is booked by conference goers; reduced hotel rates from the large conference hotel chains in exchange for a 5-year contract that is clearly not pandemic proof; publishers pay a booth fee – which also replenishes the Societies coffers – but lack of footfall also has the publisher asking whether it is worth it; the list goes on.
And there is also a personal economy; we like to meet old friends, make new ones, share stories, and socialise. Conferences are places where this kind of affective work also happens. And it is important. We are after all social beings.
My sense is we are still in experimental mode to get it right. Technology, for sure, must be a part of any future directions taken. And don’t get me wrong. I am definitely up for the challenge for all of the reasons the climate change protestors are right to draw our attention to. Plus, there are major benefits for conference goers who want to attend, but find the costs of travelling prohibitive, the visa queues a nightmare to navigate, and negotiating time away from workplaces and families rather tricky. Presenting work internationally is fundamental to most academic promotion routes. And if this is the case, we need to ensure there are options to make it feasible for all to engage.
But we also need to think more deeply about formats, platforms, the availability of conference presentations, networking, what we want from conferences, and how best to realise these. Simply mimicking what we used to do in a virtual/real format in the advertised ‘annual conference window’ is likely not the answer.
Susan Robertson is Professor of Sociology of Education, the Faculty of Education, at the University of Cambridge. Prior to this, Susan was Professor at the University of Bristol. Her area of expertise is on transformations of the state, education policy, region building and global processes. Susan’s recent publications include work on platform capitalism and higher education, market-making and trade agreements and their relationship to education governance.