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Virtual Conferences

A brief guide to virtual academic conferences.

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March 19, 2020
 
 

Lots of conferences are being canceled or moved online right now, along with classes. Since I've been participating in virtual conferences on and off since 2013 (and working in online math education since 2010), this seems like an unfortunately useful time to talk about virtual conferences.

My first piece of advice on virtual conferences applies to everyone. Remember that a conference that originally intended to meet physically and will now move online is not the same as a conference that intended to be online all along, even if it looks somewhat similar in the end. There has been a disruption, and making the conference run as close to normally as possible probably isn't anyone's first priority. If you need to drop out, or if organizers need to fully cancel the conference, be understanding with each other and with yourselves. Similarly, if you do continue with a virtual conference, virtual presentation and virtual attendance, give yourself permission to be kind of bad at this. Accessibility is still important, but duplicating the exact experience people would get face-to-face is not. (Basically, the disabled people in your audience should be able to tell what your presentation is saying just as well as people without disabilities … but that doesn't mean anyone has to think it was a great presentation.)

Here is my advice for presenters who expected to present in person, but are now giving some sort of virtual presentation.

Find out what kind of virtual presentations you could choose to give. There are several possibilities, and different conferences will offer different options. The INSPIRe symposium lets presenters write a paper, create a poster or record a talk. Participants looked at or listened to each other's work, then discussed asynchronously on message boards or on blog comment threads. I always chose to write a paper, because writing is generally more accessible to me than speaking, but other people chose what worked for them. AAC in the Cloud uses Google Meet so people present in real time from their computers, and it's streamed (and saved) to YouTube. Questions and discussion took place in a Slack workspace. This conference felt more like a typical workshop presentation to me, just at a distance. Presenting in Second Life was a similar experience, though with a bit more setup from my end. Then there was the time I presented at Computers and Writing (not normally a remote conference) by recording my presentation ahead of time, which they then played during my panel. I've done that for the Society for Disability Studies and the Five Project as well. With this option, it's nice if you can arrange to be available for virtual chat while the video is played, or after, but I know it's not always possible.

Once you know what kind of virtual presentation format you're working with, think about how you can use it to tell people about your topic. Sometimes you'll want to do something creative with it. Sometimes (like probably now), you do not have the time or energy for anything complicated. Maybe you'll just record yourself giving the same basic talk you'd expected. Maybe you don't even have the energy for that and you're going to have a nice chat with attendees about your research over Zoom. You could hand over your notes and slides, then suggest attendees ask questions about whatever looks interesting -- use them to guide your presentation. If the conversation is text-based, you don't need to worry about them all talking at once!

And finally, go back to my first piece of advice for everyone: remember that this isn’t what you expected to be doing, and that now is not an easy time. Judge yourself and others accordingly.

Have you participated in virtual conferences before? How are you handling previously physical conferences that are now virtual?

Alyssa is a doctoral candidate in interdisciplinary neuroscience at the University of Rhode Island. Follow them @yes_thattoo or check out their personal blog.

Image by Fleep Tuque used under a creative commons license.

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