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Conferences and COVID-19

Thoughts on the cancellation of the ELI annual meeting, and the 2020 academic conference season.

March 1, 2020
 
 

Earlier today, I got the news that Educause had canceled the ELI annual meeting, which was all set to begin today.

My thoughts are with my friends and colleagues at Educause, as well as those who traveled to Bellevue, Wash., for the event. This is, no doubt, a difficult and challenging situation.

How many other academic conferences are already, or will be, canceled due to COVID-19? Many people I know are rethinking their plans to travel to conferences that have not yet been canceled. This must be a terrible time for those planning events. I strongly suspect that ELI will not be the last academic conference canceled due to COVID-19 this year.

What is lost when our academic conferences are canceled? What do we lose as higher education professionals when we choose not to attend an event? What does the cancellation of a higher education conference reveal about higher education conferences?

Academic and professional association in-person events provide at least five things that we seem unable to replicate digitally and remotely. These attributes include:

  1. Dedicated Time: The value-add of going to an academic/professional conference is mostly found in the stopping of other activities. A face-to-face conference forces the attendee to disrupt their regular work routines and shift their attention (if not wholly) to what is occurring at the event. This dedicated time to direct one’s attention to conference activities is exceedingly difficult to replicate in a virtual event, with attendees remaining on their home campuses.
  2. Physical Separation: Just as important as dedicated time, in-person conferences provide a physical separation from one’s day job. The act of going somewhere else for the conference offers cover for opting out of (most) campus activities, such as attendance at meetings. The act of traveling to a meeting increases the investment in the event, causing attendees to focus on the activities of the conference.
  3. Critical Mass: Face-to-face conferences still scale more efficiently than digital gatherings among remote participants. The reason to go to the annual meeting in your field is that everyone else in your field will be in attendance. The value of an academic conference is determined by the quality and breadth of the participants. An in-person academic conference is still the best way to catch up with a wide variety of colleagues.
  4. Opportunities for Professional Advancement: Academic and professional events serve purposes beyond professional development and networking. They are also opportunities for career advancement. For many roles, regional and national impact is essential for both promotion and job applications. Conferences are places to give posters and papers and to be recognized for your contributions to the discipline. Serving in organizational and leadership roles at professional associations and disciplinary organizations is another way to demonstrate regional and national impact. Plus, many people get jobs (or at least participate in interviews) at academic conferences.
  5. Informal Networking: We all know that the real work of the academic conference gets done in hallways, restaurants and bars. Conversations outside of sessions are the glue that holds an academic field together. There seems to be no good substitute for the bonding that occurs from informal discussions and from the acting of breaking bread together. In the various subcommunities that constitute the higher ed ecosystem, everyone knows everybody. The higher ed worlds that we inhabit are small. The only way to build those relationships is to meet face-to-face, if only once a year.

The question is, can the five attributes that I list above of in-person academic events be replicated digitally in the face of COVID-19-caused cancellations? Can virtual conferences and unconferences be created in Google Docs, Zoom and Twitter that carry at least some of the benefits of face-to-face gatherings? Will the distributed replacements to canceled academic conferences be bottom-up or top-down events?

What will happen to professional associations and academic organizations that rely on conference fees for much of their annual budget? What will be the economic consequences to our organizations of COVID-19 conference cancellations?

Will the COVID-19 conference cancellations push us to improve the fidelity and quality of virtual digital convenings? How is COVID-19 impacting your professional travel?

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