Among the “new normal” practices that 2020 has introduced into our lives are virtual conferences. After a biotech conference in Massachusetts in March was determined to have been a superspreader event, unwittingly transmitting COVID-19 throughout the U.S. from Indiana to Tennessee and infecting 77 people, academic and professional conferences quickly prepared to dive into the world of virtual gatherings.
Recently, despite initial trepidation and more than a little tired of the summer’s Zooming, I signed up for a three-day conference that had transitioned into a virtual event. Here are some observations.
A good online platform is a must
One of the first things that crossed my mind was “what exactly is this going to look like? Will this be easy to navigate? A downside of in-person attendance is that you are limited to which sessions you are able to attend. This particular conference hosted all activities on a single hub. With one click, participants could travel from one session to the next while simultaneously taking notes and observing live questions coming in from other attendees.
Be prepared for online bumps in the road
Transitioning virtually is not immune to hiccups. Online connections, streaming problems and other technical difficulties will and should be expected. Be patient: they can happen to anyone, anywhere.
Participation is easier
An online platform opens the floor to questions from all participants. Attendees were able to submit questions on a Q-and-A forum that were then upvoted by other attendees. I personally really like this approach. As a student, being behind a screen gave me more confidence to submit questions and boosted my confidence when others upvoted it. I also appreciated having a visual queue of the various questions to see what others wanted to know and document these for future discussions.
Accessibility is expanded
Attending a conference often entails taking one or multiple days off and travel and other expenses. An online conference eliminates many of the costs and allows you to be flexible with your attendance. I can be making my lunch while watching a session or, if the weather permits, follow it from my backyard. Additionally, from a student perspective, I felt like I had more access to speakers who may otherwise be rushing off to meet their busy work schedule or travel home. A feature conferences should consider is recording the sessions and making them available for attendees beyond the conference schedule, giving us the opportunity to listen in on presentations and discussions that we may have missed and take those conversations offline throughout the year.
Networking will take getting used to
As a student, even in person, I find that networking can be rather challenging, if not straight-out intimidating but is a significant benefit of in-person conferences. Taking that online creates a new set of challenges that we will need to work on. However, being online can offer a few benefits, especially for those of us who find it nerve-racking: you can note names of people of interest and try to have discussions offline through the conference hub chat function or connect on LinkedIn.
Time management made easier
Conferences sessions are notorious for running past their scheduled times. Regardless of meticulous planning, time seems to always run out and throws off the rest of the day. A virtual conference, with its scheduled screen times and automated systems, forces punctuality.
Finally, online fatigue is real
Sitting at your laptop can become tiresome and the dreaded “zoom fatigue” can settle in quickly. Online platforms force us to focus intently on the information that is being presented since we are also fighting distractions. I found that spending four hours in an online class and then another four hours in an online conference can be taxing on the body and mind. Online also lends itself to multitasking: flipping between presentations and submitting and reading questions can be exhausting by the end of the day even without having moved much.
Overall, I was surprised to find my first online conference a rather enjoyable experience. As we continue to get used to these odd and unprecedented times, being creative on how we use virtual technology will allow us to continue to effectively share information and gather in virtual large groups. In the long run, it may even improve conferences with increased participation and diversity.