Some Thoughts on Virtual Academia

I’m currently writing the background chapters for my dissertation, so there’s not much news from the research front. However, I’ve had the pleasure to organize and participate in several virtual events over the past weeks. Today, I therefore want to share some thoughts on “virtual academia”.

More specifically, I want to consider three types of events that now have to take place in a virtual manner: Conferences, teaching, and individual meetings. I’ll consider them one after another and highlight some commonalities in the end.

Conferences and Workshops

Why is one typically interested in attending scientific workshops and conferences? I think that there are at least three possible reasons:

  1. To publish and advertise your own work and to obtain feedback on it.
  2. To learn about current research progress in your field (what are others doing?)
  3. To network with other researchers, exchange ideas, and maybe start collaborations.

Now what are the effects of physical vs. virtual attendance in general, but also with respect to these three points?

If you physically attend the conference/workshop, you are often forced to travel non-negligible distances, which is both costly and time consuming and hence presents a serious hurdle if you don’t have the necessary funds or if you have commitments at home (e.g., a family). If you participate virtually, the effort to participate is mostly limited to starting your computer and joining the videoconference. This lowers the bar for participation (often you also don’t have to pay a fee when participating virtually), but also for leaving – it thus makes it also easier to skip sessions.

This increased flexibility on the end of the participant is a two-edged sword: On the one hand, people that would not be able to attend a physical conference can join a virtual conference. On the other hand, the effect of “I’m already at the conference location, so I may as well listen to the talks of the next session, even though it doesn’t sound super relevant to me” is much weaker – one is therefore always tempted to skip sessions. When organizing a virtual event, I think it is therefore crucial to find ways for keeping participants engaged.

When participating virtually in a conference, you can still present your own work (reason 1 for attending), although the missing feedback from the audience (“is the audience still there?”) makes this harder. As argued above, it may be even more difficult to learn about research progress that is not super relevant to your own work, but may be important for the field in general (reason 2 for attending) since distractions may be more frequent in your (home) office and it may be more tempting to skip individual sessions.

I think however that the biggest disadvantage of virtual events is the inherent difficulty of socializing (reason 3 for attending) – there simply are no coffee breaks or conference dinners where you can bump into people and have conversations (according to the motto “I’m here anyways, so I might as well socialize”). Creating such settings in a virtual environment is difficult and may feel forced. Tools such as gather.town (where you control a virtual avatar in a 2D world and can see and hear the participants which stand close to you) seem to be a good idea in general, but are also not completely able to replace a physical interaction. Moreover, since sitting in front of your computer all day long can be quite tiring, many people may use the coffee breaks to get up, stretch, and get away from the screen for some time.

A final issue with virtual events are technical problems. If the conference/workshop takes place physically, you can often solve technical problems in a quite straightforward way: The microphone doesn’t work, so you simply speak a bit louder. Your laptop misbehaves, so you borrow one from the organizers and transfer your presentation through a flash drive. The beamer stops working, so you sketch your idea on the blackboard. If you however participate remotely, you have nobody there who can help you with technical problems – you’re on your own and there’s usually no possibility to switch to a different computer or a different type of media.

Teaching

Many of the points from above are also applicable to teaching. Again, it may be convenient to stay at home rather than going physically to the lecture hall, but the risk of distractions and laziness is increased. While socializing is not a key issue for lectures, students may nevertheless miss the direct contact to fellow students – and lecturers may find it more difficult to keep students engaged and to understand whether they were able to follow the lecture. Nevertheless, since lectures are often conducted as one-way communication, it seems that they can be relatively easily transferred into a virtual environment.

I personally find interactive teaching formats like seminars and practical courses much more challenging in a virtual setting. These types of courses are based on a bi-directional (or multi-directional) mode of communication which is hard to emulate with a single global videoconference that has many participants. Plenary discussions are more difficult to conduct, both because it’s harder for the lecturer to keep an overview of the group, and because students might feel less comfortable in having virtual discussions. Group work is also challenging, since it requires multiple sub-videoconferences (such that there is no cross talk), sometimes also shared material. Again, implementing this in a virtual setting may not feel very natural, but rather forced.

Meetings

Face-to-face meetings with a small hand full of participants can in my opinion be conducted quite well virtually. If the group is not too large, then the turn taking of a typical conversation can still take place. Usually, you already know each other (e.g., in a virtual lab meeting or when mentoring a student), which is a key difference to both conferences and teaching. Of course, the conversations in a virtual meeting are to some extent less natural (for example I observed that small talk barely takes place virtually, but is an important ingredient in physical meetings), but if there is a clear agenda and you have met physically before, virtual meetings can still be quite successful.

Summary

Overall, going virtual may be more convenient (since you can stay right at your desk), but this increased convenience makes it also a bit more difficult to be really committed (since distractions may be more tempting). Technical problems are in any case a major issue, but what is missing most in virtual meetings is personal/social interaction. This is however exactly what is important in many cases (e.g., networking at conferences/workshops, interactivity in seminars).

Although virtual meetings are a useful tool and certainly better than not being able to communicate at all, I still believe that physical meetings are often preferable. However, as it seems, returning to fully physical meetings is not going to happen any time soon, so our task as lecturers and organizers is to make the best out of the current situation, using tools such as gather.town, but also rethinking the structure of our conferences, courses, and meetings. For example, in my current seminar I decided to largely replace weekly sessions with the whole group of students by individual work of subgroups and individual meetings with these groups.

Since virtual meetings have the great advantage of offering a low-barrier access for people that would also under normal circumstances not be able to attend physically, I think that conducting events in a hybrid manner will be quite common in the future – everybody who can participate physically is invited to do so, and everybody else can join virtually. Making sure that such hybrid events combine the best of both worlds will however most likely be a challenging task for the organizers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.