How is COVID-19 Changing Academic Conferences and Presentations?

Academic conferences are a long-standing tradition. Academics from all over the world come together at conferences to share their research, learn from others’ work, and engage in dialogue on the issues relevant to their field. The conference is a forum for dissemination; but for many academics it’s also a major opportunity for networking, a time for inspiring discussion, and a perk of the job.

But sending academics to conferences takes a lot of resources. Conference delegates must often travel long distances, stay in hotels, and pay hefty conference fees to cover the cost of venues, catering, and supplies. Critics have claimed that the in-person conference model is needlessly expensive and ecologically unsustainable. Some have also made the point that expensive conferences box out graduate and early-career level researchers, who often don’t have big travel budgets.

There have been mounting calls — even before the COVID-19 pandemic — for academic conferences to make better use of technology and move (either partially or completely) online.

Man videoconferencing with four colleagues from home

COVID-19 has hastened this move. For 2020 at least, it seems all-but impossible for conference organisers to bring academics together in person. Many countries are in some form of lockdown, and even in New Zealand where it appears our restrictions may soon relax, our closed borders make it impossible for international delegates to travel here.

Anyone organising a conference this year has faced tough choices about what to do to ensure that delegates can spread knowledge without spreading disease. Some conferences have been cancelled; others have been delayed. But in many cases, conferences are being shifted into virtual formats, using Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, or other tools to connect academics from their homes.

This is new to many of us. Fortunately, we have colleagues who are used to working this way. Sustainability researchers have been walking their talk for many years now by holding online conferences with a minimal carbon footprint. For example Ken Hiltner, a professor of English and Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, pioneered a ‘Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference’ model which is now being used by COVID-affected conference organisers.

But what does this mean for your own conference presentations now and in the future?

There’s a very good chance that international conferences planned for 2020 will be held online or not at all. Even after the world returns to a new version of ‘normal,’ some predict that more conferences will move online because (a) it makes good economic and environmental sense; and (b) academics are now rapidly gaining confidence and capability with online meetings and videoconferencing tools. It’s not a perfect solution — and enabling participation from academics with unstable internet access is a problem yet to be solved — but online conferences are (probably) here to stay.

So if you plan to participate in conferences in the future, you can expect to need good skills in online presenting.

We’ve put together a short video with some tips on how to present online: including how to prepare, manage interactions with your audience, and adjust your style of delivery.

We are also looking at creating opportunities for AUT students to practise online presentations in 2020. If you’re keen, check out this poll where you can add your ideas and suggestions.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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