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Going to the conference? We’ll see you on-line

More scholars are choosing the online route for at least some of their conference commitments.


In more than 30 years as a psychology professor at the University of Manitoba, Warren Eaton has rarely attended more than two conferences a year. “I don’t travel a lot,” he says, “probably because of the cost.” And conferences are costly: he calculates that by the time he’s finished with registration, airfare, hotel and restaurant bills, he’s dropped a couple of thousand dollars. But like any academic, Dr. Eaton wants to keep current. So, when a Winnipeg colleague a year and half ago invited him to an online conference on intellectual property and copyright, two issues that are important in his research about infants’ milestone developments, Dr. Eaton was intrigued.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” he recalls. “But when I saw it, I thought it was a very efficient way to attend a conference. There were people from all over the world – Azerbaijan, Australia, Winnipeg.  The reach was much greater than for a live conference where people have to travel.”

Easy access is just one reason that virtual conferences are becoming more attractive. These remote conferences also provide an alternative for scholars looking to lighten their carbon footprint and deal with shrinking budgets. Registration fees are usually less than $100, and some conferences are free.

From an organizational standpoint, they’re also cheaper and easier to arrange. Buoyed by his previous experience, Dr. Eaton put together a five-day event about web research last June. Of the 99 people who registered, half were from the University of Manitoba and attended for free. The rest paid $40 and attended from other cities in Canada, the U.S., U.K., Netherlands, Lithuania, Japan, Korea, Brazil and Germany. Dr. Eaton estimates that the total cost for the conference, including 10 speakers, was about $3,000.

Anyone who has taken a distance learning course or attended a webinar (an online seminar) will be familiar with virtual conference technology. Online conferences, delivered over personal computers, allow participants to attend from anywhere by logging into the conference site, choosing a session and listening to a speaker while looking at documents and slides that are part of a talk.

Video conferences are a little less flexible. These require participants to gather in a common room at remote sites and watch the speaker on a large screen. That’s one reason why they’re not as popular among academics.

Unlike distance learning (which is ongoing) and webinars (which are one-time events), virtual conferences are modeled on their face-to-face counterparts: multi-day events that require registration and feature keynote speakers and a variety of sessions with a question-and-answer component. There are also multiple opportunities for networking, albeit using chat rooms, Twitter, threaded discussions, e-mail, teleconferencing, or Voice over Internet Protocol programs such as Skype instead of face-to-face conversations in hallways, restaurants and restrooms.

Because web conferences rely on real-time presentations that scholars are accustomed to from face-to-face conferences, online systems tend to be the delivery vehicle of choice for multi-day, remote academic gatherings. Sessions are generally delivered in real time, although they’re often recorded so they can be viewed later. Chat rooms may be open for several days so that feedback can continue about a particular session. E-mail and threaded discussion allow participants to take time to consider their responses – more so than at face-to-face conferences.

Not long ago, online conferences were limited to fields like technology and distance-learning, but now they’re catching on in other disciplines, including history, medicine, English as a second language, chemistry, sociology and climate change. Some in-person conferences now include a virtual component to allow more participants to attend from a distance.

The Learning Technologies Centre at the University of Manitoba offers two to four online conferences a year. “The sessions we run are far more global than what you would see at a face-to-face conference,” says George Siemens, associate director for research and development at the centre. “We get frequent responses from people who state that the experience was one of the best, if not the best, conference they’ve ever attended.”

No one has definitive statistics on how many are held annually, but virtual conferences have certainly become more common, as well as more sophisticated, in the 16 years since Terry Anderson, then a graduate student at the University of Calgary, organized what he believes was the world’s first online conference. The Calgary-based event for the International Council of Distance Education lasted three weeks, featured six keynote speakers whose talks were delivered in text format, and consisted largely of participants sending and receiving about 20 e-mails a day. More than 1,000 people attended, quite a feat in those nascent days of the web, when there were multiple networks instead of one superhighway, requiring participants to use a variety of methods to access the conference.

“It was quite successful,” recalls Dr. Anderson, who now holds the Canada Research Chair in Distance Education at Athabasca University, an institution that specializes in online and distance education.

But today’s online conferences are “as different as could be,” says Dr. Anderson, who’s writing a book about online conferences. “You still have some that are e-mail based – none of these models have gone away – but there are all kinds of options on the table that weren’t there a few years ago.” (See the sidebar, “What’s new.”)

At a face-to-face conference, discussions break out in hallways, at meals and in meeting rooms before, after, and sometimes during presentations. Those spontaneous interactions, either with longtime friends or people whose work you’ve admired from afar, are one of the main reasons people like attending conferences.

“It’s not all about scientific exchange. It’s also about social exchange and community and all of that,” observes Tim Takaro, a professor in the faculty of health sciences at Simon Fraser University. “I still haven’t seen a technology that comes close to face-to-face.”

Online conferences work best when people already know each other, according to Barry Wellman, the S.D. Clark Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto. “There’s trust set up, and there’s informal networking. If they don’t know each other, they don’t get the full bandwidth of communications when people are talking on video. They don’t know how to interpret each other, they don’t know the body language. The whole meta communication is missing.”

Mr. Siemens at U of Manitoba has organized face-to-face conferences that attract between 750 and 1,200 people. With numbers like that, most participants won’t know each other, either. But for online conferences, you can learn about someone by performing a Google search, and that’s a lot easier to do at your computer, listening to a presenter who can’t see you, than in a meeting room surrounded by people who expect you to be paying attention. Which leads to another drawback of online conferences: they’re ripe with opportunities for distraction.

Athabasca’s Dr. Anderson says that some busy professors use online conferences to multi-task, the attitude being, “I can clean my office while a speaker is nattering on, which I can’t do if I am sitting in a face-to-face session daydreaming.”

“You’re able to slip in and out a little more discreetly than you could in a face-to-face conference, which is a blessing and a curse,” agrees Lorraine Nichols, the web and e-learning specialist at the University of Alberta’s school of business. “It’s great if you find yourself in a session and you think, ‘Oh, I’ve made a bad choice, this is not a good idea.’ If you want to leave an online session, you can just put your headphones down.”

That kind of flexibility gives virtual conferences an edge over their face-to-face counterparts. The two may never be able to compete in terms of personal relationships and enjoyment, but, according to Dr. Anderson, they don’t have to.

“The one is so much cheaper than the other that when somebody says, ‘Is it as good?’ the answer is ‘Probably not,’” he reasons. “It doesn’t cost anywhere near as much so it doesn’t have to be as good. It can be very compelling and very worthwhile if the cost is one-tenth.”

Certainly they will prove relevant to future academics – the undergrads and grad students of today who sit in class Tweeting and text-messaging while ostensibly paying attention to the professor in the front of the room.

“It’s probably that generation that’s going to embrace online conferences,” predicts Jane Arscott, professor of human services at Athabasca. “Some of us were raised in the go-to [conferences] generation, so we’re not as familiar and as keen. But it’s coming.”

As technology continues to improve and as environmental and economic conditions make them more necessary, virtual conferences should grow more popular. Dr. Takaro has yet to attend one, but he says he’s participated in roughly half-a-dozen discussions with environmentally minded colleagues about the possibility of holding online conferences every second year, alternating with in-person conferences.

That sort of balance is the more probable future than one where virtual conferences replace face-to-face events, says Dr. Anderson. He sees them growing more popular as they become more sophisticated, as people get used to the idea and as costs of attending face-to-face conferences increase.

“It’s sort of like bicycles have never replaced motorcycles or cars,” he says. “There’s a place for all of them.”

Debby Waldman
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