By Terry Anderson; edited by Lucy Barnes
In this post I discuss the challenges and the opportunities associated with virtual conferences. Despite the attempts to make parallel experiences both on site and online, it is obvious to almost all attendees that a virtual conference is not the same as attending in person—and often not the first choice.
But is it good enough?
Does it meet needs that cannot be met face-to-face? Does it allow exposure to online technologies that themselves become meaningful learning experiences? And of course, the driving question for distance educators is: does it expand and make easier access to learning for everyone?
The costs of in-person conferences
The costs of travel are considerable: not only the environmental costs of airplane travel, ground transportation to conference venues, the cost of heating and servicing hotels and conference meeting rooms—but the economic cost too.
In 2010, we attempted to quantify these costs for a medium-sized conference by noting the distances that would be travelled by the 194 delegates to a scholarly conference headquartered in London, England. Having obtained the locations of each delegate we calculated the air and ground transportation for all participants and estimated the hotel and conference facility costs.
The average delegate saved $2,162 (US) and delegates who would have come by airplane saved 2.21 tonnes CO2 of carbon emissions.
To put this into perspective the global average consumption in 2005 was 4.51 tonnes. Thus a single conference would have consumed nearly half of the global annual consumption and much higher than the average annual consumption in many developing countries. The cost for attendees to the virtual conference was $69 (US), a 3000% reduction in cost of attending face-to-face.
There is no question that virtual conferences save on the production of greenhouse gases and save delegates thousands of dollars.
Successful econference techniques
One of the challenges of virtual conferences is to engender the type of informal and often spontaneous interactions that can and do occur at face-to-face conferences – most often before or after scheduled presentations. For many, these networking opportunities are as valuable as the formal sessions themselves.
In an attempt to gain some of these informal benefits, Fraser, et al. (2017) presented a model for regional hubs at which delegates gather to attend both online and face-to-face sessions. This can drastically reduce travel costs, with only a slight reduction in the diversity of potential contacts and of course also decreases the appeal of tourist, family or other personal benefits of expensive travel.
In recent years, as online communication becomes ubiquitous, delegates have considerable experience with types of tools normally used to host virtual conferences, through social media, email, video conferencing, immersive environments or other mediated communications. Thus, the potential for valued spontaneous and planned communications increases with the population’s network literacy.
Virtual conferences have tried a variety of mediated techniques to engender this type of spontaneous networking. These often include profiles, “liking” and other techniques used on social networks, and non-programmed virtual spaces that support real time interaction. Participation in conferences also builds technological competence among participants.
A virtual conference is distinguished from ongoing, online communities of practice because it is time limited. Typically, a virtual conference runs over 2-3 days, but unlike its face-to-face comparator, participants are unlikely to all be in the same time zone. Thus, organizers have experimented with 24-hour conferences and of course the asynchronous components of most conferences allow participation around the clock.
Rather than merely attempting to mimic face-to-face conferences, organizers are experimenting with digital tools that promise to enhance communication beyond that supported face-to-face. One of the most obvious benefits is the digital record that remains, enabling the conference – or sections of it – to be repurposed for future events, either face-to-face or virtual. Besides the recording of presentations, conference organizers have used threaded audio discussions allowing for asynchronous voice and video sharing.
The virtual conference also supports the intervention of technologies such as translation, automatic transcription, visual and audio enhancement and other technologies that are emerging in the online world.
More recently, we have seen conferences that are housed in virtual worlds providing opportunities for simultaneous experience of a variety of virtual environments and technologies designed to increase participants’ telepresence. Julie Santy, Mary Beadle and Yvonne Needhamhave noted the positive impact of conferences that bring together professionals from related, but often siloed knowledge bases and limited inter-professional interactions.
As these advantages grow, we may yet see a day when face-to-face seems a too ineffective way to communicate – in addition to being environmentally unsustainable.
So, what holds adoption up?
As a graduate student I undertook a small study among medical doctors working in small communities in Northern Ontario. My intent was to determine the demand and the barriers to the compulsory professional development for medical doctors that could be delivered at a distance.
When I queried these doctors about the disadvantages associated with attending professional development activities in large urban centres that are located in some cases thousands of kilometers from their homes, I heard a variety of concerns. Doctors would have to leave their families and their practices, arrange for substitutes, travel by car to airports, stay in strange hotel rooms, listen to potentially boring talks and eat restaurant food for days.
When I asked about the contrasting advantages, I heard that the doctors looked forward to getting away from their family and patients, travelling to far away cities, staying in hotel rooms, eating fine restaurant food, and listening to inspiring talks. These same characterises are both positive and negative: the same reasons both encourage and discourage adoption of virtual conferences.
Conferences have become an established and often subsidized means for participants to travel, to extend their visit with tourist activities, to bring family members along on a holiday and to enjoy social networking activities with persons of kindred interest. Virtual conferences are limited in their support of any of these characteristics. Thus, until established social, employment and taxation practices are changed (for example tax write offs and employer subsidy of face-to-face conference attendance), we will continue to see virtual conferences play a secondary role to their face-to-face cousins.
But just as these socially constructed obstacles to virtual conference adoption are large, they are fragile. We can expect improvements in the technologies used to support conferences, increase networked literacy amongst both participants and presenters and increasing pressure to restrain professional development costs – both financial and ecological.
Virtual conferences are not the same as face-to-face conferences. In many ways they are far more cost-effective and environmentally efficient. Moreover, in many ways they are good enough to ensure quality learning, professional development and network exposure. We should remember as Voltaire said in 1770, the “best is the enemy of the good.”
This series of blog posts is drawn from Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene edited by Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier, forthcoming with Open Book Publishers. Explore the other posts here.
 Hannah Fraser, and others., ‘The Value of Virtual Conferencing for Ecology and Conservation’, Conservation Biology, 31.3 (2017), 540-546.