Friday, January 22, 2021

Conferences in the After-Times

What will conferences be like when COVID is in the rear-view mirror*?

Just over a year ago, the three co-editors of this blog, Kiyoko Gotanda, Andrew Hendry, and Dan Bolnick, were chatting around a bonfire at the American Society of Naturalists' conference in Asilomar CA. Afterward, we added on a brief outing to see elephant seals, and then reconvened at the Hendry Winery in Napa for a wine tour, wine tasting, and brainstorming a grant proposal. It was scientifically productive, and an utter blast culminating in Rowan Barrett and I pretending to be elephant seals engaging in a contest.

A year later, this kind of social / scientific gathering seems far off. Conferences have been cancelled, like the Evolution 2020 meeting, or delayed a year or more (like the Gordon Research Conference on Speciation that Katie Peichel and Dan Bolnick were organizing for Feb 2021, now put off till 2023). Other conferences have emerged to fill the void, giving graduate students and postdocs a platform to disseminate their work and connect with peers via Zoom or other platforms. The American Society of Naturalists (which normally meets every other year) held an off-schedule Virtual Asilomar via Zoom in early January 2021, specifically to give PhD students and postdocs a platform to speak (the talks are now posted here). Unlike the usual Asilomar meeting, which is capped at 200 people due to the size of the venue and a desire to maintain a smaller scale where more drawn-out conversations are easier, Virtual Asilomar was open to all viewers. It drew 710 registered participants from around the world: 569 from North America, 66 from Europe, 27 from Asia (mostly India), 40 from South America, 9 from Australia and New Zealand. Some sessions had presenters sitting on 4 different continents - and this under-counts participation because many talks are continuing to accrue views on the ASN Youtube Virtual Asilomar video playlist.  A quick perusal of these videos suggest that many have accumulated 50 - 200 views in the 2 weeks after the conference. This highlights the fact that the virtual meeting broadened participation in ways that we will be loathe to abandon when COVID (hopefully) recedes into a mythical past. All of these contrasts led us (all slightly skeptical of Virtual Conferences before trying them) to ask:

What aspects of virtual conferences worked well?

What aspects didn't?

And, most importantly, what features of COVID-era virtual conferences should be folded into meetings in the After-Times when we are free to travel again? (artists' rendering below)

Frenzy on Fury Road: Mad Max faces a post-digital apocalypse

The following is a summary of our own thoughts on this issue, drawing also on responses to a Twitter query of Dan's, where this conversation may continue to unfold. Be aware when reading the thoughts below that there's no one-size-fits-all answer. For some people the weekend meetings were better, for some people they were worse, for example.

1. What aspects of virtual conferences worked well?

* Price Tag. (Most) virtual conferences are much cheaper than the in-person conferences from the Before-Times, although there were exceptions. The Ecological Society of America conference in summer 2020 was expensive enough to deter many people from engaging (hundreds of dollars to view pre-recorded videos). But even when registration is not free, virtual meetings don't require airplane/train tickets, hotel rooms, catered food, and ground transportation - and so will still be far cheaper than in-person meetings. If you have research funds, you save enough to pay your research staff a bit more, or do an extra lane of Illumina sequencing or whatever.

* Inclusivity. Virtual meetings can be attended from far away without travel, enabling participation by people from around the globe, including in places from which travel would be prohibitively expensive. Virtual meetings enable participation by undergraduates or graduate students who lack travel funds, and faculty at smaller institutions who lack conference support grants.

* Convenience. You can participate from the comfort of your own home in your pajamas. Dan left his laptop on to watch videos while baking, and the next day enjoyed the fruit of those labors with muffins and coffee while watching talks. You can knit, craft (Dan rewove the seats on a couple of ladderback chairs while watching talks), enter data (Andrew extracted data from his camera trap videos), clean up your references (Kiyoko cleaned up citations in her reference manager as she downloaded the cool papers mentioned in talks), and otherwise multitask while paying attention to the scientific content.

* Carbon savings from reduced travel. Admittedly, spinning the drives at Google or Zoom does generate substantial carbon - but much less than in the case of travel, or - at least - airline travel.

* New modes of speaker feedback and discussion. Many people commented that Slack channels, chat rooms, twitter, and other online tools gave opportunities for viewers to give speakers live feedback and questions during and after the talk in drawn-out conversations that were often more effective than might happen when you must rush off to the next talk. One good suggestion is that chat room tools should forward questions to speaker's emails so they don't have to keep checking for days afterwards to see if there are any questions arriving later. Caveat: although it could be distracting to viewers watching a talk to see ongoing conversations about previous talks. Commonly used online tools mentioned included: Zoom, Teams, Gathertown, Twitter, Slack, and Remo

* Concurrent sessions All conferences have to make a choice to either artificially limit who can speak, or else have so many speakers that there must be concurrent sessions. Viewers must then choose which talks to view, and which to miss. Most virtual conferences record the talks and post them for people to view after the fact, so you can see both of those simultaneously scheduled talks you were excited to learn from! Caveat: Many people said this is a great benefit but many also noted that they didn't actually avail themselves of the opportunities it affords.

* Relaxed format. Some online twitter respondents noted that virtual presentations feel more casual and relaxed, causing less anxiety, which in turn improves self confidence and speaking quality and clarity. And some speakers can further reduce anxiety by pre-recording talks that are then played during the relevant session.

* Pause and rewind. Want to linger on a detail? Need to take a call? Cat walking across your keyboard? Kid vomiting carrots all over the floor? Its okay, you can pause that recorded video, or rewind, and catch up or revisit a point. 

* Come one come all. Most meetings need to book a certain number of rooms and days, which constrains the number of presenters due to building constraints. And the audience size is capped by fire code limits on seats in a room. Neither apply to virtual meetings. As Mark McPeek wrote "The stated goal of ASN and the other societies during discussion last summer was to provide opportunities for early career researchers. Limiting the number of contributed paper slots is antithetical to that goal."

* Shorter day.  At physical meetings, senior folks often duck out for a half day at a time to catch up on emails, editorial decisions, grant writing, and so on; putting out the dozens of proverbial fires that seem to crop up every day. We always feel guilty about this because we traveled so far, and are paying good money, and should be meeting colleagues and students. Some virtual meetings just build this constraint into the schedule via half-day time lines. And its okay, because its not like you are paying for a hotel room. More generally, these meetings can achieve flexible schedules: one day per week for a month, three half days in a row, or 24 consecutive hours to serve all time zones around the globe.

* Posters by any other name.  For some, live poster sessions can be awful: crowded, hard to navigate, hard to hear, hard to read. And that's all the more true for people with disabilities affecting mobility: hearing in over-loud echo chamber rooms, navigating tight spaces with few places to sit, and seeing small font posters. Virtual poster sessions can fix these, but are the target of both strong positive and negative feelings. It seems there are some ways to do this well, and some ways to do this poorly. Many people complained that poster sessions are useless online, and should be replaced by 3-minute lightening talks. There were complaints of small font size, lack of interaction, and inability to see who if anyone is viewing your hard-work posters. Other people clearly had great experiences. The software likely makes a big difference. Some conferences used Slack and each poster had a channel in which attendees could ask questions asynchronously. For more synchronous experiences, "GatherTown is best for poster presentations" - Caitlyn Foster. 

* Networking in small interest groups /breakout rooms /chat windows came up a lot as a positive in people's comments.

* Good moderators matter, both to keep everything exactly on time (especially with concurrent sessions) and for managing Q&A sessions. For many conferences, the arrangement seems to be that people type in questions into a chat window which are then picked and read by the moderators. This encourages some shy people to ask questions, and lets a good moderator ensure more age/gender balanced sources of questions. 

Here's a review of a virtual conference that went well:

2. What aspects didn't work - things that future virtual meetings should avoid?

A number of people on twitter commented that they just can't stick with a virtual meeting. For example: "Tried virtual conference twice, it just does not work for me" - Misha Matz.  This is a fairly common sentiment. 

* Lack of in person encounters. The number one sentiment seems to be that virtual conferences have their advantages, but are utterly lacking in the primary value conferences deliver to many of us: impromptu networking, accidental conversations that lead to collaborations, chance meetings, and so on. Then there's the cameraderie. Viewing the Virtual Asilomar meeting made many of us feel deeply sad at all the good friends we missed. The wine tours missed with old friends. The elephant seals not seen. We miss you folks!

* Zoom fatigue. Oh boy! Many of us just spent the last 3 months teaching on zoom and meeting with students and colleagues on zoom. Now you get to have more zoom! You know exactly what we mean. Zoom fatigue can be way worse than lecture hall fatigue.

* Distractions. It is too easy to get up and walk away from your laptop and get distracted at home; whereas, when you travel to a conference, and are in a room with other people, there's a helpful element of peer pressure to keep you focused. 

* Work/life time balance. Without travel away from home, it is harder for many of us to step away from our daily obligations. When we travel to a meeting, we miss our kids, our partner, but they understand we are away. When we watch a zoom meeting from home, we are right there in their midst, available for interruption. For some people, this means weekends are an absolutely impossible time to participate because kids aren't in school or day care. Further, weekends are sacred family time for many people when they are home. For others, by contrast, a partner can watch the kids during the weekend, but must be away at work during the weekday. There's no universally successful option here. Steve Cooke: "When conferencing from home, weekends are a hard NO."

* Participation drop-off.  Based on the Genetics Society of America conference in summer of 2020, which strung out talks over a longer time, we are told that participation trailed off over successive days, so stringing a meeting out over many days may be a disservice to the later presentations.

* Pre-recording loses 'live' feel. Mark McPeek writes:  "The idea of having all talks pre-recorded will undercut the feeling of actually being “at” a meeting, and make you feel like you are sitting on a youtube channel all day.  I think having live talks (and certainly with the option for a person to choose to pre-record) made Virtual Asilomar feel much more like a real meeting and human."

* Lack of social events. Virtual meetings that lack social events aren't really meetings, some feel. Virtual Asilomar had a few social events, most notably the natural history trivia night organized by heroic graduate students, but some comments on twitter expressed a desire for far more events. A few spur-of-the-moment Zoom Beer offshoot meetings were also held - and were great fun (although less so than in person).

* Time zones are rough. As one tweeter noted, when you travel to a destination in another time zone, you have the local sunrise/sunset to get you on track. Sure there's jet lag, but you adjust, especially if you go a day or two early. But when you are at home, an afternoon talk in the US is the middle of the night in India and there's no sunlight to help someone there adjust and stay awake. Andrew: Even people on the opposite coast of North America found the 3 hour time shift awkward - especially in relation to normal evening family activities. Better time zone accommodations are needed. Perhaps rolling 24-hour long meetings so everyone around the world has something at a reasonable time for them (and can view the youtube videos after for the talks in the middle of their night). In February, Kiyoko will be giving a keynote at 4am local time because of time zones. She might break her no-caffeine rule for this....

* No napkins to scribble notes on. Some of us think by drawing on chalk or dry erase boards, which should be present scattered around any conference venue. We need virtual dry erase boards to write on when conversing with far-distant peers in chat groups. These exist on a number of online meeting platforms.

* Technology problems. Many people complained that switching between different sessions can be difficult: you have to sign out of your zoom session, find the url for the other, sign in all over again, for instance. This may be one point where free cheap conferences versus expensive conferences that pay for fancier software may make a difference. 

* Where is everyone? When the audience all have the camera off, there's no feedback, no expressions of enthusiasm or puzzlement, no sense of community. If you can possibly manage, keep your camera on and smile and nod for the presenters. Of course, this makes some of the above "at-home" freedom disappear as you feel you can't just get up and walk away during a talk - perhaps listening still from the kitchen. The verdict is still very much out on this one.

* Lack of closed captioning. This is a tough one because the cost can be really high to do professional closed captioning. The cheap automated versions are junk for technical talks (although they might still be helpful for people struggling with the language), and the cost for professional ones gets passed on to the attendees. There are surely ways to do better.

* Internet accessibility. Virtual meetings are bad for people with poor/unreliable internet (e.g., rural area residents)

Bernie attending a virtual meeting

3. What features of virtual conferences should be folded into meetings in the After-Times when we are free to travel again?

It is abundantly clear that most of us want to resume in-person meetings for the networking and the personal conversations; but that we also want to see the low cost, inclusivity, and accessibility of virtual meetings persist in some form. Many people suggested they might go to one live conference per year, and attend a few virtual ones. (And it might be easier to engage more in a virtual conference when we are no longer on Zoom all day long for months on end.) It remains to be seen whether the future holds a mix of some all-in-person and some all-virtual meetings, or whether we see hybrid meetings that are in-person for people who can attend, and virtual for those who cannot. Such hybrid meetings have the negative implication that not everyone has equal access and equal participation; yet there's just no way to have the virtual participants have 100% the same experience as the in person attendees. But this means that those with funds and proximity can get benefits that the less-well-funded and farther-afield colleagues cannot afford or access. Really, that's always been the case with live meetings. But the virtual experience lately brings that fact into sharper focus for those of us privileged enough to be in the conference-attending crowd. Hybrid conferences seem likely to be the best available option that retains the possibility of in person experiences while doing our utmost to bring others into the experience as best we can. Conferences will not be the same in the After-Times: and the opportunity is there to make them better.

A few overarching rules seem to stand out for future in-person meetings:

* Record talks for non-attendees to view, and for people with concurrent session conflicts. Doing so improves access for people from far away, and for under-funded researchers that can't afford in-person meetings.

* Consider having talks pre-recorded, but the speaker active at answering questions live during the talk.

* Permit pre-recorded or live virtual presentations in in-person meetings, to enable people from the other side of the world to present. Live is generally better, it seems; but pre-recorded needs to be an option for someone 12 hours of time zone away. Sure, it isn't the same but it is still better than nothing.

* Create chat rooms with in-person and remote participants for scientific conversation, debate, Q&A sessions.

* Create social events that merge virtual and in person attendees

* Have discussion panels with both in person and remote discussants.

* Get a cadre of senior faculty / established scientists to circulate among chat rooms and find talks that don't have comments/questions, and post something to start an engagement with the neglected material to help build network and community.

* Conferences typically provide help with child care (at least, when they are big enough to provide economy of scale). Can societies do something to facilitate child care for at-home participants? No doubt this will take a lot of discussion and consideration as it clearly won't be simple and must be fair.

* Do better on accessibility

Co-authored paper accepted for publication!!🍾πŸ₯‚πŸ™Œ

* Jet lag is tough. Jet lag when you haven't gone to a new time zone is even tougher. If you want an international meeting, schedule it to work for people in all target time zones. Again, this won't be simple and will deserve careful consideration about how it will be done. 

More recommendations for future virtual conferences:

* To achieve separation from your distracting home life, consider getting an Air BnB to get away and focus on virtual meeting.  

* Spread out the meeting to reduce fatigue. Plan for a half day on same day every week for multiple weeks. It becomes easier to participate and less exhausting.

* There was widespread (but not universal) support for shorter talks (3 + 2 or 5+2 for a talk + questions). Or, to let the questions go entirely online.

* As a participant at home, make a coffee break experience (or have a beer!).

* Many twitter respondents argued for an end to concurrent sessions. The difficulty is that you must either extend a meeting over many weeks, or restrict the number of presenters which defeats the purpose of giving students and postdocs and junior faculty a platform to disseminate their work. The typical ASN Asilomar meeting for example had 5 concurrent sessions for 3 full days, so to accommodate the same number of presenters you'd need 15 full days of meeting - half a month! And that's with only 200 total attendees, some of whom aren't presenting. Personally, we don't think that creating artificial scarcity of talk slots is the solution.

Some other resources on networking and conferencing online:

Andrew's Favorite Idea: Regional Clusters

Create small regional groups that gather at an AirBnB or a local conference center or field station to view and present and participate in a big international meeting. Along with virtual connections to a larger group, these distributed regional "clusters" would have many of the best in-person networking, exchange, and debate opportunities. This regional cluster option also creates some separation from the distractions of a home setting, thus allowing better focus, without the cost and carbon emissions of long-distance travel. 

Dan's Favorite Idea

The most valuable element of in-person meetings for many people is the bit that cannot be compressed into bits and bytes. It is the opportunities for personal interaction and chance meeting and networking. Yet conferences are not usually designed to promote these, they emphasize sitting and listening, punctuated by 15 minute coffee breaks in which most people are focused on getting in the coffee line. So, what if we tried to promote the uniquely in-person elements of in-person meetings? Specifically, take the passive part of the conference (sitting and listening to talks), and make that more compressed and more virtual. Meetings should be a half day of talks with many concurrent sessions (yes, I know that's an unpopular opinion), with everything streamed online for far-away attendees, and recorded for those concurrent session complaints and people in distant time zones. Permit presentations by people from off-site as well, streamed into the conference center and online. Use the other half of each day for the real business of an in-person live meeting: talking with people. The things that can happen online, should be on line. The things that cannot happen as well on line should be enhanced and kept.

Kiyoko's Favourite Idea 

Virtual Reality conferences. Of course accessibility will be a problem as VR headsets are not that cheap, but it would come about as close as you could get to recreating that conference atmosphere of walking around and 'bumping' into people, standing in virtual lines while waiting for 'coffee', and running to make the next session (just don't run into your wall at home).

See y'all virtually and in person at a next meeting!

1 comment:

  1. As usual, I like Dan’s favorite idea. It’s a bit of mashup between an IRL Gordon Conference (half days for talks, half-days for informal interaction) and a virtual Asilomar


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