Life after the online conference: Where do we go from here? (Geoff Lewis)

In this post, Geoff Lewis explores some of the challenges that online conferences have posed for the research community as well as the possibilities these virtual events present for the future.

The online conference has, it seems to me, divided opinion since its necessary rise to prominence over the last year-and-a-half since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Yet, for all of the drawbacks that have been associated with online conferences (think ‘zoom fatigue’, the loss of face-to-face networking, technical difficulties etc.), there is much to be applauded about the ingenuity that has been shown by academics around the world to bring these events into being.  As one of the organisers of this year’s University of Warwick Education Studies Post-Graduate Conference, I have had first-hand experience of the trials and tribulations that such a process has attached to it. In this post, I draw attention to some of the ways that I believe the social practice of academic conferencing has been affected by its migration to an online format, offering some thoughts on my own experience of this as a first-time conference convenor.

Technology and the Role of the Moderator

The ways that social practices manifest themselves are intrinsically tied to the sites at which they occur (see e.g. Schatzki’s piece on this entitled ‘A New Societist Social Ontology’) and this is particularly evident in the contrasting ways in which in-person and online conferences occur.  However, it is tempting to treat virtual environments, such as online conferences, as one conglomerate space; yet these spaces have specific features in much the same way that a physical conference room would. 

To explore this idea, I consider the role of conference moderators (also known as chairs): these roles have long played a central part in face-to-face contexts, and their role in the online conference remains crucially important in navigating the power dynamics that may serve to enable or constrain equity and inclusivity (see Bing Lu’s post, ‘Missing objects and silenced voices: Power relations in online conferences’ and ‘Chairing is Caring’ by Johan Edelheim).

In my own experience of the Warwick conference, the specific features of video conferencing software served to act as a constraint on what was achievable as a moderator.  An example of this is the facilitation of conversation between groups; this can be, in part, attributed to the inevitable loss of bodily cues in a virtual space. However, the issue is further compounded by the loss of the acoustics of physical space itself: whereas in an in-person forum multiple speakers can be disaggregated by the listener, online conference software reduces these voices to one amalgamated sound emanating from an electronic speaker; this can preclude conversations that require overlapping dialogue from multiple people. This may be one contributing factor to the silences that have become common at the beginning of online meetings.

While there are other examples I could give (e.g., slide sharing controls, meeting permissions, bandwidth required, ‘mute all’ functions, etc.), the point I am making here is that virtual spaces – and the technologies which can create these virtual spaces – are nuanced: power relations are inevitably constructed by human actors, but it is easy to underestimate the ways in which different technologies preconfigure these relations. It is the specific features of these technologies that help shape online conference practices and thus enable and constrain their capacity to achieve certain goals.

The ‘Chat Box’

Following on from this, one particularly interesting feature of online conferencing software is the ‘chat box’. Prior to the Warwick conference, my understanding was that its primary use would be for attendees to ask questions and perhaps comment on the presentation they had just watched.

But the role of this discursive forum is perhaps underappreciated and certainly under-conceptualised.

To begin with, the ‘chat box’ seemed to take on a life of its own. I say this primarily because of the sheer range of conversation that takes place there: terms of encouragement and support; sparks of personal inspiration; apologies for technological glitches; networking opportunities; and, crucially, critical thought and argument.  This final point on the list may seem like a given for any serious academic conference, but what is particularly interesting here is that these conversations are taking place in parallel to the moderator and presenter’s role. 

It is here then that the role of the ‘chat box’ becomes conceptually relevant: it is facilitating participation and inclusion by allowing a meta-commentary on the ‘main’ proceedings of presenting, representing a wider corpus of ideas and perspectives that may serve to enrich and nourish the intellectual landscape of the online conference. It brings to life the idea that the knowledge that is being shared is not smooth and stationary, but spiky and dynamic. The ‘chat box’ thus takes on the feel of an epistemic object (see Cetina’s article on ‘Sociality with Objects’), unfolding in interesting and unpredictable ways, enabling a ‘community of arguers’ to come together to contest and explore their thoughts and ideas (Standish outlines this idea in his article ‘Disciplining thought: Between ideology and anything goes’). The dual challenge here is retaining and translating these feelings of connectedness and simultaneity to future conference gatherings, but also asking how a wider breadth of conversation can be stimulated and encouraged in these forums.

Keynote Videos and Bringing Knowledge to Life

As Clark and Sousa write, ‘Keynote presentations can make conferences sink or soar’ (see also Tai Peseta’s post on keynotes) and the work that our conference co-chairs and academic conference convenor put into organising this for the Warwick was undeniable. Unfortunately, unforeseen circumstances meant that one of the keynote speakers could no longer attend ‘live’.  Yet, with some creativity, a pre-recorded conversation between the keynote panellists was constructed and screened with great success.

In these happenings, two things stood out to me as significant. 

The first was the temporal fabric of these events: a conversation that had happened prior to the event (in a fairly relaxed context) was subsequently shown to an audience (in the context of a conference). Through the juxtaposition of events that were occurring in different spaces and times, there was an enabling of a particular unfolding of ideas that may have been occluded if the conversation had taken place in one context, at one time. The mode of the keynote facilitated a different knowledge production.

This leads me to my second point, which is to consider how well-established forms of knowledge production at conferences could be diversified and interrupted by reconfiguring keynote formats and indeed modes of presenting in general. The migration of conferences to online spaces has challenged some of the conventional lines that conferences travel along; perhaps it is time to capitalise on this uncertainty and consider how online conferences may enable different forms of knowledge sharing. Furthermore, this may form a small part of a broader challenge to the ways in which knowledge is currently conceptualised, codified and disseminated in the social sciences.

Geoff Lewis is currently a doctoral researcher in the Department of Education Studies at the University of Warwick. His thesis is focussed on exploring the emerging practices of early teachers and teaching assistants in English Primary schools. His research interests include early career teachers, educational inclusion, and teaching assistants, as well as theories of practice and the work of Theodore Schatzki and Stephen Kemmis. He can be found on Twitter: @GeoffLewis_

Author: CI_Jamie

Academic at the University of Warwick. Interests: higher education, sexuality, gender, equity. PhD in Doctoral Education from Auckland University.

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