Some evidence on online conferences

Retro niche reference

Last month, I helped run the 4th EuroTLC, which we’d switched from Amsterdam to a sofa near you. Fewer canals, but also none of that rolling-your-R nonsense.

Any way, as well as that various posts that have sprung from that, I thought it’d also be useful to share some of the conference feedback that we received. A big thank you to ECPR for letting us use this publicly.

As you might have guessed from this post’s existence, the impression on participants was very positive indeed. It’d be good to pull up some big problems, as talking points, but they really didn’t occur.

From our survey of nearly 70 delegates (of c.250 signed up), there was almost no-one who rated the organisation, communication, technology as unsatisfactory.

Technology is maybe a good place to start on this, since it’s the obvious new challenge as compared to what has come before. A few people reported tech issues, although these were mostly about their local connectivity, which sometimes ended up kicking you out of Zoom sessions. The phrasing of the comments seems pretty understanding, but equally it’s clear that this will become more problematic for those not in a position to get more stable internet connections, which will matter if we want people to get interacting online in such events. Equally clearly, there’s no much we can do about these problems, except keep it in mind when we plan: do we need everything to be synchronous?

Organisationally, we had tried to put a lot of thought into how we could make this event work for participants. That meant breaking up sessions with lots of breaks, and keeping any one part to a maximum of an hour (well-received), plus mixing up formats so that it wasn’t always the same thing, all day long.

As mentioned, the feedback was very positive about all this, although once again I’d note that some of the participants grounded this by saying it was their first such experience of an online conference: that worked in our favour (Zoom burn-out was mentioned more than once during the event), but as we move to do more of this, then expectations might well shift.

One things we’d explored was trying to get materials shared online, both beforehand and during the event. While ratings were very positive for the organisers (both on the academic programme and the more practical aspects handled by ECPR’s very efficient office), there were some comments from people about not knowing where to look for those resources. This rather falls into “what else could we have done?”, since we’d mentioned it multiple times across all our pre-event comms and during the sessions. Maybe the relative novelty of the model is part of this, but as every event organiser knows, there’s never enough comms to be done.

Maybe a bit more of an issue was the difficulty of maintaining the flow of discussion beyond individual sessions. I’ve discussed this before, but I also noticed a couple of comments to this effect here too. I still have no good idea about how to address this, since any online space requires active decisions by individuals to move into them and stay in them, so the (semi-accidental) chat in the corridor outside the panel just doesn’t happen. As a case in point, having mentioned in that post that I’d seen a load of people that I’d like to have caught up, I’ve done nothing about it, because it’s not been in mind long enough to action by pinging off an email or text. Yes, I’m a bit lazy, but we also know that friction to action online is very high: each step we add, there’s a huge drop-out of people (which is why the bingo thing didn’t work).

Any way, that lack of networking opportunities did come out with much more ambivalent survey results (including the only occasion when more than two people chose ‘unsatisfactory’ (but still only 12%)).

It’s also worth noting that we didn’t charge for the event: EuroTLC has always been been either free or with minimal fees to keep it open. Several people noted that being free and online meant they could finally attend: previously, the cost of travel and accommodation had made that impossible. From our side, it also meant we could put together a lunchtime with people from three continents in a way that our resources wouldn’t have allowed beforehand, so online does come with some upsides for all involved.

Opinion was rather split on whether people would have paid to attend this event: those saying no pointed towards tightened budgets and precarious financial situations, while others felt the quality of what they got from it all was worth paying to access. Clearly, while online events are without the costs of dealing with physical spaces, they do still come with personnel costs that have to be covered somehow, so we’re not at the end of that particular discussion.

Also pertinent to note is that EuroTLC has been only every other year, so the suggestion from one person that we alternate online/real-world events is something to consider (although not necessarily an option for others). That said, there did seem to be interest in maintaining a more substantial online presence even with a real-world event, to allow those unwilling/unable to attend in person to still access things.

I’ll glide over the comment that we had too many women in the sessions that one respondent attended, on the basis that perhaps this might heighten awareness of the still-too-common phenomenon of manels and instead focus on the very positive comments across the board for all those who presented work during the two days: as one person wrote “everyone worked hard and did their utmost best”, a sentiment I fully endorse.

So what to take from all of this?

Firstly, just as online teaching isn’t just teaching online, the same is true for conferences. It’s important to think carefully about the objectives that you’re trying to achieve from the event and then work out the best way to hit them, which might not be the same as in face-to-face formats. I think we did a very good job on the sharing of ideas, but less well on the networking/soft community aspects, so this was definitely a learning experience.

Secondly, we have to careful about the assumptions we make. Here that includes access to stable internet, how much people have internalised all the messaging about specifics and why people do/n’t attend conferences. The barriers are all pretty obvious, but that doesn’t mean we’ve taken them fully into account, or that we can necessarily solve them; however, we can try.

And that’s a final point – nothing’s settled yet, so there’s good reason to keep trying new things. I leave this event wanting to try out a pile of other options with future events, because I want to see if they can provide improved opportunities for all involved. This was a good start, but together we can make it even better.