What does new normal conferencing look like?

Given that I was speaking at EuroTLC in Bratislava about the importance of visualisations in teaching, it’s appropriate that I write now about this photo.

It’s the delicious lunch I enjoyed on the day after the conference, in Vienna’s Naschmarkt. If you’re wondering it’s sabish, Israeli street food, with falafel, humus, pitta, egg and some amazing deep-fried aubergine.

Sitting there, in the heat of a Viennese afternoon after some revisiting of places that I’ve not seen since interrailing 30 years ago, I thought about how great it was to be doing in-person events again.

EuroTLC was even better than the sabish, as I got to catch up with some long-standing colleagues and to meet a bunch of really exciting new colleagues. We did practical sessions, we talked pedagogy, we built community: we did all the stuff you’d hope a conference would do.

But equally, the sabish got me thinking about the flipside.

I was only in Vienna because my university travel agent – which I have to use – couldn’t get me on a flight back any sooner unless I wanted another 4am start (like the one I’d had to get out there). Four long days to do a two-day conference, while I had a pile of urgent admin to do, wasn’t an easy option.

Factor in the hassles of travel and accommodation (especially if you don’t work out the duvet is folded in half [cough]) and a less-than optimal diet and sleep regime and in-person becomes more of a balanced proposition. If the event hadn’t had been as good as it was, then I might well be more dubious about it all.

And this is reflected in what I see others saying too. It’s great to be back to face-to-face, but remembering the hassle was less great. Plus online did have some pretty useful stuff.

One of the questions we tossed around at EuroTLC was “why are you here?”; what do you hope to achieve by being present at this event?

It’s an odd question, we found, especially if we think about it in a more abstracted way (why go to any conference?). The answers varied quite a lot, which also matters because what works for one person isn’t necessarily going to work for another.

The opening up of online spaces has had an impact. In particular, it’s made many of us see that moving people around the place isn’t the only way to generate interactions, even if it is a very good way of doing that in unstructured ways (the chat over coffee, the reflection over a pint).

All of which left me with my sabish, thinking that we do need to find a new balance for conferences and indeed all academic events. Even if a return to Before Times were possible – which it’s not, because of finances and environmental considerations – is it desirable?

Unfortunately, lunch was so delicious that I finished up before I had found a solution to this, a way to combine the best parts of online and face-to-face into a package of activity. But it will be a package, possibly with some things that we have still yet to do.

The conference isn’t dead, but it is going to have to become something rather different from before.

Food for thought, indeed.