The covid-19 pandemic threw even the most well laid out plans out of sync, this year. In this case the DRS2020 conference planned to take place to the beautiful city of Brisbane in Australia.
As a convener of the DRS Special Interest Groupon Global Health I was really looking forward to meeting like-minded people from across the world engaged in design research in health; but also to travel to Australia and enjoying the best the city of Brisbane has to offer.
Plans did of course change and the conference went virtual. This brought new experiences but also challenges to traditional ways of conference participation. There were lessons learnt on aspects that traditional face-to-face conference do better, but also some of the benefits of virtual conferencing not previously realised.
In the text below you can find some of these experiences as well as suggestions for ways forward under the current social distancing and limited international travel climate.
Paper presentation (which had to be pre-recorded and uploaded several weeks prior to the conference start):
The Good: Keeping the timing and being able to rehearse several times before releasing a good presentation version. Also having a video of the presentation that can be shared via social media and through the institutional website is an added bonus.
The Bad: The delivery of the presentation online no matter how well rehearsed it lacked the spontaneity, enthusiasm and natural body language I use when presenting to a live audience. Having to display a picture-in-picture video of my face meant having to do the presentation seated as opposed to standing. Also being able to make a link to presentation with previous presentations and keynotes from the conference was another negative point.
The Ugly: Presenting without and audience felt like playing in a concert without any audience. The lack of feedback from participants usually present via body language and facial expressions was missing. It was thus difficult to tell how the presentation was received by peers.
Paper session chairing:
The Good: Having all presentation keeping on time, as everything was pre-recorded to a strict 15-minute window, meant that a good amount of time was left for questions and discussion. This is usually squeezed in face-to-face presentation due to technical glitches or one or more speakers going over their allocated time. This, therefore, enabled Chairs to be able to fit in more questions from more members of the audience. Also being able to ask questions via a chat facility encouraged more shy delegates to pose their questions too.
The Bad: Not being able to meet presenters beforehand and briefly talk about their work took something away from the session. As it also did, not being able to accommodate the order of running the presentations, since this occurred automatically.
The Ugly: Starting the session automatically with the pre-recorded presentations did not leave room for a needed introduction to the session theme and paper presenters. This took away an important feature of a thematic session where the link between the papers and presenter presentation had to me made at the end.
Conversation session chairing and participation:
The Good: Being able to video recording the online session and the text in the chat function, provides a good mechanism to write a report about the session and analyse the discussion offline. The good online etiquette followed by delegates (I.e. switching off the microphone when not talking, raising virtual hand to seek the floor and writing thoughts/comments in the chat function), made it easier to manage and run the session. Also, all the online features ensured that everyone in the session could speak and contribute, providing a more balanced participation, as it was easier to see the list of delegates and ensure that everyone would have a say.
The Bad: Missing non-verbal cues in discourse and not being able to run facilitated group activities with the use of design objects was a disadvantage. Having designed objects (for writing thoughts) always helps in recording information in small groups and then sharing these with the entire group.
The Ugly: Not being able to connect after the session with like-minded peers as you normally do. Moreover, not being able to collate and map activity outcomes, took away one of the key strengths of such session, in enabling delegates to see the bigger picture and themes emerging in real-time.
Verdict: As this was a conference not initially intended to run virtually but having to adjust in response to the fast-evolving pandemic situation, overall it managed well and the organisers did a tremendous job in running it smoothy. It did, nevertheless, provide a good first experience on virtual conferencing. With this experience in the bag we can now reflect upon the concept of virtual conferencing and design future sessions, which augment the good points, minimise the bad and remove the ugly bits.
The future: As we move forward and cope with the situation that the covid-19 pandemic has created in terms of limited international travel, social distancing, etc, it looks like virtual conferencing may be the norm for at least another year. This is not necessarily bad, we simply need to adapt and redesign it, banking on the opportunities available. There are several opportunities available, but I will focus here on three:
Opportunity 1: Without the need to hire physical space, catering, gala dinners and so on, it means that the cost of running conference can be dramatically reduced. The reduction in the cost of running a conference and thus reduction in conference registration fees could and should lead to reducing barrier for participation. This should be especially true for early career researchers/academics, delegates with limited funding budget.
Opportunity 2: Being able to connect across geographical boundaries and time zones, without the need to travel to a physical conference venue, can spark increased participation from colleagues, who are currently not able to do so for a number of reasons. For instance, colleagues with young families, especially women who usually bear the brunt of family caregiving, colleagues with accessibility issues and physical impairments and several others.
Opportunity 3: We have a unique opportunity as a community with a social responsibility of designing for good, to ‘put the money where the mouth is’ and embrace more sustainable ways of connecting and sharing knowledge limiting international travel.
I am really excited by all these, especially the opportunity to reducing conference costs, in order to enable more diverse (culturally, geographically, gender, linguistically) conference participation. I also look forward to wider participation from colleagues in the Global South to enrich future conferences and discipline knowledge.
Don’t get me wrong there is certainly a place for traditional face-to-face conferences, but in the midst of a very difficult year for everyone, I welcome the opportunities created by virtual conferencing and I hope colleagues across disciplines and regions will embrace and make the most of these.