The Future of (Academic) Conferencing

From the 4th to the 6th of March 2021, close to 500 medical anthropologists, sociologists, STS scholars and more participated in the Chronic Living conference, yet never at the same time as one collective group of participants. The conference had been originally planned to take place in Copenhagen in April 2020 leading to a last-minute cancellation and subsequent transition into a fully online event. How did that go? Well, read for yourself!

Based on our experiences organizing Chronic Living, here are a few thoughts on how we should be doing conferences from now on:

We should not distinguish between on-site and online participation ever again– our conference (as well as numerous others by now, not least 4S/EASST held in August 2020, our thanks to Tereza Stockelova and team for sharing their experiences with us, we learned a lot from their successes) has shown that it is absolutely possible to create easy-to-use digital infrastructures for conferencing where people engage and feel included across time zones and taking into consideration various caring duties (not least in times of lockdown). Once we do return to meeting in conference hotels, we should bring many of the good experiences with us. Every panel session should be assigned both a room AND a zoom link, just as every plenary should have an auditorium AND a webinar link. The technical set up should be such that it does not matter whether you present a paper, ask a question or participate actively in any way from another country or on site at the conference venue. With laptops, overhead projectors and in-room microphones and web-cameras we have the technology

Conference program infrastructures should be online, behind a password-protected website and every session must have a dedicated moderator– cyber security is essential and ensuring that zoom links are never made public is crucial. When we designed our digital conference program infrastructure our mantra was “keep it simple”, it must be easy to navigate and clicking on a panel or plenary session should give instant access to: 1) titles of talks, names of presenters and abstracts; 2) room information and zoom link; and 3) here’s the new thing, ALWAYS a recording of the session once it has finished (zoom moderators are responsible for recording and they can simply click on “Pause recording” if a specific presenter requests not to be recorded). It is absolutely essential that recordings are only shared behind password-protection, never publicly, and all presenters should be given clear information as to when recordings will be permanently deleted.

Accessibility and accommodation– the absolute biggest benefit of hybrid on-site/online conferences is that they become instantaneously more accessible, albeit if managed in the right way. Closed Captioning should not be optional ever again, and while the captioning technologies are not perfect yet they are improving all the time. Recording sessions allows for people living in different time zones to catch up with sessions they might have missed as well as people with caring duties who are unable to attend an entire conference. Moreover, it should become standard that copies of presentations are shared via Zoom chats before every talk with strict no circulation without explicit consent rules. Remember also those who are on site can access a zoom room to follow chat discussions, and in fact adding chat to sessions is absolutely brilliant as discussions within discussions can take place which are otherwise limited by time constraints, and chat transcripts can be saved and shared.

Bringing the conference to you rather than the other way around– there are many reasons for travelling to meet in person and I for one am looking forward to meeting my colleagues at conferences again as soon as possible! But doing hybrid conferences means we don’t have to travel EVERY time, and more importantly it allows colleagues living in parts of the world where there is internet access but travel is prohibitively expensive to join. This was one of the amazing parts of the Chronic Living conference. You need to schedule an individual’s talk based on their time zone (remember to ask those registering which time zone they will participate from!). Also recording sessions means that people in different parts of the world can catch up on a session they missed while asleep. Even people participating on-site will benefit from recordings as well as live participation via zoom, e.g. you can zoom in from your smartphone during your commute home if you cannot attend a full day. Or indeed, you can listen to a session as a podcast while out for a walk/run, cooking dinner or on the beach!

Zoom moderators are key– every single session or plenary must have a dedicated zoom moderator who is responsible for assigning host rights for chairs and presenters so they can share screen, monitoring chats, reacting quickly if any “zoom bombing” takes place as well as recording the session (including pausing of recording if a speaker requests). Our zoom moderators during the Chronic Living conference were also responsible for ensuring Closed Captioning and were a huge part of the reason the conference was such a success.

Communicating with conference participants– prior to conference start, it is a very good idea for organizers to communicate good etiquette and in general to make explicit goals of inclusivity, how seamless on-site/online participation can be achieved, rules around recording, etc. Online platforms make it possible to keep in constant touch with participants allowing organizers to respond to an react to any good suggestions or perhaps complaints. (Below I have attached our communication to Chronic Living participants as an example)

Online exhibitions and events– we had originally planned to do a lot of side events at the Chronic Living conference on site, but we found that there are a lot of excellent online possibilities as well. Instead of having a book stand and/or art exhibition on site, we could curate links to external online exhibitions while also providing a virtual book display as well the usual conference offer flyers. We also crowd sourced a google doc to build up a set of common references relevant to the conference themes. There are so many more possibilities here.

Socializing– one of the huge things we all miss is the human interaction that conferences allow for in the coffee breaks, during lunch or dinner as well as during panel sessions. Given that people are now getting more and more versed in online interaction, one of the fantastic things about Chronic Living was how we all tried our best to interact, have fun and provide collegial support. Not everyone is on Twitter, but certainly those of us who are had a great time during Chronic Living, live-tweeting and sharing across sessions. Live tweeting conferences has been around for a while, but now that we were all online it also became a way to interact outside of sessions. We did not specifically organize social meet ups, but I do think that coffee zoom rooms and lunch zoom rooms should become standard. Finally, as already mentioned session chat rooms have in themselves become sites of academic exchange but also socializing! You can contribute to discussions and debates stemming from presentations, while also sending a personal chat to a friend or colleague you haven’t seen in a while. And by the way, once we are back on site, why not invite an online participant to lunch or coffee with you on site?!

The feedback and positive response we have received from participants at the Chronic Living conference has been simply overwhelming. With the help of an amazing conference team, we did everything ourselves (due to substantial financial losses stemming from the last-minute cancellation of Chronic Living a year ago due to the pandemic) but there are professional services that increasingly specialize in the provision of online conferencing infrastructures like these. But, as we begin our return to on-site conferences, let’s never go back to on-site only participation. There is no need and honestly it just doesn’t make sense (clearly you may have smaller symposiums and meetings where it makes sense to be on site only, but even in these cases using digital infrastructures along the above lines can enhance the event immensely for the reasons outlined.

A few interesting statistics

  • We had a total of 6 keynote sessions (1 hour each) and 40 open panels divided into 78 panel sessions (90 minutes each) which were held during 8 parallel streams. That’s 123 hours of content all of which was recorded!
  • 480 people registered to participate from over 30 different countries representing all major continents.
  • Our maximum live online participation at any given time was around 200 (out of 480), keynote webinars had between 100-180 live participants and panel session attendance averaged around 23 (+/- 10). This makes sense because we had colleagues from Australasia who would attend European time morning sessions and then in the afternoons colleagues from the Americas would join. Moreover, we knew that because of lockdowns, not everyone would be able (or want!) to set aside three full days.
  • While we don’t have the statistics, we know that people have and continue to watch recordings of keynotes or panel sessions they may have missed (I know I am!) which will be available for a couple of weeks after which they will be deleted permanently.

E-mail to Chronic Living participants

We sent this e-mail to participants one and half weeks before the event took place. Prior to that participants had only seen the public Chronic Living conference website

Dear Chronic Living participant,

While we would much prefer to be welcoming you to the wonderful city of Copenhagen, we are instead welcoming you into an online conference space made up of a set of structured links that will teleport you instantaneously into plenary webinars and panel session Zoom rooms. Think of it as a kind of inverse google Earth, each of us as coordinates localized across the globe who magically Zoom up into cyberspace with the help of a bounded web of hyperlinks. We hyperlink, therefore we conference!

Official Chronic Living conference programme: [PASSWORD PROTECT LINK HERE]

Zoom passcode for all plenaries and sessions: [PASSCODE HERE]

Above, is your personal, password-protected link to the conference programme. As a matter of security, please do not share this link or passcode with anyone, it is only intended for you as a conference participant and they should never be circulated to anyone else via e-mail or social media. This is absolutely essential in our efforts to ensure cyber security as best possible.

The link gives you access to a dynamic conference programme where you can click on days and individual plenary or panel sessions to see the titles and abstracts of all talks as well as find the relevant zoom link. The passcode must be used upon entering a keynote talk or a panel session. Recordings of sessions will also be stored for exactly one week here after which they will be permanently deleted. Please note, we will do our best to upload panel sessions in a timely manner but there may be some delays. Also, please note that the conference programme is now final. A always there may well be last minute cancellations, in such cases adjustments will have to be made on the day.

Virtual conferencing at Chronic Living  

In some ways, there’s no real way to prepare for three full days on Zoom other than by dreading it! For that reason, we have put together a set of tips and digital housekeeping guidelines that we hope might make your online conference at least more bearable. We recognize 1000% that we are all living in pandemic times, many are working from home, juggling home schooling, with various caring responsibilities and not least with very different physical environments from which to connect in to zoom sessions. For this reason, the following tips are meant as inspiration and will absolutely not be possible to follow for everyone. Our hope is that you can pluck bits and pieces from this list of tips and adapt them to your personal life circumstances.

Zooming in: if possible, try to make your conference zoom set up as cozy as possible with a comfortable chair. Some might have the possibility to connect a laptop to a larger TV screen, which can help create a more ‘life size’ viewing experience. Alternatively, try stacking some books under your laptop so that you don’t have to crane your neck downwards. Remember to move around during the day, alternate between sitting down and standing up and doing some stretches. Go out for walk if possible during breaks.

 Zoom room etiquette: with many in attendance it makes sense to have only panelists with cameras on during presentations. However, during discussions remember to (where possible) turn on your camera (you might want to choose a Virtual Background in Zoom which gives you more control of what your web camera broadcasts). Say hello to each other, discuss and comment in the panel chat, embrace the sub-chat (you can send individual chat messages to friends and colleagues when you enter a panel session, perhaps you haven’t seen each other in a while!)

 Socializing and networking: reach out to colleagues and organize digital coffee break or lunch meet ups and take care of each other as we conference digitally together. Let’s all be inclusive and welcome our junior colleagues especially to reach out and connect with fellow conference participants. It doesn’t beat meeting “in real life”, but let’s try to make it as collegial as possible!

Zoom moderators: each session will have a dedicated Zoom moderator who will reach out to panel organisers and session chairs as they log in to their Zoom room. Session chairs and presenters are asked to log in to their Zoom room 10 minutes prior to start. Zoom moderators will keep an eye on questions in the chat and (if necessary) alert the session Chair during Q&A.

Attending sessions and keynotes: we of course hope to see as many of you as possible at the keynote talks and panel sessions, but realize that participants may have other responsibilities during the conference days. Try to prioritize your panel’s sessions and of course specific talks you would like to see. And, as noted we will record sessions that you can see or listen to, e.g. while cooking at home or when out for a run, for one week afterwards.

Prerecorded talks: if you would like to prerecord your talk please get in touch with your panel organizers as well as the mail address.

Audio and video recordings: audio and video recordings of Chronic Living sessions are only permitted by conference organizers in accordance with the procedures that have been communicated. Any other recording of a session is not allowed.

An inclusive online conference: remember, many of us are not native English-speakers. We have participants from all over the world. We appreciate everyone’s efforts to communicate as clearly as possible, minding how fast we talk (which can be hard when we often also are nervous!). Closed Captions will be available throughout, which individual users can turn on if they wish. We will be using Web Captioner, please read about their data policy here. Do consider having a Word document or PDF of your talk available, to be placed in the Zoom chat for download by those who would like to follow the presentation by reading along (strictly no sharing of presenter copies without express consent of authors). We have a fantastic mix of junior and senior scholars and we look forward to constructive and supportive dialogue that allows us to collectively explore and engage.

Online safety: you must under no circumstances share any zoom links or the conference passcode via e-mail or social media. All conference participants have access to Zoom links for every conference session. Conference organizers reserve the right to immediately block and expel any user participating in a Chronic Living Zoom session who engages in any kind of offensive and unacceptable behavior. Each Zoom session will be moderated and panel organizers and designated chairs will be assigned co-hosting rights at the beginning of each session.

We are all getting used to zoom as a medium of academic interaction. Yet as we know, it is not optimal, internet connections can be unstable, audio-visual problems can occur and we have all heard “I will now try to share my screen, can you see this?” a few too many times! But we will do our best to make it work, and hitherto experiences have shown that it can.

We look so much forward to welcoming you all into the Chronic Living online conference next week.

Our best regards,

The Chronic Living Organizing Committee

Ayo Wahlberg is Professor MSO at the Department of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen. Working broadly within the field of social studies of (bio)medicine, his research has focused on traditional herbal medicine (in Vietnam and the United Kingdom), reproductive and genetic technologies (in China and Denmark) as well as health metrics (in clinical trials and global health). In his current project “The Vitality of Disease – Quality of Life in the Making”, funded by the European Research Council (2015-2021), a team of ethnographers are exploring how chronic living forms the everyday lives of millions of people who live with (chronic) conditions throughout the world and has emerged as a therapeutic site. He is the author of Good Quality: the Routinization of Sperm Banking in China (University of California Press), co-editor of Selective Reproduction in the 21st Century (Palgrave MacMillan) co-editor of Southern Medicine for Southern People: Vietnamese Medicine in the Making (Cambridge Scholars Publishing) and editor at the interdisciplinary journal BioSocieties (Palgrave Macmillan).

The Chronic Living conference, described in this post, is also associated with the Somatosphere series “Chronic living: ethnographic explorations of daily lives swayed by (multiple) medical conditions.”