Virtual reality: Grad student perspectives on the shift to online conferences

- August 4, 2021

Academic conferences, a staple of graduate school, have undergone a dramatic shift during the pandemic. (Sigmund/Unsplash photo)
Academic conferences, a staple of graduate school, have undergone a dramatic shift during the pandemic. (Sigmund/Unsplash photo)

Kayla Hamelin, Caelin Murray, and Shannon Landovskis are graduate students in biology at Dal.

Graduate students have had mixed experiences with the transition to online conferences. Some students have never attended a conference in person and are sharing work with their professional peers for the first time in an online forum. Others have been sharing their work via posters and talks at in-person events for a few years and had to adjust to the ‘new normal.’

As institutions, including Dalhousie, prepare to re-open their doors in the fall, it’s useful to reflect on the range of challenges and opportunities graduate students have been navigating in the world of online conferences.

Advantages of online conferences

The most obvious benefit of virtual conferences is accessibility. With lower registration fees and no travels costs, many students have been able to attend more conferences or higher-cost conferences (e.g. international events), broadening both their minds and networks – with a much lower carbon footprint.

Furthermore, students and researchers with health issues, disabilities, caregiving responsibilities, and other special needs may be able to access a virtual conference more comfortably and participate more fully than an in-person event.

During concurrent sessions, it has been much easier to jump between virtual channels than physical rooms to cover all topics of interest. Some virtual conferences have also offered recorded talks in advance, making it easy for attendees to watch every presentation at their own pace. As a presenter, having the option to pre-record one’s talk can be very helpful, especially for those who are new to (or anxious about) public speaking. Pre-recording talks can also help to ensure fewer technical issues throughout the conference.

However, having a live component is still important for networking and sharing ideas. Conferences have used various approaches to facilitate live question-and-answer periods and discussions. One strategy that has worked well is offering an opportunity for a panel of presenters (who submitted pre-recorded talks) to respond to questions and discuss topics from the audience as a group, maximizing conference time spent on sharing ideas rather than passively listening to lectures.

Disadvantages of online conferences

Of course, there are downsides to participating in online-only conferences as well. An online format does not ensure accessibility (e.g., need for subtitles, limited access to high-quality internet, etc). The quality of the conference agenda/program and virtual platform significantly affects the experience. Time zone differences can also make it challenging to plan session attendance and maximize participation.

As presenters, some students found that pre-recorded talks could actually be more stressful than live talks. Capturing a high-quality video can be time-consuming and may involve increased pressure to create a ‘perfect’ presentation to submit in advance. In addition, student attendees felt pressure to maintain a normal workday in addition to their conference participation, especially when attending an event outside of their time zone.

The sheer cognitive load of the screen time involved in virtual conference attendance was sometimes overwhelming.

Finally, students who submitted posters faced challenges in sharing their work and engaging with others compared to students delivering oral presentations. In some cases, poster galleries were formatted in a way that made text or figures difficult to see. In many cases, posters were not associated with a live Q&A panel or received less attention than oral presentations during discussion periods.

Virtual conferences also offer fewer networking and engagement opportunities for students. Normally, social events are a conference highlight for many young researchers, but online socials were generally less engaging and poorly attended. It was difficult to achieve a separation from the regular workday, which would allow students to be fully present and engaged. Regardless of how live components were integrated, they did not adequately replace face-to-face interactions with colleagues.

Putting it into practice: planning an online conference

This year, grad students in biology set out to plan the annual Lett Symposium — a one-day event for fellow grad students to share their work and celebrate research achievements with colleagues and faculty. It was necessary to consider all of the pros and cons of virtual conferences in order to develop a smooth-running online event and foster a supportive, collegial atmosphere.

The planning team decided to accept pre-recorded talks that would be shared during the conference sessions, followed by short periods of live questions and answer. This allowed conference organizers to have all of the materials prepared in advance and may have reduced anxiety for students who struggle with public speaking. However, the live question-and-answer period following each video still allowed for some interaction with the audience, and there was no added workload associated with browsing a library of videos before the conference day.

On the day of the conference, sharing the pre-recorded content created its own suite of technical challenges for the session moderators. Troubleshooting was relatively quick and simple, and both moderators and attendees handled glitches with grace. But it did highlight that there is no perfect recipe for a virtual conference format without hiccups.

In lieu of a poster session, there was a graphical abstract gallery. Graphical abstracts are often requested by academic journals these days and are designed to largely serve as a standalone communication tool. This seemed like a great option to accommodate more projects than the oral presentation schedule would allow and offer flexibility in how students preferred to share their work. To encourage engagement with the graphical abstracts, and attendance of all presentation sessions (plus, to offer more rewards for student presenters), “People’s Choice Award” prizes were offered, and links to the voting polls were shared throughout the day.

Finally, perhaps the most difficult aspect was fostering a social atmosphere. Attendees were encouraged to come on screen to chat and “hang out” during breaks and over lunch hour. Granted, with a relatively small group of roughly 50, this was more feasible than it would be for a larger event. Ultimately, keeping the day relatively short with plenty of breaks helped to ensure that energy and enthusiasm levels remained relatively high for many attendees.

To say this past year has been a learning experience for conference planners and attendees alike would be a huge understatement. Hopefully lessons learned during this transition to virtual meetings will yield future hybrid events which will include many of the benefits, while minimizing the challenges, highlighted here. We look forward to seeing more connection and collaboration than ever before, while incorporating the attention to accessibility that the disabled community has been demanding for years. But for the time being . . . see you on Teams and Zoom.


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