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I’ve just attended my first online conference - ITiCSE 2020 - and I’m quite impressed that the organizer managed to put together the whole conference in such a short time, and come up with something that worked quite well. So big applauds to them.

So what are my experiences? Well, first of all I must say that the lunches and the snacks between sessions didn’t really meet the usual standard … which is probably a good thing considering my health :)

As I wrote above I was positively surprised that it worked so well, but I also think that there are a few lessons to be learned:

  • If the presentations are going to be live, the presenters need a stable internet connection with a fairly high bandwidth. Problems with sound and/or video can really impact a presentation.
  • Camera, don’t use the built in camera of a laptop … unless the camera can be placed at eye level. You don’t want to have a camera pointing up into your face.
  • Sound is really, really important and the built in computer microphone might not be the right solution. Especially if you’re typing on the keyboard etc.
  • Pre-recorded videos usually have better technical quality than live presentations. But it’s important that they are recorded in at least 720p, preferable in 1080p or more - I want to enjoy the presentation in all its glory on a big screen, not squint trying to figure out what the slides says.
  • A pre-recorded video doesn’t need to contain only slides together with the author(s) speaking. Authors have a chance of making a really good presentation with all kind of content, demonstations, etc. There could also be links to demos, programs, etc that participants could try before the actual presentation.
  • Pre-recorded videos can be sub-titled!! A good thing for non-native english speakers like me.
  • To get some sense of a real conference I think it’s important to, in some way, be aware of who are attending a presentation. Just sitting in front of a screen and only know that the presenter is there is … kind of lonely. At least some kind of chat functionality would be nice.
  • Time zones … well, it can be a problem. For some a presentation will be in the middle of the night, for others it will be early in the morning or in late afternoon. Same problem with lunches, dinners, etc - there will always be someone who will have an event/presentation at an inconvenient time. This could be a problem for live discussions but I don’t think an asynchronous discussion is a better solution.

My suggestions

There are obviously some problems with online conferences, but normal” conferences also have problems. Instead of focusing on making an online conference to be like normal” conference, I think it’s important to focus on the advantages of an online conference.

A change of format

I think it would be a good move to change the format from the usual written paper + oral presentation + short Q&A session. Something better is needed, but what? My current idea would be replace it with a pre-recorded presentation, 10-15 minutes, to be viewed before the actual session. Then, instead of the standard presentation, there is a discussion session” where the paper is discussed. Basically a flipped classroom setting.

I don’t know if this would work, but I think would bring an opportunity for a high quality discussion instead of a short Q&A session. This is enough for me to think that it would be worth an attempt at it.

Interaction between participants

The biggest problem is the interaction between the attendees, should it be synchronous or asynchronous? I’m think that synchronous is the only answer, otherwise we can just replace conferences with a discussion forum or something like Twitter. And yes, it’s inconvenient if you’re in the wrong time zone … but I think it’s less inconvenient to spend 3-4 days traveling (not to mention the increased cost).

So I would like to see some kind of video chat functionality together with text based chatting (perhaps a forum). My experience from these last three months is that video make the interaction more … personal(?) and actually helps in discussions. Text based interaction has the advantage of being available for those who are not able to participate live. However, I don’t think a text only interaction would work, it’s too slow and soon leads to confusion to what comments new comments refer to etc.

Saving the presentation

Another thing I would like to see is that the video presentations are saved together with the actual paper in a digital library. I think that being able to see the presentation later would add an extra dimension to the paper. But I do not think that the discussion should be recorded/saved.

Multiple tracks

One thing that always happen to me is that I want to listen to presentations that are in concurrent tracks. With the suggestions above this isn’t a problem anymore, I can view the presentation at my leisure. But how can I view/listen/participate in the discussions?

While it’s common that there are interesting presentations in concurrent tracks, there are less chance of the presentations themself being at exactly the same time. The communication platform used for the conference should allow me to follow concurrent tracks and make it easy to switch between the discussions.

And yes, I think that the presentations should be grouped together in tracks (or whatever they should be called).

The social side

I, for one, will miss the social interaction during evenings, etc, but I don’t think that the same experience can created online (please prove me wrong). Instead we should perhaps just acknowledge that this can’t be done and concentrate on the presentations/discussions.

Perhaps it would be worth having one conferences every third year be a physical meeting and let the focus be on the interaction between the participants. I don’t know.

Will I participate in another online conference?

Well, yes - most likely one of our papers will be presented at another conference later this year that is planned to be online. And I’m also thinking about registering for ICER 2020, despite it being mostly in the middle of the night for me. I can sleep in a couple of days but I wouldn’t be able to travel to New Zealand, now I can at least attend ICER.

I also think that this is an excellent chance to make conferences better. We need to make conferences more accessible, making it easier and cheaper to attend, easier to meet others, etc. While I don’t think that online conference will solve all problems I think they can be one of the tools for improving the situation.

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