International conferences forced to adopt online format

The novel coronavirus is disrupting international academic conferences across the globe, many of which have either been cancelled for this year or converted into online events. While conference planners are hardly cheering the context that led them online, some organisers and participants hope the virtual format paves the way for a new normal.

In a post COVID-19 world, “there will be no return to normal, but a rediscovery of what normal looks like,” Shearer West, vice-chancellor of the University of Nottingham, told an online gathering last week organised by Universities UK International. Its International Higher Education Forum (IHEF) had been scheduled to take place on 25 March at Imperial College London.

How organisations are responding to the global pandemic hinges on a range of factors, including their timetables, their missions and their financial health.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators, which typically draws about 15,000 attendees to its annual conference and expo, had been scheduled to meet in May in St Louis, Missouri, but cancelled shortly after the mayor of St Louis on 12 March banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people to slow the spread of the virus.

Since then, the organisation has been channelling its resources into helping its universities deal with immediate needs, including support for international students and those studying abroad.

Also cancelled was the annual gathering of the American Council on Education, a Washington, DC-based umbrella group for high-powered university leaders. It scrapped its annual conference on 9 March, four days before President Donald Trump declared a national emergency and five days ahead of its scheduled launch in San Diego, California.

Both groups, behemoths in the world of US higher education associations, are making arrangements for refunds to registrants, but some smaller groups said they had no choice but to come up with an online alternative.

“We are a lean organisation and outright cancellation of the conference would bankrupt our association,” Association for Education Finance and Policy President Tom Downes told members, who had planned to gather on 19 to 21 March in Fort Worth, Texas. The group, which instead convened online, reimbursed registration fees only for members who had planned to travel from China, South Korea, Italy and Iran, where visa restrictions made travel impossible.

Organisations with conferences scheduled for later this year are keeping tabs on the progression of the crisis. As of Saturday 28 March, the Consortium of Higher Education Researchers (CHER) and the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) were among those still planning a face-to-face gathering, CHER in September in Croatia, and ASHE in November in New Orleans.

Difficult decisions

The American Educational Research Association (AERA), which on average draws about 15,000 attendees to its annual conferences, initially announced plans to shift its April conference in San Francisco to a virtual platform, then decided a few days later to cancel the event altogether.

AERA President Vanessa Siddle Walker said its council concluded that even a virtual meeting would be asking too much of members, “given the number of variables that have changed in our lives,” including family obligations, financial uncertainty and, for many, the abrupt shift to teaching online courses at their university.

Siddle Walker urged members to instead share what they know, be it related to infectious disease prevention or how parents with young children might cope with the crisis. In addition, AERA encouraged members to upload their accepted papers online, enabling them to share their work and provide evidence of their productivity for purposes of career advancement.

Groups whose gatherings were to take place in March had little time to waste. IHEF organisers converted its one-day forum into a series of shorter online gatherings that will be spread over several weeks. Among others that ran online conferences over the week just ended (22 to 28 March) were the Asian Conference on Education and International Development, the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) and the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES).

In a letter emailed to members on 10 March, CIES notified members that its place-based conference, which was to have been held in Miami, would move online. Because the state of Florida had not declared any travel bans, the email stressed that the organisation could not extricate itself from about US$350,000 in contractual obligations with hotels and other vendors.

CIES put on a number of its planned events, including two keynote speeches, a film festivalette, and its annual business meeting, while researchers shared more than 100 panel presentations and 100 posters online. The virtual conference will continue to offer programming through April, so that participants can contribute, either asynchronously or synchronously, at their convenience, said conference chair and CIES President Iveta Silova.

Organisers also reasoned that a virtual gathering could provide a way for members across the globe to move forward on their scholarship and professional development, continue to collaborate and support one another at a difficult time.

“If you need us, we’re here and the space is here,” Silova, an Arizona State University professor, told attendees in one gathering, an informal ‘coffee break’ during which participants mostly shared stories of their circumstances.

‘Good morning, good afternoon and good evening’

The virtual format, through the video-conferencing platform Zoom, offered CIES members a unique window into the home lives of their colleagues around the world. It revealed impressive collections of books on shelves behind some speakers, while wagging tails and fussy toddlers could be detected in the background on other screens.

In a nod to differing time zones, the moderator of one keynote session opened with the greeting, “Good morning, good afternoon and good evening”.

Despite a few technical glitches – the most unsettling being ‘zoombombing’, in which hackers peppered the ‘chat’ function of the opening session with foul language – CIES organisers said they were pleased and relieved with the attendance at live events, and feedback from presenters. CIES said it would refund registration fees for graduate students and participants from low-income countries and opened the online conference to all CIES members.

Smoothing the transition for CIES was a decision last year by organisers to experiment with a virtual component to the conference as a first step toward rethinking how CIES could reduce its carbon footprint and open its doors to more scholars from low-income countries, for whom travel costs are often prohibitive.

“The only way we were able to pull it off is because we did it in a decentralised organic way that allows people to engage on their own terms,” Silova said. “I have actually no idea how it’s going to work, [but] I hope we don’t go back to the status quo.”