Virtual conferencing

This week (and last week, technically, if you count the pre-conference workshops), I’m attending SIGCSE, one of the annual conferences for Computer Science education. I go to SIGCSE most years — although, notably, 2020 was one of the years I skipped, the infamous year where the conference was canceled just before the opening keynote. I go to learn, of course, and to attend at least one affiliated event/workshop, but also, more importantly, to reconnect with friends and colleagues (and make new connections!) who also care deeply about teaching and learning in Computer Science.

(Out of curiosity, I went back and figured out how many SIGCSEs I’ve attended. My first was Dallas in 2011. I skipped 2012 because I was on adoptive parent leave. I made it to all the SIGCSEs from 2013-2019 — Denver, Atlanta, KC, Memphis, Seattle, Baltimore, and Minneapolis. So this is my 9th!)

I’ve attended a handful of virtual conferences during Pandemic Times, but SIGCSE is the first one that’s departed significantly from the “cram everything into the same time frame” model — perhaps because they’ve had sufficient lead time to reimagine it as a completely virtual conference. Events are spread out over 2 weeks, if you count the pre-conference workshops and affiliated events. A conference “day” lasts from noon – 8:45pm CT, with a nice break before the last session of the day built in. Everything is self-contained in a platform called Pathable, and while (of course, because we’re computer scientists) people are complaining about Pathable, I think on balance it’s pretty decent for all that it has to do.

The conference is not over yet, but I’ve already noted some pros and cons of attending a conference that’s been designed for a full virtual experience.

Pros

  • It fits the rhythm of my workday. This point is very time-zone dependent, but as someone in the Central US Time Zone, I’m conferencing in the latter half of my day. I can get the kids on the bus/settled into virtual school, get some deep work done in the morning, and join my family for dinner during the longer break before the last session of the day. And the last session ends right before the younger kid’s bedtime, so I can still say goodnight. Also, I don’t have to hunt down decent coffee. (Or wait for a break to grab a snack!)
  • New affordances = more control over my conference experience. Turns out, video opens up a lot of opportunities to reimagine how one conferences. Most sessions are recorded, so if I need a break or am called away for a kid or work “emergency”, I know I can go back and watch later. All of the talks in the paper sessions are already posted, which means the actual session can focus on Q&A and not rushing through slides. I’m co-chairing a paper session on the day this posts, and my co-chair and I have been able to collaborate on questions to help prod conversation if the audience is unexpectedly quiet. (Also? Watching video talks at 1.5 speed is a game changer!) SIGCSE’s playing around a bit with the medium, too, releasing “Morning Coffee” videos that highlight someone in the community (who, I think, might also be presenting that day?). And apparently someone has re-created the hallway track, although I have yet to check that out.
a computer monitor and a laptop showing a conference talk video and a Google Doc window.
Pre-watching talks and brainstorming questions via Google Docs with my co-chair. Not pictured: all the times I was interrupted to break up a fight between the kids; the loud piano playing in the background; cats wandering in and out of the room.
  • Conversations during presentations. I absolutely love the ability to converse (via chat) with other attendees during sessions. Much more socially acceptable than frantically whispering to your neighbor. It also makes asking a question in public less fraught.
  • Less exhausting (up to a point). Yes, being on video and online all day is its own form of exhausting, but I do appreciate that I’m not conferencing from first thing in the morning to well into the evening. And sleeping in my own bed at the end of a long day = priceless.

Cons

  • Less serendipity. I don’t run into people randomly in the hallways or in line for coffee, which means I’m not catching up with friends and colleagues (unless I message them in Pathable). I miss my people!!! In the past, some of the best sessions I’ve been to were unplanned — I ran into a friend and followed them to whatever session they were headed into, or met someone who mentioned a particular speaker was not to be missed, and followed their advice. I’d pull out a crocheting project while watching a presentation and end up striking up a conversation with random strangers who crochet or knit. That serendipity is missing now.
  • No opportunity to explore, or re-explore, a different city. I really do miss traveling and exploring new cities (or re-exploring cities I’ve visited in the past). I’ve done excellent long runs in Seattle, Atlanta, and Denver; unexpectedly discovered vegan restaurants in Memphis and KC; explored museums and bookstores in every city; wandered for miles just because; gotten lost. I mean, I could get lost in my own neighborhood, I guess, but it’s not the same.
  • A longer overall time commitment. Yes, it’s nice to have things spread out, but that means SIGCSE is a 2-week commitment this year. And while if I were physically at a conference I wouldn’t balk at attending a Friday night or Saturday session or three, it’s harder when you have to pull yourself away from family time to attend a keynote. (Although it did get me out of cooking Sunday dinner last weekend!)
Cat appearances are usually a pro, but cats who don’t honor personal space are definitely a con.

While I still vastly prefer the in-person conference experience (although will that be true post-pandemic? when will I truly feel comfortable in a crowd of strangers, indoors, again?), the virtual experience is … not bad. I’d love for us to find a way to keep some elements of the virtual experience — perhaps retaining video talk uploads and giving more time to Q&A during paper sessions, allowing avenues for virtual attendance for anyone who wants to or has to attend that way (and have the experience be equitably rich), and reimagining the “packed days” paradigm.

What have your virtual conference experiences been like? What’s worked better than you expected? What do you miss the most? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

3 thoughts on “Virtual conferencing

  1. I attended SIGCSE for a number of years but haven’t been for the last 8 years or so. Long story. I thought about attending virtually but decided not to. I have been reading a lot of the papers though.

    Interacting with other attendees was always the highlight of any conference and SIGCSE was great for that. I still attend the CSTA conference (much more relevant for me as I moved into HS CS) and attended virtually last summer. It was ok. I enjoyed many sessions especially as attending didn’t require me to find a room by wandering around. Some conference venues can be hard to navigate. I will be attending CSTA virtually this summer (I better as I am on the conference committee). I don’t know about future conferences. I retired so the content doesn’t have the same value it used to have. Being together with friends still has a lot of value and that may be enough to get me to some conferences if they are in person. We’ll see.

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    • I definitely miss the “being together with friends” aspect! Waving frantically when you both appear in the same BOF just isn’t the same. 🙂 I do really appreciate that I can take a break from the conference for a day (like I did yesterday, because I was just so burned out) and go back and view the content and Q&A later. (and see the chat!)

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  2. I haven’t been to a virtual conference myself, but a colleague of mine has and said their conference used the gather.town tool and that he had real serendipidy there. He met someone “on the way to another session” because that tool is like a videogame where you move around with an avatar. And you can videochat once you come near other people. We then used that platform for our 2020 virtual Christmas party and it felt really more like being at an office party than just a big zoom session would have felt. I can recommend it – try it out.

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