How to make your virtual conference better than a live one
A conference wrapped up recently at UC Santa Barbara, but this was not a typical academic conference. There was no mess to clean up at the end: no coffee-stained tablecloths and muffin crumbs.
The attendees were from campuses all across California, but no one had to rush to catch a flight home. The cost of the conference: essentially free. The carbon footprint of the conference: nearly zero.
John Foran, professor of Sociology and Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara, was part of the team that put on the recent UC-CSU Knowledge Action Network Conference as part of UC’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative. “Knowing what we know now, it’s just not responsible to fly to conferences all over the world,” said Foran.
In 2015, Ken Hiltner, an English professor at UC Santa Barbara, wanted to host a conference on the environmental humanities and immediately bumped up against the emissions issue.
“It seemed hypocritical to do it as a traditional conference,” said Hiltner.
Hiltner had taken part in several virtual conferences before, and he knew from experience that existing models were pretty lousy. So he reimagined how a virtual conference could work, with the idea of even going beyond the limitations of a traditional conference.
The model Hiltner developed is remarkably simple. Instead of live video broadcasts, talks are recorded in advance, using video cameras, computer cameras, or even mobile phones. When the conference begins, videos are posted all at once like a Netflix series, and the conference is left open for several weeks to allow participants to watch and engage in discussion on the website.
“Using pre-recorded talks solves a lot of problems,” said Hiltner. “And the more I thought about it, I realized it opens up new possibilities.”
Attendees can watch the talks any time they want, even multiple times. No one will be forced to miss talks in concurrent sessions. Questions and answers can be more thoughtful, and can link to references or visuals.
Besides enabling what Hiltner calls “a nearly carbon-neutral conference,” this approach solves a systemic problem with traditional conferences that had bothered Hiltner for many years: lack of access. By removing the cost of travel, conferences are opened up to expert speakers from all parts of the world.