Online conferences and online learning

online conference

The University of California at Santa Barbara recently held an innovative conference.  Recognising the fossil fuel-intensive nature of conferences, UCSB decided to hold a conference, titled ‘Climate Change: Views from the Humanities’, entirely online.  The logic behind the decision was obvious – why would a conference seeking to highlight issues associated with climate change want to contribute to the problem of climate change?

A world-wide call for conference abstracts was made, and from there a small number of scholars were chosen to present their papers.  People were asked to make a video recording of their presentation, lasting approximately 15 minutes.  These videos were then uploaded to the conference website, with people watching ‘at home’ given the opportunity to provide comments and ask questions in-text below the presentations.

The format for the conference made sense to me, and I was really looking forward to an opportunity to engage with the speakers. I logged into the website and watched some of the presentations, scrolled to the bottom to provide feedback – and drew a blank.  There were no other comments posted, and I couldn’t think of anything articulate enough to put it into words in a public and highly visible forum.  And so the space below the presentations remained blank…

This had me thinking about my own experiences with uploading video content onto the Learning Management System for my students. I asked questions and no one chose to respond.  I uploaded videos and only a few people watched them all the way through.  Why could I have students actively engaged with my lectures in-person, asking questions, taking notes and looking interested, but in an online environment there was no commitment?

The truth is, online environments just aren’t as engaging as in-person environments.  There isn’t the opportunity to look back at the audience and determine whether they are listening, understanding or enjoying the presentation.  There isn’t the opportunity for informal feedback that isn’t permanently recorded or scrutinised by unseen eyes. Voices on recordings often sound monotonous, images are limited and the setting is static.  Equally problematic is that on the other end of the computer it’s easy to get distracted by your email, Facebook, lunch or even what’s happening on the other side of the window.  Without someone to observe you not paying attention you are much less likely to pay attention.

So, while the world seems to be whooshing towards an entirely online delivery for all kinds of services, including education and scholarship, we have to think about what might be lost, and how these new formats challenge the ways we think about engaging.  Perhaps presentations need to be shorter.  Perhaps there needs to be better control of trolls so people feel more comfortable commenting.  And perhaps we have to accept that in a world of competing information sources, we just have to try to make ourselves that little bit more interesting.

 

(Clipart from: http://www.learningtimes.com/what-we-do/online-conferences/)

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