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Volume 53 Number 3 Summer 2020
Edited by Manuel Riemer, Wilfrid Laurier University
Written by Kai Reimer-Watts, Wilfrid Laurier University; Manuel Riemer, Wilfrid Laurier University; Carlie D. Trott, University of Cincinnati
There are times when reality gets ahead of even the most well-planned intentions. This is a story much like that. Back in Fall 2019 (a world ago now) a small group of SCRA members began work on what we were then calling a ‘Virtual Conference Attendance Toolkit’, one of several action projects led by SCRA’s Environment and Justice Interest Group (EJIG). Our early reasons for initiating this project were fairly straightforward: academic conferences often include a significant ecological footprint, which is made up in part by the significant emissions impact of people traveling to get to them. A virtual attendance option could help to reduce these emissions, while offering the added benefit of making the conference more accessible to those otherwise unable to attend in person. Despite these benefits, many virtual options for conferences continue to be experienced (and perceived) as second-rate compared to physically being there, making them unappealing to many. We wanted to explore if there were ways to offer virtual attendance that could augment and perhaps even expand on the on-site, physical experience – nurturing more equitable processes, experiences and access – rather than being treated as a sub-par substitute. These questions were being explored, slowly and methodically, by a few members of our broader Interest Group, with the intention of proposing a hybrid conference with a strong virtual option for the 2021 SCRA Biennial - when all of a sudden, COVID-19 happened.
The COVID-19 global pandemic and resulting restrictions on in-person social contact (aka ‘physical distancing’) has accelerated a wide range of significant changes, many of which have happened in a remarkably short period of time. This includes a general move towards widespread online / virtual work and social connection to maintain physical distancing - not just in one country, but across many around the world. Such moves have been necessary to slow the spread of the pandemic and ‘flatten the curve’ yet have also raised profound questions about the future of large-scale in-person gatherings in the near future - such as conferences. While there was already a growing trend towards experimentation with virtual conferencing options before COVID-19, the current moment has accelerated interest immeasurably. Once the pandemic hit, our research group realized that we were working on something with much more immediate value than we had realized. Discussions that we thought would take place much later on a hybrid SCRA Biennial began happening in earnest with the SCRA Biennial planning team. To add to this, just as we had agreed with the Vanderbilt team about trying out a true hybrid conference, we learned that the original plans for hosting the 2021 SCRA Biennial in Tennessee had changed, and the Biennial was suddenly without a clear physical home to take place in, at least temporarily. Everything was changing.
In this difficult, disorienting context we wanted to take a step back and reflect more deeply on why we had begun exploring a virtual conference attendance option in the first place, including both its challenges and many potential benefits. What is the real attraction (or not) to virtual conferencing? What are some best practices we can consider? Who else is taking this approach that we can learn from? Why this? Why now? These are some of the questions we have been considering.
Why consider a virtual conference attendance option for the 2021 SCRA Biennial, and not just stick with an in-person conference? This guiding question has a wide range of plausible answers, extending far beyond the current context of COVID-19. To start, we want to emphasize that we as authors of this article have all experienced the SCRA Biennial in person and wish to recognize and celebrate the significant value that in-person attendance to a Biennial can hold. As such, we are not advocating for the SCRA Biennial to go fully online and lose this valuable in-person experience for those interested and able to participate in it, but rather for it to become a ‘hybrid’ conference that includes both a physical and virtual (online) option for attendance. Among the goals of our Interest Group work is to ensure that the virtual option be designed as an equally attractive alternative for those for whom attending in-person may not be a viable option. To achieve this, it must include some of the features that make an in-person conference so special - such as its social interactions - along with additional new features. Here are some benefits, as we see them, to investing in a virtual conference attendance option (and the list keeps growing):
1) Reduced emissions: Providing a virtual option can help reduce emissions associated with flights and other forms of travel that would otherwise add significantly to a conference’s overall ecological footprint. For instance, for conferences that attract international attendance such as SCRA, flight emissions can add up to a significant part of this footprint. Scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara, estimate that air travel for academic conferences, meetings and talks accounts for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint, “equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines” (Hiltner, 2020). In the context of global climate change and localized air pollution concerns, reducing such emissions is not unimportant: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suggested we have until just 2030 to achieve a global 45% reduction in emissions below 2010 levels to avoid truly catastrophic climatic changes, and stay below a 1.5°C global average temperature rise (IPCC, 2018). All sectors of society must help by each doing our part.
2) Social justice: There are also significant social justice benefits to considering a virtual, hybrid option to conference attendance. To start, by reducing emissions and doing our part to fight climate change, we are participating in climate justice by slowing the rate of change - helping to ensure that the most vulnerable communities on the frontlines, young people, and generations not yet born are not forced to bear the worst extremes of a rapidly changing climate. Yet beyond this, an attractive virtual option can also expand the scope for who is able to attend a conference, and hence increase the diversity of participation. Meeting in-person at a conference is a privilege, and one that’s not evenly distributed. Providing a virtual option is another way for the SCRA Biennial to demonstrate its commitment to addressing valid concerns over access to this space, from a lens of increasing representation, diversity, and equity.
3) Virtual spaces can augment the physical, in-person experience: A virtual option can expand the scope of ways to participate in and interact at a conference, while increasing the ability for many more people to be able to access programming and participate. This is similar to the thinking that led to the volunteer community Virtually Connecting (VC), founded in 2015 - a group of scholars passionate about creating accessible, equitable virtual spaces at conferences (see www.virtuallyconnecting.org). Early in our research, we connected with VC to provide their insights into how we can best host equitable virtual spaces at the SCRA Biennial. This conversation is ongoing, and VC’s insights have been invaluable to better understanding key planning and facilitation processes for creating truly equitable and welcoming virtual spaces, with ‘virtual buddies’ on-site. As VC has emphasized, the technology - while important - is far less important than these intentionally equitable processes. They have also demonstrated how it is possible to recreate and expand on many of the social aspects of attending a conference (e.g. hallway and dinner conversations) in virtual spaces, as one of the key reasons for attendance.
4) We have the tools we need and can afford it: The increased availability and reduced cost of necessary technologies to host a virtual option makes this a much more accessible option than it used to be. While there are some costs associated with integrating a strong virtual attendance option to the SCRA Biennial, these can generally be offset by the cost of registration for virtual attendees, which would still be less than on-site registration. This then also offers a more affordable tier of access to the conference, for those who might otherwise not be able to attend. As we price out the likely costs, the SCRA Biennial planning team is currently considering a range of options for pricing virtual attendance. Stay tuned for more information.
In these uncertain times, it’s clearly anyone’s guess what the world will look like in about one year’s time, the timing of the next SCRA Biennial. If anything is certain, it is that we will not be returning to a pre-COVID sense of ‘normal’ – one that we know was not serving the best needs of our communities to begin with. Planning a virtual option for the next Biennial is a wise move to help mitigate this uncertainty and provide greater access and equity, while reducing the conference’s overall ecological footprint. Outcomes of a Biennial Attendance Survey recently shared with SCRA members (304 responded) clearly indicate that members are open to attending virtually (82.6%) however in the absence of funding and travel restrictions there remains a strong preference for in-person attendance (68.4%). This makes the work of this Interest Group all the more essential, to ensure that any virtual options developed are appealing to SCRA members. In-person attendance will continue to have an important place, and our message is, it’s time to take the leap into virtual also! We invite you to provide us with questions or suggestions and will do our best to incorporate those in the further development of this virtual option. You can contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org (Kai); email@example.com (Manuel); firstname.lastname@example.org (Carlie).
Kai, Manuel, and Carlie
Hiltner, K. (2020). A Nearly Carbon-Neutral Conference Model. Retrieved from:
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018). Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC
(Report). Incheon, Republic of Korea: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC). 8 October 2018.