Considering the virtues of the virtual academic conference

22 November 2023
New research by SEI and partners considers the many potentials of virtual conferences beyond carbon and financial cost reduction, including the opportunities online events present for creating more inclusive spaces for collaboration.

SEI Deputy Director, Associate Professor Thom van Dooren, is part of a group of researchers who have recently published on the benefits of the virtual academic conference. The group, led by Dr Michelle Bastian (University of Edinburgh and University of Oslo), have co-authored two articles which examine the opportunities presented by moving the carbon intensive academic practice online, while also challenging the notion that online events are not conducive to conviviality.

In March 2021, the Sydney Environment Institute co-hosted the second international Material Life of Time conference, with partners at the University of Edinburgh, University of Oslo, University of London and the University of Exeter. The two-day global conference, which included over 400 participants, was held entirely online. Reflecting on the successes of this event, the group offer several recommendations for best practice in the virtual forum.

Acknowledging that online conferences can radically reduce the financial and carbon costs of bringing together academic communities, in an article published in The Geographical Journal, the team explore how this recouped surplus might be reallocated to conference participants who would otherwise be unable to participate. In addition to reducing emissions and conference fees, the shift to a virtual event has the potential to open opportunities for “administrative activism”, creating more inclusive conference environments.

In a second article published in Geo: Geography and Environment, the group argue that the successes of the Material Life of Time conference also challenge the idea that online events lack opportunities for the informal exchanges required to build genuine connections with other attendees or the “coffee break problem”. In designing the event to focus specifically on opportunities for conviviality, the conference organisers were able to create the feeling of a face-to-face event, including the integration of a variety of flexible social spaces that allowed participants to take part in everything from chatting over coffee and playing games to listening to live music. By paying attention to “temporal infrastructures” including providing freedom of movement, and creating a sense of place, the event demonstrated that strong connections could still be made within a virtual environment.

Both articles are open access and available to view here and here.

The Material Life of Time conference brought together scholars, researchers and practitioners interested in the socialities and materialities of time in order to explore how each is shaped by the other. The conference was a collaboration between the Temporal Belongings the Lifetimes and the Waiting Times projects and the Sydney Environment Institute.

Header image: Chris Montgomery via Unsplash.

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