Year 2020 is soon ending, and it has been a quite special year due to the coronavirus pandemic around the world. This has forced many researchers to work from home, and to cancel or change their research travel plans. Moreover, may academic conferences in 2020 have been held online as virtual conferences as a safety measure and due to travel restrictions in several countries. In this blog post, I will talk about this new trend of holding virtual conferences and the advantages and benefits compared to “real” conferences (held in a physical location).
Since the begining of the year, I have attended several virtual conferences such as PAKDD 2020, ICDM 2020, IEA AIE 2020, and the AIOPS 2020 and UDML 2020 workshops, as well as the DAWAK 2020 conferences. Generally, these events have been well-organized. While some conferences took great care of scheduling talks of researchers based on their time zones, some other events had some small time management problems. For example, a session chair thought that a session was starting earlier due to a wrong time conversion, and the wrong time zone was indicated in the program of another conference, which led to some confusion. But on overall, it worked as planned.
Benefits of virtual conferences
Listening to a conference online has some benefits. One of them is that it is not necessary to travel very far to give a talk. Rather than flying to a location, one can just connect to a server, which is not time-consuming. Online conferences also provides flexibility as one can listen to talks while doing some other things at home, or from various locations. Moreover, a few conferences have provided a playback option to watch the videos of previous presentations in case we missed them. Another benefit of online conferences is that the registration fees have been often reduced, and that in some cases, attending the conferences became free. This may have helped some students or researchers to attend some conferences that they would otherwise have not attended.
Drawbacks of virtual conferences
There are also some drawbacks to online conferences. The first one is that the schedule is not suitable for everyone. For example, one may have to present a paper in the middle of the night due to the time difference. This was generally not a problem in my case, but I know some other researchers that had problems with this.
A second drawback is that the ability to socialize with other researchers is greatly reduced in online conferences. In a real conference, we can shake hands and talk with many people that we know or don’t know, especially during the coffee breaks and other social activities. This is important to establish contact with other researchers. However, in virtual conferences, there is not much opportunities for that… Some conferences like ICDM have adopted some online systems such as Gather.Town where we could walk using an avatar in a virtual room to talk with other people using a webcam and microphone but I found that the room was essentially empty every time I checked or with only a few inactive people. Thus, although that concept was nice, in practice, I was not able to talk with anyone using it.
Another issue with virtual conferences is that it is easy to not feel motivated to listen to the talks since they are all online and the schedule is often conflicting with real-life activities. Some talks may be in the middle of the night, or during work hours or lunch. Thus, I personally did not listen to many talks, while at a real conferences, I would attend most of the sessions.
Another thing that I don’t like so much about virtual conferences is that we often do not see the audience when we give a talk (unless they open their webcams). In this case, we are in front of the computer talking with our microphone but we have little feedback during the presentation. And in many cases, the talks are required to be pre-recorded, which do not make them interactive at all.
Attending real conferences again
Recently, I attended some real conferences again. This is because the pandemic is under control in the country where I live (China). The second week of December 2020 was the first time that I attended a real conference this year. And it was really enjoyable feeling to be able to meet again researchers and talk with them face to face. I met some very nice people and those were some great events. In general, the life where I am has gone back to normal already since several months, which I am very happy about. However, I am looking forward to the day where I can also attend international conferences abroad as I used to do many times per year, in the past. I think next year, real conferences will start to happen again… or perhaps some hybrid conferences that will be partly online and partly offline (e.g. IEA AIE 2020).
In this blog post, I talked about the experience of attending real and virtual conferences, and especially the benefits and drawbacks of virtual conferences. I hope that it has been interesting. If you want to share your thoughts and experience about that, please leave a comment below! I will be happy to read you.