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In conference

kljhConferences are opportunities for sharing, questioning, networking, and absorbing the latest insights. But can we do better?  Arjan Reesink* investigates.

The glamour of a scientific conference disappears quickly upon the realisation that people have to travel far to sit in a room and listen passively. I too have flown to Argentina and the USA to sit in a room and listen. Even at the best conferences, great talks are interbedded with a greywacke1 jumble of talks that are simplified too far for scrutiny, or pitched too high for comprehension.

Educational research consistently confirms that ‘doing’ is better than ‘listening’ and, more to the point, that lecturing is rather ineffective. It is why universities are pushing for ‘flipped learning’ with lectures online and contact time that is practical. Conferences are controversial – are they good use of our time and money?

Why do we do it?

Producing new knowledge is the core business of academia. Conferences help us to advertise our latest work, test the pitch and framing of the story within a broader societal context. Conferences are opportunities to get inspired, and to be surprised and intimidated! And the best is saved for last: a beverage among colleagues is what many consider the most productive part. Only after the talks are done can we seek out the people that we want to network with. Conferences are where Big Cheeses can be approached and questioned. It is the time to meet new people, and to solicit new ideas and solutions.  But, is that it? Must we sit and listen passively until we fossilize?

Online conferencing

I recently hosted an online conference on ‘pre-vegetation river systems’2. With some sponsoring for the software (thanks to the British Sedimentological Research Group!), it was possible to bring together select speakers to present complementary views on this single topic – perspectives that would otherwise be extremely hard to assemble. The online conference reached a more global audience than usual, reached more graduate students, included hard-to-get speakers because they only needed to free up a small amount of time, and all is recorded for posterity. As with any conference, many people were unable to free up the exact time. It matters not, it’s all available online. 

Present software - better future

Many conference drawbacks can be avoided by holding talks online: no travel costs, no paying for passive listening. Of course, we will also lose some of the most valuable aspects. Online conferences will never be able to replace real conferences. But then, they don’t have to.

If we decide as a community to hold some talks online, we can spend our time and money to escape the office and really learn: looking at rocks in the laboratory, in the invaluable BGS core-store, and in the field! Repeated Soapbox articles emphasise that fieldwork is both loved and fundamentally necessary. Doing is better than listening, and we can do this. Let’s explore this future, let’s hold some talks online before we go into the world to question, verify, and scrutinize – before we go do some real Geology!

*Dr Arnold Jan H Reesink FGS is Research Fellow in Earth Surface Dynamics, University of Southampton, UK & Research Fellow in Geological Storage of CO2, University of Illinois, USA

  1. Not derogatory - Greywacke is obviously a fascinating rock type.


Summary – pros and cons

Online conference Pros

Online conference Cons

No travel costs, no travel time, time-efficient

No unexpected insights, meetings, discussions

Recording integrated – World-wide audience

How do you get people to attend?

No need to listen to unnecessary talks

Does not stimulate networking

Audience is ‘muted’ - and can eat popcorn

Unable to see responsiveness of audience

Easy participation for hard-to-get speakers

Are we handing off intellectual property for free?

Conferences with narrow topics possible

Software costs money

Possible to distribute hand-outs and polls