We moved to New Zealand from UK in 2001 and have therefore become adept at managing time zones for keeping up with relatives and friends. The pandemic has improved the options and honed our skills with virtual interactions.
For the 2020 AMEE conference, I signed up, but kept the day-job going; it wasn’t pretty. I was tired and grumpy and didn’t really do justice to the conference or my work.
So, with uncertainties about travel requirements, costs to consider, and wringing my hands about the global impact of travel, I decided to experiment with my approach to virtual conferences for AMEE 2022.
Given that all the plenaries, most symposia, and some parallels were live-streamed, it looked like there was a full day of online activity each day. I reasoned that attending live, but virtually, should create a sense of connection.
I also wanted to feel like I was on study leave and able to give my attention to the conference - to feel like I was ‘away’. On the suggestion of my manager (thanks) I booked an apartment in a central hotel in the city where I live. I had a separate bedroom with blackout curtains, kitchenette, sofa and a desk space. I brought in a monitor and desk chair from home, having cleared that with the hotel. The price was keen as a side-effect of the pandemic. I also explored AirBnB options.
I started with a pre-conf online workshop on Friday afternoon in normal NZ hours at home, and then moved into my room on Saturday afternoon. The conference started at 1800 NZ time and ran to about 0400 each day. I would then sleep 0430-1130. The time until the next conference start was a blend of what would normally have been my morning and evening. I made use of the gym and pool every day; good for my wellbeing as it was on site and easy to access. So that was a bonus. In the mid-afternoon I would then often have a walk out and then make some food. I would also check in on work email for anything urgent, call my wife etc. At 1800 I would settle in for the conference and then eat at break times.
Did it work? Yes! I had one day when I gave up at 0200 and one day when I didn’t stay until the later 0600 finish. Otherwise, I attended everything on offer.
To make it more fun, I bought some French food and wine - not as good as being there, but it added to the experience.
I felt part of things. In some senses it was better because the live stream gave a close view of the stage and speakers. A nice little community emerged online, with us greeting each other at the start of each ‘day’. We had some good online discussion. I think this also helped stimulate online questions. I wasn’t brave enough to ask a live question (I was on wifi and not wired), but I did ask online questions.
Technically, it worked well for me. I experienced occasional video buffering, but I am not sure if it was the broadcast end or me. I often prioritise the symposia when I attend, so it was not much different for me. I did attend some zoom parallels too. There probably needs to be some more thought to interactions/networking, but in-person colleagues were doing that in-person and the onliners needed a leg stretch!
Will I try this again? Definitely. Is it as good as being there in person-in? probably not, but it gives you the core experience and some interaction. I would recommend my approach for those who want the experience but can’t or don’t want to travel. We all need to reduce our footprint and I will be being more circumspect about air travel now. I will travel long haul again, but probably only if I have several reasons to travel and can stay away for a while.
If you are thinking about the pros and cons of conference travel, give stay-at-home time zone switching a try.
A/Prof Andy Wearn
University of Auckland, NZ