Friday, June 25, 2021

Plea for Courses and Conferences to Remain Online Post-Pandemic

This is a request to those planning higher education and professional courses, as well as academic and professional conferences, to retain an online option after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. Universities, and most conference organizers, were able to quickly switch to online delivery last year. Many universities are now planning to offer hybrid mode. Many conferences are planning the same. However, some conferences are dropping the online option this year and universities might do the same with courses, when restrictions on travel are lifted. I suggest in the short term this is a risk to the financial viability of these organisations and the safety of the public. It also will prevent many people from taking part. Given that the online option has been shown to be feasible and useful, it can't simply be taken away. 

The difficult task for those offering education and conferences is what to do as, hopefully, COVID-19 is brought under control. If students and delegates can again get to face to face events, can we simply such down the online option? This is a difficult business, ethical and legal question. 

During for the next year or more, as vaccines are made available, there will be more opportunity to travel. However, particularly internationally, there may be limitations. An approach being adopted by most universities is hybrid, or dual, delivery, with some students in the classroom and some online at the same time. Hybrid mode is more difficult that either classroom or online modes. It will require more equipment, skills and staff. It may also lessen the quality of the experience for the students, than either single mode. It will cost more for institutions in the short term. The temptation is to drop hybrid mode as soon as possible and require students to return to campus.

Similarly, online conferences have worked well for the last year.  The lack of informal contact and visiting exotic locations has been compensated for by lower conference costs and easier access. Some organizers are now planning hybrid events. However, some, such as ASCILITE, are uncertain how to price the online option. Others such as HERDSA and ACEN are not planning to offer an online option.

Pre-COVID, most universities and conferences argued that an online option was not feasible. Last year proved that was not true and the online option has been found use not just for those kept away by COVID-19 restrictions. Not every student or delegate could get to a venue in the past, nor will be able to in the future. They may have a physical disability, job, family or community obligations which prevent attending face to face. It may just be that they cannot afford to get to the venue, or simply not want to. Given that online access has been shown to be possible, why take it away?

It should be noted the pure online events and blended ones are not new. I have helped run, speak at and attend such events over the last decade. An example is "Public Sphere #1 - High Bandwidth for Australia", which I assisted Senator Kate Lundy with in 2009. This used video streaming from ANU with Twitter for the back-channel.  

Some events have had a main and satellite venues, and some "follow the sun" formats. With the satellite model, one central authority runs the event and the other locations provide a place for viewing and for speakers to present from. A longstanding event using satellite locations is GovHack. This has had satellites ranging from large university halls, through company meeting rooms, to a handful of people in a cafe, around a laptop. In 2012 I surprised delegates of GovHack by appearing at the opening at the main venue in Canberra, and then at the closing at the satellite in Sydney. 

With "follow the sun" venues in time zones spread around the globe take turns running the event, during their business hours. The 2010 Hacking for humanity, was run from UNSW Sydney, as well as Nairobi, Jakarta, and Washington. The 2012 International Education Conference On-Line Festival has three venues roughly equally distributed around the world: University of Southern Queensland, University of Leicester (UK) and Athabasca University (Canada). 

There are difficult business issues with offering a blended event. The online option is seen as lower quality and so the customer expects a lower price. Universities are in a stronger position with this, as the student gets the same qualification after on-campus or online study. The costs of providing courses are mostly in teaching and administrative staff, which are much the same online. There will be some transitional cost, where universities have stocks of old, mostly unused lecture halls. 

The issue for conferences is more difficult than universities. The product is much less tangible. At an academic conference the delegate, who is a speaker, gets the same opportunity to present and have a paper published. But the opportunity for informal discussions is less online. If the conference offers an online option, even if it is not for a discounted fee, the delegate's employer may require them to take it to save travel and accommodation costs. That could result in face to face conferences disappearing.

However, it needs to be kept in mind that most academics in the world cannot attend national or international conferences, simply because they can't afford to. The advent of online conferences has allowed many more to attend. Removing the online option excludes most potential delegates from attending.

For the next year, no one will know with certainty when it will be safe to attend a class, or a conference, in person, or when a lock-down may occur. Simply announcing face to face events and hoping for the best is not an acceptable option. In particular, universities and professional societies have an obligation to act in the public interest. For-profit companies also are under legal obligations not to discriminate against particular groups when providing services such as education.

No comments:

Post a Comment