How virtual conferences can play a key role in the democratization of knowledge

Published in:  cApStAn updates, Conferences
by Pisana Ferrari – cApStAn Ambassador to the Global Village

We are living in exceptional and challenging times: the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world dramatically, forcing a large number of industries to resume operations online. The conference ecosystem, in particular, has been severely disrupted by the pandemic. However, at least some of those have gone virtual. Many remain convinced that nothing beats attending a conference in person, and that face-to-face networking is the only truly authentic experience. Others say that it is not the same experience, but in some ways it may even be better. We would venture to say that virtual conferences, by opening up access to a much broader audience on an unprecedented scale could play an important role in “democratizing” knowledge. Our recent very positive and exciting experience at ATP 2020 (September 14-18), served, inter alia, to gain a better understanding of what the future of conferences might look like.

cApStAn team reporting from the ATP virtual conference

The members of the cApStAn team who attended the Association of Test Publishers’ (ATP) virtual conference were not only eager to learn about the latest trends in the testing industry but also about the networking opportunities offered in a global, virtual conference. The ATP came out with flying colors: every detail has been planned to provide all the benefits of an in-person conference (and more) while comfortably sitting in one’s home or office. From the live debates on highly relevant topics, with Q&A sessions after each presentation, to virtual networking opportunities and visiting exhibition booths, everything had been meticulously scheduled to allow audiences from across the world to participate in the conference at a convenient time (yes, the format allowed attendees to join the sessions live or watch the recordings at their convenience). A big plus with respect to in-person conferences. 

The cApStAn team is mostly working from home-offices in the US, Europe and India. Steve and Devasmita work out of Brussels, Musab is in Philadelphia and Pawan in New Delhi. So, being able to join the ATP conference and connect with industry experts from across the world right from their homes was a thrilling prospect. They very much enjoyed the sessions on culture, diversity, inclusion, multilingual testing, in addition to the ones on trending topics such as Automatic Item Generation (AIG) and Remote Proctoring. ATP 2020 was also the first time cApStAn was presenting in the new virtual format. There were two cApStAn sessions on the program and, while the talks themselves were pre-recorded, the Q&A sessions at the end were live and provided interesting feedback and insights. Our CEO, Steve Dept, partnered with Kristin Bernor, from Questionmark, for a breakout session on best practices for translating and adapting computerized tests and exams in the 21st century. In his solo snapshot session, Steve explained how a test “travel agent” can help in selecting the most suitable (and cost-efficient) localization and quality assurance approach for the different parts of assessment materials. You probably wonder about those conversations one would have between sessions? ATP had planned it all, virtual coffee breaks included. Promising conversations were initiated and it was great to reconnect with many old friends and colleagues. The exchanges were “informal, constructive, insightful and humorous”, says our CEO Steve Dept. During the coffee breaks Devasmita, our Business Development Manager, says she “met” and “talked” with a lot of new people at ATP, proving that there are no real barriers to personal exchanges, if there is a will!

What of the future of virtual conferences?

It seems that COVID-19 will be there for an undetermined period of time, at least pending availability of a vaccine. It is difficult to tell what the future holds for the conference industry, a huge business, with hundreds of thousands of jobs at stake. It is not surprising that, despite the potential safety issues, some conferences are slowly making their comeback on people’s calendars. It is possible that they will adopt hybrid forms, e.g. with both virtual and (limited for the time) in-person options. Hybrid would be fine too, we say, as virtual—in whatever form—has advantages over strictly in-person conferences.

First of all, virtual or hybrid conferences would open up participation to an unprecedented number of attendees. A potentially unlimited number of people, from all over the world, could benefit from the teachings of top international experts sharing their knowledge and expertise. The recent virtual conference of the European Society for Mathematical and Theoretical Biology had about 1,800 attendees, representing more than 90 countries: 2-3 times as many as at previous in-person meetings. And attendance to the virtual conference on Lasers and Electro-Optics (CLEO) and to the American Association for Cancer Research’s annual meeting, both of which offered free access, grew approximately fivefold to about 20,000 and 100,000 attendees, respectively, compared to previous editions. Two telling examples.

Time and cost factors come into play. Many of us have experienced the situation where you feel you should be there but there was just no way for you to travel to that faraway venue… Not everyone can take the time off to travel, and travel costs weigh in very heavily on making decisions about attendance. Huge savings can be made if there is only a registration fee to pay. Also, not all companies have enough staff to cover for those who are away attending, and, last, but not least, virtual opens up access to people with caregiving responsibilities, the elderly, people with health issues or disabilities, who have visa or other travel restrictions, or scheduling conflicts, and might not otherwise be able to attend.

For all of these reasons we believe that, e-conferences can play an important “democratizing” role and foster more inclusiveness and equity. When you democratize knowledge, you’re putting everyone on a level playing field: in the case of the language industry small and medium-sized LSPs, individual translators, linguists, researchers and other specialists. The one limiting factor—at present—is language. At ATP, for example, all the sessions were in English. But here again, with time, technology will (hopefully) become advanced enough to allow for multilingual translation.

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