Online conferences: an unbiased perspective

Author: Jacopo Colombo (Ph.D. student @ University of Bergamo)

Hello to all Young Scholar readers! This is Jacopo Colombo, a first-year PhD student at the University of Bergamo. Today I am going to tell you about my experience with online conferences. Before I get into it, I would like to take a few minutes to introduce myself and my research activities.

My PhD started a few months ago (September 2020), and my research topic belongs to the Industry 4.0 stream of studies. In particular, my research studies the impacts of digitization on companies by evaluating both technological and organizational aspects. The goal is to examine the relationship between technologies and organizations to understand how companies can successfully underpin a digital transformation path, identifying the main opportunities and difficulties and the organizational actions required to support the evolution.

Although I am in the first year of my PhD program, my research has been in progress for a year. Thus, I was also able to attend two conferences, namely EurOMA and DSI 2020 annual conferences. In the latter, I also had the opportunity to present the paper I was working on.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced conferences to be held in online format only. As these were my first experiences with conferences, I have never had the opportunity to attend live events, so I will not be biased by previous experiences in my judgement. So, I will tell you about my impression of this new way of attending conferences.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

The first aspect I want to mention is the accessibility of the content. The online format made it easier to follow the different events. Through the online platforms, it was possible to create your own plan of events to follow. With a simple click you could enter directly into the event you were interested in. The opportunity to follow the presentations from your own PC is undoubtedly advantageous for taking notes and drawing up questions, which could be immediately typed into the chat without interrupting the speaker. Also, the ability to have access to the presentation recording allowed me to review the content later, ensuring that I did not miss any information. Personally, I think this is the most significant advantage of the online conference: you can enjoy the presentation without the anxiety of missing some interesting contributions. This allows you to enjoy the recording of events that you were unable to attend during the live session.

The second aspect I want to talk about is networking. I believe that the chance to connect with other researchers, both in your field and beyond, is essential for having access to the conference content. I consider it necessary to find interesting opportunities for collaboration and share ideas and personal experiences to enrich us as researchers and individuals. In this regard, even through the online conferences, it was possible to contact other participants, although in a different mode. In fact, the conferences I attended included networking moments with dedicated virtual rooms, where you could meet other participants while enjoying a coffee or a drink directly from home. This solution can be advantageous as it brings the different participants together at the same time and can remove any potential discomfort that would be experienced in approaching a person you have never met.

So far, I have discussed mainly positive aspects, but unfortunately (or fortunately) there is one thing that digitization will not replicate: the experience. If the conferences were effective and efficient from a practical point of view, from a personal and emotional point of view, a lot was lost. I can’t why I felt so since, as I mentioned, I don’t have previous experiences with a physical conference. However, I genuinely believe that the experience and excitement of physically attending the conference would have been far more profound and more intense. As I previously said, I also had the opportunity to present one of my papers in front of a virtual audience of about 15 people. This was very useful for me since I gathered feedback and advice to improve my research. However, speaking to a small, virtual audience is certainly less satisfying than presenting in front of people who are physically there with you. Hence, I do believe that beyond its usefulness, presenting your own work represents a sort of “liturgical moment”, a long-awaited event that gives credit to months of intense studies and works. This could be comparable to your graduation day, where you discuss your thesis in front of the faculty. In this case, I belong to the students who could discuss their work in person, but I imagine it would have been different having to do it from home, in a virtual room.

In conclusion, it can be stated that the conferences are absolutely worth attending even if they are in an online format. However, the wish is to return as soon as possible to physically attending conferences, perhaps through a hybrid modality that allows to enjoy the experience and benefit from the greater accessibility of content that the online conference provides. For instance, in parallel to the possibility of following the different events in person, the presentations could be recorded and made available to participants to be viewed at any time. This sounds like going to the cinema to enjoy the movie with friends and then being able to watch the best scenes again on Netflix directly from your living room!

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