A few weeks ago we (that is, Edinburgh Buddhist Studies, or EBS for short) hosted the annual conference of the UK Association for Buddhist Studies. Of course, when we first offered to host, we hoped to be able to invite colleagues to visit the beautiful city of Edinburgh, offer them all an EBS canvas bag, show them the collections at the National Museum of Scotland, etc etc. In the end, we hosted online, but we were keen to avoid simply putting an in-person conference onto video call. Rather, we tried to experiment with a different format and platform, to keep a bit more community, and reduce the screen fatigue.
Structurally, our main innovation was in having only short-format papers, arranged into thematic panels, alongside roundtable discussions. This kept the contributions short and fresh, resulting in less video-call fatigue. In addition, we asked our PhD student contributors to produce posters or short videos, which were made available for viewing in advance of the conference, rather than during the event itself.
The main conference programme was on Zoom, and this was rather like the standard set-up, though we specifically opted for a “meeting” rather than a “webinar” in order to foster as much interaction as possible. More experimental was our virtual conference centre on Gather.Town, an interactive space-based platform, where video-call interactions are based on proximity to others’ avatars, mimicking real-life encounters – see my intro video on YouTube here.
Feedback on Gather was generally very positive, thought we did have some glitches including bad echoes between Gather and Zoom. Most people who used it, myself included, found it added a wonderfully fresh social dimension – the moment of being able to walk up to a presenter in a virtual Zen garden and congratulate them on their paper felt almost like a normal conference exchange. Gregory Scott made me chuckle with his tweet about the virtual bar too! Even more fun was the interactive poster session, where participants could walk around a poster hall and chat with the PhD students about their work. I had a wonderful moment watching all these little avatars of people I knew wandering around the screen, with little speech bubbles appearing here and there…. It was very much like hosting a “real” conference and feeling that satisfaction of having successfully brought people together.
The only trouble was that our packed schedule didn’t allow enough time to use the Gather space much! Indeed, the schedule overall was probably too heavy – although attention was kept through the short papers and roundtables, it was still too long to sit at the screen, and led me to my first ever chiropractor appointment!
As I have said before, I do think we have to embrace the online conference formats available, as even when/if covid eases, the climate crisis means we have to find alternatives to jetting all over the world whenever we want a good scholarly conversation. In addition to being low carbon, the conference was cheap to run, and we were able to direct the funding we did have towards PG prizes and our network assistant, who worked very hard behind the scenes to make sure everything went smoothly. So, there were lots of wins, and it is definitely a conference format we’ll be using again, albeit most likely with some tweaks.