Online vs. traditional symposia: a semi-serious test report

Here we go again: Sitting in front of an electronic device, staring at a screen, looking in virtual faces, speaking to two-dimensional people. My laptop and I, a PhD student in the Kiermaier lab, have a particularly close relationship for months now – dry eyes inclusive. The reason (as for almost everything since March): SARS-CoV-2 and the consequent virtualization. I thus made myself comfortable in front of my laptop and took part in my first online symposium. Four days long, I listened to pre-recorded talks, joined virtual poster sessions and discussions; met speakers and editors in the virtual reality, exchanged knowledge via slack channels and spent my time in “topic based break out rooms”. A maximum of “normal life feeling” was imparted by live streamed discussion sessions.

Questions upon questions…

I was curious about the output of this event. Is an online symposium comparable to a face-to-face meeting? Is it beneficial? Is online networking possible? How about technical issues? Is this kind of advanced education an alternative for further trainings – even in post-Corona-times?

Let the games begin: PROs and CONs

One thing that became clear even before the event started was that the virtual symposium was a real bargain in comparison to the presence variant of the meeting. In numbers this means:  One fifth of the “normal” conference fee – and this could be a reason for participation. So virtual symposium wins the point. Also very nice was the fact that every big session and its discussion was offered twice a day. This allowed very flexible planning when scheduling the virtual attendance or enabled to keep potential appointments at that day. Point for virtual. The pre-recorded talks made it possible to hear them again and again and again – if necessary – and prepare intensively for the sessions. Attendance underlies virtual.

However, most aspects are more like a double-edged sword. For example networking: On the one hand, “real” meetings give much more opportunities to get involved in a conversation; especially the oftentimes very fruitful talks in passing disappear in an online setting. On the other hand, networking can be easier, since the hurdle of addressing somebody is lower without the need of facing the person directly. But: It is much easier to remember a person after meeting her/him in person than virtually.

What about concentration? People seemed to be more focused in online sessions than in real life talks – at least in live online meetings when their cameras are turned on ;-). However, this impression might be confounded; maybe it is not the online setting that increases concentration but rather the concerns, some of us have, that we must catch up on something, we might have missed due to the whole Corona situation. Of course, this time of focused attendance comes at a price. I cannot speak for the other participants, but I was really brain-dead at the end of a virtual conference day.

During online meetings it is much easier to cheat! With kind permission of the cat’s owner, participant Jovana Deretic

The third aspect – diversion – might be a bit contrary to the last point: Of course an online symposium is more comfortable than a presence meeting. You do not need to go out of the house, you can have coffee and chocolate whenever you like, it is possible to join the meetings in your bed, on your sofa or anywhere else. The other side of the coin is that the opportunities of diversion are more various – especially during pre-recorded talks or when the camera is turned off ;-). Quickly checking mails, news in the world, status of the latest shoe ordering, next vacation stop etc. Regarding those aspects, the conclusion virtual vs. attendance is: drawn.

Let’s talk about technical issues. Since the symposium I attended was organized by one of the most prestigious organizers of further trainings, all technical matters ran very smoothly. Okay – Irony off. Actually, I experienced technical issues as one of the dominant problems of the online symposium. Slack channel ran hot due to problems in session attendance, missing posters or sound/presentations failures (permanently muted: “Can you hear me now?” – click – click – “Can you see the screen?” etc.). Of course, technical problems can also occur in non-virtual meetings. But – at least at the moment – they seem to be more prominent in the online version of the events. It is quite conceivable, that those kind of problems will be solved in a few weeks when the online variant of meetings is probably more established. Point for the “old” variant of symposia.

As usual, when people communicate by writing – as they do a lot during online symposia (asking questions in chats during a session, exchanging messages via slack etc.) – misunderstanding can occur much easier than in direct communication. This is why the in person meeting wins the point.

A last aspect, I would like to have a look at, is the topic ‘socializing’. Maybe the term “social distancing” will be word of the year 2020, but social activities, like having lunch together, meeting after the congress to go for a beer, just having a good time together, cannot be found at online symposia. Clear victory in this respect for the traditional form of symposia.

Summary or more specifically: my opinion

All in all and in my opinion, an online symposium is not comparable to a face-to-face meeting, although it is beneficial and I would participate again. Networking is possible, getting in contact may be easier, but regarding the long-term output the conventional form of a meeting could be of advantage. At least at the moment there are still many technical issues that need to be solved to ensure frictionless online events. Nevertheless, this kind of advanced education could be a good alternative for further trainings, especially since the gain of knowledge is equivalent in the virtual setting.

Author: Mirka Homrich