Meeting of young minds in the cities of cyberspace

October 27, 2006

An e-conference unites postgraduate geographers from around the globe, reports Harriet Swain

Our monthly guide to some of the conferences taking place around the world

What better venue in which to discuss urban life and locations in today's world than somewhere that transcends both time and place - cyberspace?

This idea will be put to the test next month at a three-day e-conference, Researching Contemporary Cities, organised by postgraduates for postgraduates, with the support of the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN), an international alliance of higher education institutions committed to establishing collaborations.

The conference, which covers aspects of political and economic restructuring in cities from post-Olympic Athens to the regeneration of Cork and Limerick, and from regulation of erotic labour to political legitimacy in post-apartheid South Africa, will take place on successive Thursdays. It kicks off each day at 4pm UK time to fit in with different time zones.

Delegates will gather at university "hubs" across the world to view speakers on big screens - 36 are so far expected in Manchester and about 50 in Tallinn, Estonia, as well as groups in up to 15 other venues linked to the WUN, from San Diego, California, to Zhejiang in China. But others will also be able to watch proceedings from laptops on their kitchen tables and even interrupt, so long as they have a microphone. This will be made possible through a combination of access-grid technology and video conferencing in the university hubs and Marratech technology for desktops.

Speakers will make their papers available online before the conference, delegates will be able to access videos of the conference proceedings after the event and a conference website noticeboard will allow discussions to continue.

Attendance is free but, with no hotel rooms or flights to book, organisers do not know how many participants to expect, although they have asked people to send an e-mail to let them know they intend to drop in.

Ross Jones, one of the conference organisers, says there is an element of trust involved in organising an e-conference, since you cannot simply bundle people out of the room or switch off their microphones if they interrupt once too often. "It could be an issue for the future if e-conferences become more popular," he says. "At the moment, people who know about a conference tend to be those who are interested and wouldn't want to be disruptive."

E-conferences have been around in different forms for a number of years, but underdeveloped technology has generally made them risky events to hold, and relatively basic. With technology improving all the time and concerns about the impact of air travel on climate change moving up the agenda, they are becoming more important features of academic life, according to Dee Gilmore-Steward, WUN manager in Manchester.

They are also particularly suited to postgraduates, says David Pilsbury, WUN chief executive. This is, first, because they are cheap - significant when most university budgets for postgraduate travel are tight or non-existent. Pilsbury also argues that it is particularly important for postgraduates to become involved in global networks early "when they are developing a sense of themselves in a globalised world".

In addition, e-conferences offer the possibility for postgraduates to disseminate their ideas and hear the ideas of other young scholars without being shouted down by more senior academics. The WUN regularly holds virtual seminars on topics ranging from earth systems to multilingualism in the Middle Ages, but these follow a traditional format of main speaker and questions from students. Feedback suggests what e-delegates really value is hearing questions from their equivalents in different parts of the world.

Pilsbury suggests this democratisation and opening up of academic communities is the result of the growing redundancy of gatekeepers in many fields, thanks to the worldwide web. "Peer-to-peer interaction is part of the 21st-century way of doing things," he says.

He sees postgraduate e-conferences as academic extensions of social networking sites such as UniVillage or MySpace.

This is demonstrated by the origins of the Researching Contemporary Cities conference. The idea came from postgraduates who had returned from a trip to the US and wanted to continue the academic dialogue they had started with peers in American universities.

A follow-up face-to-face event will take place at the Association of American Geographers' annual conference in San Francisco next April, but if November's e-conference is a success the online format is likely to be repeated in other subject disciplines, says Gilmore-Stewart.

The Researching Contemporary Cities postgraduate e-conference takes place on November 2, 9 and 16.

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