Move to online conferences ‘a great equaliser’

African researchers say meeting digitally overcomes cost, distance, social discomfort and environmental damage – but even online, inequalities remain

July 7, 2020
Woman working from home, on a video call with work colleagues
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The shift to online conferences triggered by coronavirus could be an “equaliser” for academia, doing away with the cost, visa hurdles and cliquey world of networking that leave many scholars feeling excluded from physical events, some African researchers hope.

After the mass cancellation of physical conferences due to the pandemic, some academics long to resume face-to-face contact. But digital discussions help overcome some of the barriers in academia, allowing shy researchers to be better heard, and leave no room for sexual harassment during social interludes, a forum on the future of academic conferences has heard.

Kenya-born Esther Ngumbi, assistant professor of entomology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described the switch to online conferences as “the greatest equaliser”.

For African researchers, “all the walls have been opened”, she told a virtual event organised by the University of Cape Town. “Now we can share our research with the rest of the world.”

She described physical conferences as events “designed for the elite” where African academics were “looked down on” and assumed not to be at the cutting edge of research.

Mamokgethi Phakeng, Cape Town’s vice-chancellor, agreed that academic travel had become “unsustainable” for institutions and for the environment.

“We knew that these international activities, that have become so essential to the academic career, were not possible for everyone in equal measure,” she added.

Katye Altieri, a lecturer in Cape Town’s oceanography department, said that the goals of a conference can “more often than not” be achieved without “25,000 people flying to the middle of Europe for a week”.

Having recently attended the European Geosciences Union General Assembly, which normally takes place in Vienna but this year was held digitally, Dr Altieri said that shy researchers or students were able to ask questions online they would be uncomfortable posing in a large room of people. “Nobody knows what they look like. Nobody knows they are students,” she said.

Still, online conferences require fast internet and good laptops – which some African universities struggle to provide, said Mozambique-based Isabel Casimiro, president of the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa. “For us it is a big, big challenge,” she said.

She also admitted to missing the human connection of face-to-face events. But physical networking will not be missed equally, Dr Altieri argued.

“I have met very few black people, people of colour, [or] young women who have said they miss the socialising of these conferences. For the most part, that is a challenging, difficult and sometimes even very negative situation for young people and women in particular,” she said.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Shift to virtual conferences ‘a great equaliser’

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Reader's comments (1)

Better connectivity to the internet will be essential, but broadly the cost savings and reduced environment impact will be a good thing, especially as most if not all Universities are banning non-essential travel as a cost control, so bang goes the extra week or two after a conference for a cheap holiday many have enjoyed, along with the opportunities to share their genetic material...

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