A new wave in conferences: Green and Inclusive via online options

This blog post shares ideas from a breakout “coffee chat” at the May 14th 2020 Big EER Meet Up, hosted by UCL with sponsors including REEN and TU Dublin. Our breakout session asked: Can we make future conferences greener and more equitable by providing online participation options?

It may be of use to people planning conferences for engineering education, engineering education research (EER), and beyond.

Title slide listing speakers for the coffee chat.

Shannon Chance initiated this coffee chat due to her concern for reducing the environmental impacts of conference attendance. Being part of the Marie Curie network (MCAA-UK) had made her aware of the scholarly paper on “Evaluating features of scientific conferences: A call for improvements” by Sarabipour et al (2020). This paper formed the basis of discussion. Shannon feels particularly compelled to develop viable solutions as she is the Chair of the Research in Engineering Education Network (REEN) that coordinates the bi-annual Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES). REES 2021 is to be held in Perth, and REES 2023 is scheduled for Hubli, India. Although Shannon is passionate about bringing the global community of engineering education researchers together and helping build EER capacity, she’s concerned that so few can be involved in REES due to cost and distance. She recognizes economic inequality of access to the physical event as well as the environmental toll related to academic travel.

This coffee chat was intended to be informal. It was facilitated by:

  • Dr. Shannon Chance – Chair of REEN, from TU Dublin and UCL
  • Dr. Valquíria Villas-Boas – REEN Board Member, from the Universidade de Caxias do Sul
  • Dr. Inês Direito, from University College London
  • Dr. Carlos Efrén Mora from Universidad de La Laguna

The overall event was globally supported and attended. This graphic lists the co-sponsoring organizations:

Logos.jpg
 (Intense)

The session abstract explained:

Through informal discussion, participants will share experiences of online conference participation, its benefits and drawbacks, and explore how non-pandemic EER conferences could adapt to include rich and rewarding participation for those who can’t physically attend. We will explore recommendations recently published by Sarabipour et al (2020) who believe “Many meetings could still be improved significantly in terms of diversity, inclusivity, promoting early career researcher (ECR) networking and career development, venue accessibility, and more importantly, reducing the meetings’ carbon footprint.” This non-reviewed paper examined “over 260 national and international academic meetings in various disciplines for features of inclusivity and sustainability” and its authors “propose solutions to make conferences more modern, effective, equitable and intellectually productive for the research community and environmentally sustainable for our planet.” With such enthusiastic participation in recent online EER seminars, could EER possible lead the way?

Several resources are available for attendees. Anyone with interest can access them:

A very diverse group attended this coffee chat. We briefly describing introduced ourselves as, for instance:

  • A teacher of engineers
  • I like to work in teams
  • Was on the organizing committee for a conference transitioned to virtual last month
  • I am planning/organizing a conference in pre-college engineering
  • An architect
  • I’m current president of the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development (SPEED) where I found out how passionate I’m about Engineering Education 🙂
  • I consider myself a citizen of the world. I have lived in 4 countries and 7 different cities, and my family has 3 different nationalities.
We had about 17 attendees in all–good turn out for such a serious topic.

We started by asking participants to take a minute to type into the chat about an enjoyable experience you’ve had in EER virtual learning recently, or provide a short reflection about being a “virtual” or a “face-to-face” person.

  • Virtual conferences are great for being able to attend with less time & money commitment. However, we need better ways to meet people at virtual conferences.
  • I love teaching on a chalkboard! I miss being in the classroom with my students. I am enjoying the interactions that I have with students during virtual lectures, but it feels like the balance of control is much more strongly with me, and I have to remember to give students space to contribute the disruptions that are more natural in the classroom.
  • I loved this [online Big EER] conference!
  • Easy access to EER community across the world. I have loved attending session that are open ended questions about how we navigate online teaching and learning, and everyone can share what they have been doing.
  • I find that being a virtual participant is more environmentally friendly by avoiding air travel. it would also be easier to attend more events than I would in person.
  • Current time is forcing us to adapt quite rapidly to the virtual context, it is important to make the most out of this experience.
  • I prefer being a face to face person; I am more of a “face-to-face” person because I like to see people’s reactions and smiles.
  • I’ve enjoyed getting together with architects and engineers for informal chat.
  • I participated od EDUCON 2020 and I had a great experience participating in workshops.
  • I’ve had more productive and enjoyable small group meetings with my pastoral supervises since lockdown – better than when they are physically squashed together in my quite small office.
  • I enjoyed getting to know a larger group of people (and new topics) in EER that otherwise it would not be possible.
  • I enjoyed being able to meet persons from very different backgrounds and cultures.
  • Many of the most positive and engaging online experiences I have had, have been since lockdown.
  • It’s been nice to travel the world from the comfort of my house while enjoying engineering education research.
  • I’ve been very impressed with how smoothly it has run, and how easy to participate.
  • During this Corona crisis period I have had the opportunity to attend conferences, webinars that I would not have been able to attend in person in a normal period.
  • Last Dec the SEFi working group on ethics organized a two day workshop that integrated online participants in all sessions: online presentations from the team of Virginia Tech (Diana Bairaktarova & Tom Sealy), Q&As taking questions from online participants, mixed breakout tables with both in person and online participants. The workshop had 60% in person participants 40% online participants.
  • Easy access to EER community across the world. I have loved attending session that are open ended questions about how we navigate online teaching and learning and everyone can share what they have been doing.
  • This experience today has been great – lovely to feel connected to people and conversations that I would normally be far away from.
  • Also have been thankful for the opportunity to attend conferences/meetings that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to due to my reluctance to be away from home.
  • Yes, you can “attend” many more conferences in the same time and less expense.
  • Also much more awake for conference sessions (sometimes getting a decent night’s sleep can be difficult in hotel rooms).
  • I think though that it is harder to build the connection with people who you don’t already “know”.
  • There was a webinar by the folks who ran LAK 20 online on two weeks’ notice. The policy was to have speakers present at a time appropriate to their timezone and upload immediately afterwards so that people in other timezones could see the talk.
  • And somehow interacting with my normal face-to-face colleagues via online seems almost natural – the connectivity is there.

Then, Shannon presented ideas from Sarabipour et al (2020), who say:

Science is a global endeavour and we as scientists have the responsibility to make conferences more affordable, environmentally sustainable, and accessible to researchers constrained by geographical location, economics, personal circumstances or visa restrictions.

Sarabipour et al (2020)

There’s a need to modernize and to improve: 

  • Diversity
  • Inclusivity
  • Career development and networking, especially for early career researchers (ECRs) 
  • Venue accessibility
  • Environmental impact, carbon footprint (Sarabipour et al, 2020)

Many can’t travel, for example:

  • Early-career researchers
  • Researchers from young labs and low- to middle-income countries 
  • Junior principal investigators (Sarabipour et al, 2020)


There is inequitable access regarding:

  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Health and mobility
  • Geographical backgrounds
  • Career stage (Sarabipour et al, 2020)

Geographical inequity:

  • Visa inequity
Maps in the paper by Sarabipour et al (2020) provide a visual comparison of Germany, Iran, Argentina, and South Africa–green you can go without a visa, grey you must purchase a visa.
  • Travel requires resources: time, physical exertion, and family management, as well as funding.
  • “The less wealthy subsidize the expenses of the speakers, who usually attend scientific meetings free of charge.”
  • Registration fees can be steep and “Large conferences are often hosted in expensive cities as there are many accommodation options for large crowds, while conferences in more affordable locations are typically smaller in size.” Food often costs more there, too!
  • “Women and researchers from racial and ethnic groups, who are under-represented in various fields, are the least likely to be offered opportunities to speak at meetings in their discipline”.
  • “The experience of presenting at meetings for early career researchers (ECRs) and minorities who attend has not improved appreciably”.
  • Digital conferences and discussion forums can, in fact, serve to assist communication between early career and senior researchers since writing a comment or question in a forum can feel less intimidating than approaching an established scholar in person.” (Sarabipour et al, 2020)

Environmental Toll: CO2 emissions

  • “Global aviation as a country ranks among the top 10 emitters”
  • “Conference attendance represents 35% of a researcher’s footprint
This was one of four maps provided in Sarabipour et al (2020). For one person, “Flying from Perth, Australia to London, United Kingdom and back for the annual Immuno-Oncology summit 2020 generated about 3,153 kg (3.47 tons) of CO2. There are 109 countries where the average person produces less CO2 in a year”. It’s equal to a full year’s emissions of all the brown areas on this map. This is the same path that Inês and I plan to take to Perth if we are lucky enough to attend REES 2021.

Participants commented:

  • This financial impact will be exacerbated in the current economic climate.
  • That’s a great point @Shannon. We’re teaching Sustainable Development Goals, but attending conferences can have a huge negative impact.

A participant from the US queried:

  • The “environmental impact” from a single conference is miniscule.
  • Of course, this assumes that you believe that CO2 emissions are harmful …
  • We need a better way to “meet” people in online venues.

The last point gained support from other participants:

  • Agree – it’s difficult to do accidental networking/meeting in online conferences – tend to stick to talking to people you already know/recognise.
  • I agree.
  • Absolutely. Many interesting conversations/networking happens in less structured settings – coffee breaks, etc. How can we ‘create’ these opportunities online?

Shannon shared some Recommendations from Sarabipour et al (2020) that could apply in EER:

  • Replace in-person national and international meetings with more ground-based travel to regional meetings
  • Hold small and large meetings fully online or connect regional conference hubs digitally by live-streaming the conference [possibility for REES 2021+EERN-UK/IE]
  • Make research results more accessible globally via virtual access [eg, REEN database] and pre-printing
  • Foster digital networking by investing in relevant, immersive and interactive experiences [do more of these]
  • At physical conferences:
    • Stop generating junk (paper, souvenirs, badges)
    • Organize well-planned networking activities
    • Include public outreach & environmental clean-up (Sarabipour et al, 2020)
Graphic from Sarabipour et al (2020) of key considerations to take into account in planning any conference.

Next we discussed a question posed by Val: Why and how would making EER conferences greener impact you as an EER researcher?

  • Possibility to attend conferences via online would be very helpful for me as a researcher from SA without lots of funds – I would love to attend REEN 2021 but I don’t see how I’ll afford it.
  • Better access to far away and more conferences.
  • It would allow me to attend more conferences, since I wouldn’t normally fly to more than one conference per year for environmental considerations (would prefer not to fly at all).
  • Overall it would make easier to attend conferences if they are virtual. But also, it is easier to make connections in person.
  • Positive impact: more opportunities to attend events and meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise; ‘feel good’ reducing carbon footprint. Negative impact: human interactions are more challenging online.
  • With online conferences might see more female researchers participating, especially mothers with young kids who might find it difficult going away for a longer period of time.
  • I have never been to a REEN conference due to child care considerations, but I would definitely engage online.
  • Online conferences are less disruptive to teaching schedules – you can conduct your teaching and dip in and out of sessions.
  • Sometimes it’s difficult to physically travel to a conference fitting it in around teaching commitments.
  • Is it easier now to justify virtual conferences and meetings? Now we need to do it due to the Covid.
  • But if we want to build networks we have to do that intentionally.
  • I would like for online events to have ‘online dinners’ ‘online coffee breakout rooms’ where people could chat by video in an informal manner or to continue the discussion following a talk.
  • I suspect online conferences would encourage me to take a “chance” on hearing talks from people/projects that I was not aware of before.
  • I think that having online events makes it possible to design smaller, more frequent gatherings rather than trying to do mega-events.
  • When I was in Australia for a year, they told me how much time it took to get anywhere!
  • Some thoughts here on ‘virtual socialising’ at a virtual conference here http://www.parncutt.org/virtualsocializing.html
  • I am certainly more interested in attending a one day event online than I would be to attend a weeklong online event.
  • Totally agree with [above comment]! ASEE, for example, can be overwhelming. The sessions you want to attend have limited places. The colleagues you want to reach/get in touch with are difficult to find in the crowd!
  • I think virtual conferences actually make the physical conference more productive – you can read someone’s research, interact with them online, and if there is traction, you can meet in a physical conference and this will be more productive as you already know each other.
  • Totally agree – mix of virtual & physical is ideal.
  • Yes!
  • I had a glass of wine before talking to Eric Mazur 🙂

Next we discussed the question: How could online participation options work in EER?

  • Can do online collaborative workshops with colleagues at different institutions easily. Definitely easier to attend than in real life but would be my personal preferences to have a hybrid somehow – but unsure if I am at a conference if I would be interested in doing the online version of that….
  • Maybe maintain a certain topic coffee break every x weeks. This way we can meet people with the same topic interests. (Like group writing meetings.)
  • You have to be much more strategic in designing interactions – you just can’t have as many talks in a day, or such quick turnaround between talks, as you would in a physical conference. Large amounts of parallel sessions would be disastrous, I think. Today was a good model – multiple time zones, and everyone speaking was a keynote.
  • The same way works face to face.
  • Combination of keynote sessions, workshops, and less structured formal sessions. Other idea would be to provide the option to join ‘interest’ groups.
  • Would be nice if live streaming/recording of sessions would become common practice. Enabling online participation for in-person conferences. For conferences which are solely online based, including online informal sessions.
  • I went to REES in Bogota, 2017. It was a great experience. The sessions were very interactive. Very different from those conferences where you have 10 minutes to present your paper, nobody asks you a question and that is the end. I think that the way the sessions were run could be done virtually too.
  • Another random idea I would like to share: There are conference apps (Whova at https://whova.com/virtual-conference-platform/, Conference4Me) that have networking features (you can meet other attendees with similar interests). This could easily be extended to online conferences. Also, these apps could be extended to accommodate attending multiple conferences at one time, so you could make up a personal schedule of events from both conferences.
  • Haven’t been to REES either – distance was the reason.
  • I think we need to add ‘bring your own drink session’ to these online events!
    • 🙂
    • BoD
    • Well… this event was, after all, called BEER 😉
    • I agree with you Ines. Also if there were options for people to set up their own private meet-ups within the conference software – just as we would do when we form small groups during tea breaks.
  • Actually the REES format forces you to engage. Perhaps this could be a feature that can be built into an online session.
  • It’s also good to share recordings later – many colleagues couldn’t join due to timezones.
  • If you have a gap between the session and discussion, you might lose people.
  • Based on the number of online attendants today, there is a real need for this type of events.

Shannon posed ideas of holding smaller, regional conferences in alignment to share resources and conversation virtually, for instance:

  • The winter meeting of EERN-UK & Ireland could be aligned with REES 2021 scheduled for December 5-8 in Perth.
  • REES 2021 could broadcast some presentations and virtual attendees (such as those gathered on another site, or in their own homes) could submit questions using, perhaps, Padlet as implemented successfully at REES 2019 in Cape Town.
    • Another alternative to Padlet is Jamboard.
    • Agreed!! I was thinking of Padlet yesterday!
    • @shannon, I agree totally
    • Shannon, its a good idea, I am thinking of two or more research groups in different places meeting, individually, and then sharing their discussions with others.

Shannon noted that we need to implement sliding scales for registration fee, or somehow recognize that people from lower-income countries can’t access many of our events physically. Comments on that included:

  • The conferences that still have big fees are those run by societies that are trying to support their ongoing expenses.  I have seen major conferences where the fee is as low as $30.
  • I’m attending an audio conference coming up virtually but the fee is still $175. Not sure why.
  • Educon2020 had different fees for people from low income countries.
  • ASEE, for example, makes a lot of money at the annual conference to support their headquarters and staff.  Despite the $500 registration fee, they are still taking a hit to their sustaining fund.

By audio, we noted that conferences that had to quickly shift online had made payments out, that would be lost.

  • That point about sunk costs is a good one. The conferences that have paid a lot of up-front fees are mostly this spring and summer. Moving into (northern) autumn, we should see some of the fees come down.
  • Speaking of broadening participation, a virtual conference is a great way to get your students into the academic community at an earlier stage in their education.

One participant said she was new to EER and, in attending this Big EER Meet Up, found this academic community very welcoming. She said she felt much more welcome that in her home/technical discipline. She asked what our experiences were.

  • Shannon described her transition from architecture (teaching in the States) to engineering education in Europe after she attended SEFI 2012 and experienced a very warm welcome.
  • @shannon, I agree with you. I am a physicist and EER community is much, much more receptive than the Physics community.
  • Agreed, also more receptive than Aerospace. Feels like a real community. Inclusive 🙂

The session lasted 1.25 hours, and it drew to a close, participants added:  

  • Great discussions everyone – sorry I can’t stay much longer (it’s supper time in this household) – looking forward to ongoing discussion about moving online!
  • I need to leave now, this was a good conversation. Thank you to everyone for organising and participating.
  • I will also ditch… fake SA winters are hard work! Thanks Shannon, Inês and Carlos 🙂
  • What a great day, and final session. Take care everyone.
    • Bye Diana! Great work!
    • Bye Diana. It was great to see you. And what a fantastic presentation!
    • Thank you ladies! hope we can meet soon. SEFI was also moved online this year.
    • I know. Very sad about that.
  • Diana asked: Why is it so difficult to close this meeting? I enjoyed it too much! If you organize any events or online talks including ethics, drop me an email please so I can include them in the SEFI newsletter!

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