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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Can you see my screen? Tips for Online Academic Presentations

by Katie Tindle

Over the past year or so, we here at SRHE like many others have moved our activities online. Although it has been a steep learning curve for event organisers, speakers, and delegates alike, we like to think we’ve got a few things down pat.

Our call for papers for the first virtual SRHE Conference has just closed, and knowing many of you will be considering how best to present your research at this or another academic conference in the near future, we would like to share some handy tips we’ve gathered together.

  1. Test your video and audio before your meeting.

We would advise having a meeting online with organisers and other presenters ahead of your session – particularly if you are working from a new space in your home or office. Speaking from experience, if you can avoid jogging around a university campus looking for a decent wifi connection 10 minutes before you present all the better. Zoom has a handy feature at https://zoom.us/test where you can test your settings without joining a real call. It’s also always worth checking you don’t have a filter turned on by accident.

  • Headphones are everyone’s friend

Headphones with an attached mic are recommended when presenting not only for clear audio for you, but less background noise and more focused sound for your delegates. If your headphones don’t have a mic – not to worry, we would still recommend using them.

  • Have your slides or handouts open on your desktop and ready to share with your audience.

This one sounds simple but having the things you need to hand will save you time and stress during your presentation. If you are speaking from notes consider printing them off or using a second screen.

  • Use plenty of bold/easy to read visuals in your slides as the audience will only have your virtual (not your actual) presence to maintain their interest.

It’s even easier online to get distracted by either reading the slides ahead of the presenter or by drifting on to other tasks. Less is more when it comes to text on slides as you want to keep viewers focussed on your voice. Using sans serif fonts (like Calibri, Verdana, Arial) and dark coloured text on light (not white) single-coloured backgrounds is helpful for any dyslexic viewers you may be speaking to.

  • Try and make sure you are somewhere quiet with no distractions (phones switched off etc) where possible.

This is easier said than done, and everyone is understanding of the odd interruption during home working. That being said, if you can be somewhere reasonably quiet you’re less likely to be flustered by external factors.

  • Keep an eye on the time and rehearse timings to keep yourself on track and cover the key elements of your presentation.

Timings are always key during presentations but it’s worth bearing in mind that remote working has made it easier to book back-to-back meetings – running over may not be an option so make sure you have plenty of time for what you would like to say – plus a couple minutes extra just in case.

  • Be instructive – let people know when you want them to read a slide or consider an issue.

If you would like your audience to interact, be clear in your instructions, and give them a chance to organise themselves. It will probably take your audience longer than you expect to gather themselves and formulate a response to a question for instance so don’t be too concerned if you get a couple moments of silence before responses roll in.

  • Be mindful that you may be being recorded.

This may mean being aware of sensitive information, or just keeping things concise for when the recording is watched back. We would always ask your permission before making any recordings but it’s a good rule of thumb to behave as if you are being broadcast live, even if you’re not.

  • Use a ‘Ghost presenter’.

This is a nominated person to keep an eye on the chat and let you know if anything is amiss during your presentation. This will normally be the chair, or if you are presenting with us, a member of the SRHE team so please do let us know if there is anything you want us to keep an eye out for in particular. If you would like to ask another colleague to be involved who has a good knowledge of your area or existing research most facilitators would welcome the extra help.

  1. It’s different

Finally, presenting online is just that bit different from being in the room with others. You may find it tricky to have less feedback in terms of body language from your audience, but you may reach people you would have never have been able to meet otherwise. Don’t try to replicate your in-person style exactly, and think about that this medium will offer you instead.

We hope this is helpful to some and a refresher for others. Remember – the SRHE Conference 2021, (Re)connecting, (Re)building: Higher Education in Transformative Times will take place on 6-10th December 2021 and we hope to see you there. If you are an SRHE member it’s even free to attend. You can register via this link

Katie Tindle is Team Coordinator at SRHE. She also teaches on the undergraduate Fine Art course at Central Saint Martins, University of London, and is studying for her masters at Goldsmiths, University of London.


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Reimagining academic conferences: toward a federated model of conferencing

by Dror Etzion, Joel Gehman and Gerald F Davis

In the wake of the COVID pandemic, most academic conferences have shifted to online formats. This disruption to our routines presents a unique opportunity to consider alternative conference configurations. One possibility is that the momentum behind the shift to online conferencing is leading to a future in which gatherings are entirely virtual. At the same time, old habits die hard, and many in the academic community are assuming that a travel-free world is a temporary anomaly, and that very soon researchers will resume convening in person.

Several scenarios for the future of conferencing are possible, and most seem to have benefits but also drawbacks. We begin by identifying some pros and cons of in-person and online conferences. To maximize the positives, we propose a federated model of conferencing that thoughtfully integrates both in-person and online events. This model may help scholars not only to share academic knowledge but also to pursue values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship.

In-person conferences

For those attending, in-person conferences have four basic functions. First, they provide opportunities for intellectual development. Presenters are able to receive feedback on works in progress and are exposed to nascent ideas being pursued by other scholars. Early-career scholars are able to solicit advice, and more established ones are able to test the waters with riskier ideas before investing significant time and effort in preparing journal articles. Second, in-person conferences provide career development opportunities and constitute an important part of the academic job market. Conference presentations add heft to a CV, and provide valuable networking opportunities. Third, in-person conferences provide ample opportunities for ancillary professional activities such as editorial board meetings, professional association gatherings, and in-person collaboration. Fourth, in-person conferences provide opportunities for non-professional activities, such as socializing and sightseeing.   

At the field level, conferences can focus scholarly attention on specific topics, theories, or ideas. They can serve a coordinating function and facilitate collective sensemaking. Sometimes, powerful conference experiences can become field-configuring events that trigger meaningful academic advances. In addition, conference revenues are often the main source of funding for sponsoring associations, providing them the means to pursue other worthy initiatives.

Despite these benefits, in-person conferences do have some notable downsides. Large conferences can be overwhelming and take a significant physical toll due to disrupted biorhythms and jet lag, not to mention long and tightly packed days. Instances of sexual harassment and assault are all too common. Beyond these criminal activities, gender inequality continues to affect conference participation. Conferences also strengthen the status hierarchy, and many lower status participants find themselves on the receiving end of microaggressions and slights. Accessibility also continues to be an issue. Many venues are not easy for disabled academics to navigate. Travel bans prevent many scholars from attending conferences, and travel costs limit attendance to well-resourced scholars, primarily from the Global North. In-person conferences also produce a massive carbon footprint.

Online conferences

The forced shift to online platforms during COVID has addressed some of these downsides of conferences. Online formats promote accessibility by removing barriers associated with travel costs and physical impairment. They also help remove social barriers to participation, as some of the traditional markers of status do not translate well to the online format. Online platforms also promote inclusivity and content-richness. On platforms such as Zoom, it is easier to implement practices to ensure that conversations are not dominated by a few high-status people. For example, text-based chat functions enable participants to formulate questions at their own pace and provide links to helpful materials. They also serve as an archive that can be revisited when participants have more time to engage with the material.

Moreover, because online conferences are not constrained by time and place, they have the potential to promote ongoing engagement. Rather than several intense days, a series of shorter events, spread out over time, might facilitate greater reflection. Online conferences also promote diversity of session formats. Rather than 90-minute panel sessions, it is possible to have sessions as short or as long as people desire. Presentations could be live streamed from research settings, and practitioners who normally do not attend academic conferences could login to sessions that interest them. Online conferences also have timeliness benefits, as researchers do not have to wait to present their work. Likewise, meetings can be convened immediately to address urgent topics (eg COVID).

Yet, online conferences are not without their downsides. Due to low transaction costs, the number of online conferences is proliferating, creating the potential for overload. Online conferences have also led to anomie in the academy. Many yearn for a return to at least some in-person conferences, as the social interaction and random experiences they afford can be energizing. Moreover, the shift to online conferences has exacerbated the digital divide, constraining scholars who live in areas with less well-developed technological infrastructure. Surveillance capitalism is another potential pitfall, as online interactions leave traces that could have repercussions. Gaffes can go viral, and online interactions may be watched and listened to (and misinterpreted) by unintended audiences. Less malicious, but perhaps more insidious, would be a scenario whereby the dreaded teaching evaluation model is applied to conference presentations. Additionally, online conferences may reinforce tribalism in the academy. With a plethora of conferences to choose from, scholars may splinter off into self-reinforcing cliques entrenched around specific research programs, thereby eliminating opportunities for cross-fertilization and creating echo chambers. Gaming the system is another potential problem with the online conference format. Evaluating scholarly impact is a key focus in the academy, and tactics used to boost citation counts or journal ratings could easily translate to online conferences. Winner-takes-all dynamics are likely to ensue.

A federated model of conferencing

Having analysed the pros and cons of both in-person and online conferences, we propose a federated model of conferencing that constitutes the best of both worlds and produces a lighter environmental footprint while promoting equity and inclusion. As an organising principle, federation recognizes the utility of some central authority, but delegates most responsibilities to partially self-governing units which set priorities based on local preferences. Compared to unitary governance, federation embraces experimentation and fosters learning across units, thereby striking an optimal balance between scale and autonomy.

In a federated conferencing model, organising, decision-making, and participation would be pushed to the regional level while maintaining global coherence. Regional conferences that are centrally located and accessible by public transport would be easier on both attendees (by reducing jet lag and travel costs) and the planet (by reducing the carbon footprint of travel). Smaller regional conferences could provide opportunities for human contact that reduce anomie without being overwhelming. They would still enable senior scholars to participate on panels and pursue ambitious research programs while providing junior scholars and PhD students with valuable networking and career opportunities. Regional affiliation that stops short of tribalism also could support the development and adaptation of solutions to local circumstances. For instance, a regional conference in the North American Rust Belt would likely yield scholarship with different underpinnings, datasets, and points of emphasis than one in Central America. Regional conferences also may promote greater engagement across different academic fields and with non-academic participants.

With foresight and planning, such a federated model could strengthen the global academic community. For example, global meetings could be held synchronously across several regional hubs, thereby enabling access to both region-specific and global content. Hybridization within (ie questions submitted in-person and via text) and between (ie global and regional) presentations would enable participants to customise the extent of their physical and virtual participation and support an equitable global community. A federated model also could facilitate the establishment of local communities around research interests or other facets of identity, thereby providing valuable sources of support, particularly for scholars who feel isolated. Robust online platforms could support ongoing engagement among like-minded peers and strengthen their voices within the academy. Finally, a federated model could encourage relatively low-risk experimentation with other formats (eg unconferences, PechaKuchas), and a variety of other online and offline gatherings.

Conclusion

COVID has provided a unique opportunity to reflect on and potentially reshape the current conferencing model to better reflect values of inclusion, diversity, community, and environmental stewardship. As a tangible manifestation of the spirit of the academic community, conferences serve as a bellwether of our profession. A federated conferencing model has the potential to maximize the benefits of the in-person and online formats, thereby strengthening the academy, now and into the future.

Reference: Etzion, D, Gehman, J, Davis, GF (2021) ‘Reimagining academic conferences: Toward a federated model of conferencing’ Management Learning, 41: 429–442 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/13505076211019529

Dror Etzion is an associate professor of strategy and organization at the Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University, and an associate member of the Bieler School of Environment. His research program focuses on grand challenges: the unyielding, intractable problems that characterize the Anthropocene.

Joel Gehman is Professor of Strategy, Entrepreneurship and Management and Alberta School of Business Chair in Free Enterprise at the University of Alberta. His research examines strategic, technological, and institutional responses to grand challenges related to sustainability and values concerns.

Jerry Davis is the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Management and Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. His latest work is on reining in corporate power and alternatives to shareholder capitalism.