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ICA President and ICA President-Elect Joint Column: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Posted By Claes de Vreese (U of Amsterdam) and Mary Beth Oliver (Pennsylvania State U), Tuesday, September 8, 2020

We thank everyone who took part in the post-conference survey. Your responses brought home many lessons, viewpoints, and ideas that are invaluable as we plan for ICA 2021 and for future conferences.  The vast majority of participants (78%) rated the quality of the presentations as good to excellent. Undoubtedly, this is a reflection of the hard work and dedication of our members who took the time to record and upload their presentations that were engaging and professional. Thank you! At the same time, though, a smaller percentage (54%) rated the overall conference experience as good to excellent. We believe that this number reflects many aspects of the need to rapidly shift to an online experience in a turbulent and unchartered environment, but it also highlights the importance of the need for us to grow and learn as we move forward.


Lessons from #ica20

First and foremost, we miss seeing our colleagues – the chance encounters, the friendly meals, the conversations that allow our relationships and our scholarship to flourish. We also miss the opportunity to engage with scholars during their presentations. Various aspects of the online platform and additional technologies helped with this. Many of us left comments for presenters, followed the #ica20 hashtag on twitter, and found the emails from ICA headquarters helpful and supportive. Yet few of our members attended the available social events or VR hangouts, suggesting room for improvement in promoting and facilitating interactions, both formal and informal.  


In terms of the online platform, we saw many positive responses for various aspects of the technologies, including video playing speeds, upload speeds, and the overall design. However, we also saw a number of ways that the user experience can be improved. For example, the easier universal implementation of captions/subtitles, the enhancement of navigation to panels/papers, and notifications to presenters when people comment or ask questions are crucial to our experience. Likewise, the timely responsiveness of the platform host (vFairs for #ica20) to answer questions and deal with technology problems should be routine. 


We are also sensitized to how long online content should be available to attendees. Many members voiced appreciation for the opportunity to see more presentations than they normally could during a typical conference, and also from divisions and interest groups they normally don’t engage with. However, we also learned that the online conference experience prohibited many members from the full experience because, unlike in a face-to-face conference, attending from home meant that teaching, parenting, and other personal responsibilities continued unabated, side-by-side with the conference experience. Although we extended the conference by a day this year, many members (44%) reported that having the materials available for even longer would be helpful.


Looking ahead: #ica21

We hear your concerns and suggestions. Most of our members (69%) reported hoping to attend the 2021 conference in Denver in person. At the same time, 54% have concerns about COVID-19, 32% report travel-budget restrictions from their universities, and 20% worry about carbon emissions related to air travel. These are big and some even combined concerns. As we have announced, we are planning for a hybrid conference (https://www.icahdq.org/blogpost/1523657/353343/ICA21-in-DENVER-COLORADO-HYBRID-FORMAT-FAQ).  As we prepare for the hybrid format for 2021, we will be working very hard to take all of your feedback and suggestions to heart, to make this a valuable conference experience for everyone, and to continue to implement your ideas and critique.


We also want to be completely open: we do not know how the Covid-19 pandemic and other global challenges will develop in the next months. We will plan for hybrid, but if conditions dictate, we may have to move to a full online format once more. If we can realize a hybrid format, we want to make sure that both the physical and the online version of the conference offers an optimal experience. This will require more work for both planners, participants, and headquarters, but the potential upsides of learning more about a hybrid conference format are great. We will introduce new features in the online format, but also pilot a program of local, physical meet-ups to join the online ICA conference in places from where it might be difficult to join the physical conference and/ or where individual member access to the online conference is a challenge. More about this later. 


Whether we retain the hybrid plan or switch, ultimately, to a full-online format once more, we will not be re-using the vfairs platform and will instead have a much more robust platform the staff are preparing as we speak, with caption and transcript functionality, a link to our submission site so nothing gets lost, and the ability to archive video content if desired. In sum, #ica21 will surely be a new and exciting learning experience. We will draw on your input from 2020 and leverage the fact that we have more time to plan than we did for #ica20. 


Looking into the Future: #ica22, 23, 24….

The pandemic has fast tracked a dialogue that was already ongoing in ICA. On the one hand, we had an existing task force called ‘The Future of Conferences,’ chaired by Jeff Niederdeppe (Cornell U). The Task Force was originally tasked to examine the implications of the ICA conference format, the growth of the conference, its locations, etc. On the other hand, we also have an ongoing dialogue on how to make the ICA and its conferences more climate-proof. The #ica20 conference featured a full panel on this topic which is available for viewing at the ICA YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCLfQ-LCjJMfiFCOEG7e6hkA/videos). These conversations converge—and are fast tracked by—the pandemic and the climate crisis. We believe the future of large conferencing is hybrid: meeting in person with all of the many well-known advantages (and the experience of serendipity) must be retained. Introducing and learning from early career scholars likewise. But maybe we as individuals don’t have to attend all meetings. Maybe we can alternate with online experiences. And then let’s think through the advantages of online conferences: reaching a bigger audience, sharing research more broadly, enabling participation from groups that may not have been able otherwise, using conference materials in education, advancing the conference presentation mode using sound and visuals, eliminating the need to make hard choices between which one of 27 concurrent sessions to attend, longevity of content, etc. These are just some of the possibilities. Developing conferences for the next decade means getting these things right. This needs to go hand in hand with a solid funding model too. Planning online conferences takes time, planning physical conferences takes time, planning hybrid ones (like with teaching) takes even more, and more varied, resources. We look forward to thinking through and learning with our ICA community in the coming period.


Tags:  September 2020 

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