I've attended many scientific conferences throughout my postgraduate studies, but these past two days was a brand new experience for me as I attended my first ever online conference hosted by my faculty and the Malaysian Society of Oral Microbiologists and Oral Immunologists. The conference was originally planned for August, but because of the pandemic it was both pushed back a month and was changed to a virtual conference (or an e-conference).
So the way the e-conference worked was that we had many different Google Meet "rooms" setup for the different talks and presentation sessions. Links to each room were shared with all the participants and they were free to join any room they wanted based on the schedule.
Similar to my post the other day about offline and online meetings, I love the fact that with this e-conference I could join the events from literally anywhere. I watched the opening ceremony with my friend over breakfast on her tablet, we continued watching on a smartphone in the car on the way to work, we watched it from the comfort of our office on our laptops, and we watched the closing ceremony on our phones as we were walking back to our car from the office. The flexibility and freedom to "attend" the conference from anywhere on our connected devices is so cool and I absolutely loved it.
It was also quite cool to see other people "attending" the conference from their respective offices. I went to a few offices around the faculty for various work-related tasks and I saw pretty much everyone attending the conference from their laptops and PCs. What's great about being online is that many people who usually couldn't attend such conferences because of work they needed to do could multi-task from their office and watch the conference while also completing their respective work.
From an organisation standpoint there was no need to prepare door gifts or print physical abstract books for participants, no need for catering, no need to book venues, no need to dress up. Of course there was still plenty of work to do like organising the links and preparing special "streaming rooms" with ring lights and a back drop for the main events, but overall I feel like an e-conference is perhaps slightly easier to organise.
There were some drawbacks though. For those who like to socialise and network, an online conference pretty much prevents both. Also the elephant in the room, you need a good internet connection to enjoy an online conference. In fact it's not just you who needs to have a solid connection, but presenters and speakers too. Crackling audio or lagging video is not enjoyable. Also I guess if you enjoy the experience of presenting your research on stage to a room full of people, you won't enjoy talking into your webcam with no idea of how the audience is reacting.
Ultimately I had a pretty positive experience. It was really fun, really cool, and to top it all off I actually won an award for my presentation! I think many people will still prefer an actual physical conference, and even I must admit that the e-conference just didn't feel the same as the real thing, but as an alternative during this pandemic, I really enjoyed it. Once the pandemic dies down we'll probably go back to "real" conferences, but I won't be opposed to the idea of e-conferences from time to time.