This years CAA (Computer Applications in Archaeology) took place in Oxford. Sophie and Sebastian attended the conference, but while one was in Oxford, the other stayed back home and participated virtually. This is our perspective on the hybrid conference and what we have experienced.
Sophie’s experience in the home office
I had been looking forward to the CAA! It is always a good place to hear about new ideas in the computational and digital archaeology world. At the same time, I’m at the moment collecting data for my PhD and I couldn’t afford to lose a whole week (+ the time to write an application for funding of the trip, the headspace etc pp). Therefore I was happy and excited the Oxford team decided on an hybrid event, where I could join remotely.
Leading a hybrid workshop at CAA 2022
Together with Clemens Schmid and Florian Thiery I gave a workshop on Git and Github on Monday afternoon. The workshops were the first events of the conference. It was great to be warmly welcomed by John Pouncett and the Oxford team. They made it possible for us to test the MS Teams software beforehand, which was good, because we hadn’t used it before yet.
19 people joined via Teams in our workshop. Nine persons were in Oxford — I don’t know, though, how many of those also joined in Teams. It was a bit weird to give a remote workshop like that. All presenters were online and a part of the participants were in a room together. We presenters felt it was difficult to engage with attendants, we couldn’t see them and received little reactions online. People did not seem to want to speak up in the group and sadly we still had some difficulties with break out rooms in MS Teams, so interaction was really low. This slow start to the conference would turn out to be prophetic for the next couple of days.
Next time I do a hybrid workshop I should talk with the organisers beforehand. The set up of the room and the camera could have been better. Also, I should have planned to have one person “knowing what was going on” there in person to moderate a bit more. That would have made the experience much smoother, I think.
The online experience of a hybrid conference
On Tuesday the conference started in full. In the beginning almost all sessions had some kind of technical difficulty. I began to use two laptops to stream two different sessions at the same time. Depending on who just had things running smoothly that was the talk I was listening to. So, I was very happy to be at home, do some mindless non-engaging task on the side and be able to switch from one session to the next effortlessly. Later I learned that I can “hold” one Teams session and switch to another one on the same machine. That made jumping between sessions depending on the topic of the talk much easier. I also enjoyed being able to power nap in the lunch break, ’cause listening to exciting projects all day long is exhausting.
And listening was more or less all I could do. Interaction was limited to the chat, which was somehow not much used during the conference. I would have wished for another way to show gratitude for a well done talk, such as a clapping or a thumbs up button. AND for this information to be relayed to the speaker. Interaction with them and the room was hard, because I never really saw it. This lead to an unfortunate side effect: When hosting a session on Thursday, I think I may have not waited for the applause in the room to die down, before I asked for questions. I couldn’t hear it and only later realised I probably always spoke over it.
A counterpoint to this “interaction problem” was the CAA @50 meeting. Here, online participants were included much more, there was someone responsible to check for remote input and balanced them with “in person questions”. The moderation was excellent and I felt much more included than in most sessions.
It was a bit sad, not to be able to join in person. I saw people enjoying each others company and asking to meet for coffee:
At the same time it was valuable for me to get the scholarly input AND be able to continue my work from home.
Sebastian’s experience in Oxford
So as I was tweeting and writing about my trip to Oxford in general, I was also attending the conference in person. I was looking forward to meeting people (old and new) and to listen to several presentations. For me, conferences are not only about the content, but also to see and experience new cities and universities. I was therefore super happy to be able to travel again and to see Oxford, instead of participating in an online conference.
So for me, the conference started with the Icebreaker Party at the Ashmoleon Museum. I already got the feeling that there weren’t many people, especially people I knew. After talking to a young student, we realised, that probably not everyone had arrived yet. The next day however, when the presentations started, was the same. Empty rooms and halls. This is not necessarily something bad, but it became clear after a while that many were listening and presenting over the internet. I was not attending all the talks, but the ones I did were 2/3 digital.
It kind of crept on me, that I actually could have listened to these talks from home and saved the money for the trip. Additionally, there were many technical problems and most of the time the usage of the conference software was not clear to the session chairs, which resulted in time-consuming problem-solving. When presenters presented online, asking questions was not always easy and although I saw in the background people in the chat corresponding, most of the time, these questions were not relayed.
I am totally for digital conferences to save money, make it more inclusive and available. But then it should be completely online. I am also for physical conferences to meet, laugh, drink and connect. But then it should be completely in person. I could live with streaming the event, but without the interactive element. I know that this excludes people from the discussions, but it creates a better experience after all. And I have quite good experience in online conferences.
Discussing the hybrid conference format
Sophie: I completely get your point, Sebastian, that the technical difficulties were a bit annoying. But I think, these are beginners’ problems and will disappear after some practice. We have to realise, the Oxford team had to invent how to do this. I can also see how this is probably quite a bit more work than a normal conference. My Polish teacher was forced to teach hybrid as well for some time. She explained, it was much harder than both alternatives. Nonetheless, she got better at it. I believe it is mostly a matter of training to think about the people who joined remotely.
I believe hybrid events are a great way to enable those that can afford it, to have the in-person experience and at the same time those that cannot, to join at least in some parts. Switching to in-person only is not a good idea in my opinion, even if it’s maybe every other year. A year is a long time for an Early Career Scholar, who needs input for their PhD project now and cannot afford to join in-person.
Sebastian: Well yes, I also agree that organising hybrid is a lot of work and probably equals two conferences, but that is what I am saying. Maybe hybrid is not the way to go, because it is too hard to organise. I actually like the idea to alternate between online and in-person. The CAA takes place every year, that is quiet often in my opinion. Maybe alternating between online and in-presence would solve the problem.
I know that the team in Oxford did their best and my experience described above does not want to deny that. It is more about if hybrid conferences as a concept are a good thing in general or not. I think not.
Sophie: Hmh, I could imagine engaging hybrid conferences. Where for the talks there is a stream of the room, the presenter and the presentation, and where there are interaction possibilities for those attending remotely. For socialising one would need to switch between a stream of in-person event for the introduction to an event for remote people, where all those can chat and meet, who cannot be at the venue. But, I have to admit, I have organised only few conferences so far… And I would not want to tell others to do more work. Maybe I’m just dreaming of a remote future. 😉