If you want more diverse conferences & panels, make technology part of your diversity strategy

The current debate on lacking conference panel diversity has (rightly) focused on gender aspects, featuring #allmalepanels and #manels hashtags, a tumblr and a pledge;
Courtney Martin’s post on ‘How to NOT Plan a Pale Male Event’ is an interesting recent addition to the debate, but it was a very traditional, un-technological development research conference that I attended recently that inspired my post.

Smaller-scale conference panels or discussions that do not take place at a fancy venue and in front of a TED-style audience are the bread-and-butter meeting scenarios for many academics. And one of the biggest obstacles to broad-ranging diversity is the fact that many such events are firmly embedded in a 1.0 world. Academic conference organizers, often some kind of association, more and more act like other ‘walled garden’ owners: Whether it is academic journal publishers or proprietary software companies, open access is usually not the first thing that comes to mind when associations charge their registration fees and gather people in a hotel/ conference venue ideally without proper access to the horrible and dangerous INTERNET!

To make conferences and panels more interesting, meaningful and diverse, gathering everybody physically in the same room at the same time should become a strategy of the past.
And since I can already see this burning question emerging: Yes, I WILL talk about coffee breaks where all the important networking is supposedly taking place...

The mediatized world affects every discipline, association & participant
First of all, non-‘media’ or ‘tech’ events need to think about technology hard and fast. I am becoming less and less patient with conferences where I do not see a camera, an alternative digital way to present or additional social media engagement. I have a small travel budget and questions I have for the organizers are usually: ‘Can students watch the event online?’ ‘Is the event recorded so I can share content and use it for teaching or research?’ ‘Is anybody using a new software, tool etc. to engage beyond PowerPoint and Skype that is useful for classroom teaching and facilitating events?’
I come from a media-savvy academic environment and digital pedagogy and blended learning are not just buzzwords for me, but I am not asking for miracles.
When in one working group half of the 10 or 12 participants came from the same university department abroad, many gave me a strange look when I suggested that they could have stayed home and instead meet at their home university and participated virtually.

So what practical strategies can I envision?

1. Academic conferences are not supposed to serve the purpose of being handy revenue generating activities for your association or university conference facility.
This really reminds me more and more of the debates we have in academic publishing: If I need to cover my travel expenses, deliver content AND need to pay, say, 300 USD for coffee and sandwiches I can at least expect decent WiFi access. And if my co-author would like to join the panel, unable to foot a second bill for the same project/paper then let her join virtually!

2. Have on-site tech-support.
Did you also get the invitation email with the ‘Please, pllleeeeaaasseee only bring a USB stick with a pdf file otherwise someone will drown a puppy’ instructions?
Big conferences are boring, PowerPoint-driven affairs partly because technology is reduced to a ceiling-installed projector and a Dell PC from 2008. Imagine someone brings their own Mac, or wants to use a Google Hangout, or someone would like to connect to the digital world!
Try to accommodate reasonable requests-be open to innovations, hire two more student assistants if necessary-and if the big, global chain hotel cannot provide these facilities at a reasonable price, maybe it is time to reconsider your location strategy altogether!

3. Promote creativity.
There is more to life and academia than a ‘best paper’ and a ‘best student paper’ award. Ask for multimedia, storytelling, visualization etc. and see what comes back-not everything can and should be produced with your standard Microsoft Office package....

4. Invest and investigate in low-tech, in-house technology.
You asked an external company to broadcast your event and all they produced was a single camera ‘talking head’ shot in ridiculously high bandwidth that was super expensive? Talk to your media studies, IT etc. colleagues first-explore in-house capacity, hire three final year BA students who know how to run a broadcast. It does not have to be perfect, but it integrates students and other departments into your event and helps to burst the filter bubble!

5. ...but what about the coffee break?!
I was recently introduced to Beam by our fantastic colleague
President Obama greets Alice Wong via Beam
Michele Estes at James Madison University.
Or let me rephrase it: I made a wonderful virtual visit across the Atlantic together with a colleague. Get five of those Beams to ‘attend’ your coffee break and those five external visitors will be the talk of the day! You can also broadcast the social interactions directly or find other ways as long as technology, TV screens, cameras are a natural element of your environment.

My points are not simply self-indulgent because I like technology in the class- and conference-room. They can easily increase diversity when those who cannot afford to travel and those who may be unable to join can be included. And it helps to push the boundaries of ‘pale male panels’: A pale person who sits in the country or region that is the focus of your panel for example can be a much more useful resource person in a mediatized context. Go to experts and expertise rather than asking them for time- and money-consuming Visa applications.
But the primary focus of technology should be on getting less well-off experts on board-or parents, care givers, people with mobility issues etc. etc.

Development studies and research conferences should lead the way in creating global/glocal spaces for learning and exchange and at the end of 2015 there needs to be a serious inclusion of technology.

Commercial publishers are already feeling the pressure of the open access movement and 20th century associations need to be pressured in similar ways to offer panels and conferences fit for the digital era!


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