News 23 May 2020

Four Lessons from the First Online Conference on the First Vatican Council

The current corona pandemic presents conference organizers with a number of challenges. We invite you to read about the experiences of KU Leuven, resulting in four main lessons for holding an online conference.

Cancel or Postpone?

Slowly but steady, the dates of the Belgian semi-lockdown and travel restrictions due to the COVID-19 crisis approached, and eventually crossed, the dates of our conference to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the First Vatican Council. What would have been the climax of a Research Seminar on this suspended Catholic council, now risked to become a suspended conference. The options to either cancel or postpone our conference seemed evident, yet both unappealing because both would result in our students missing out of this integral part of academic research.

Albeit hesitant, my colleague Peter De Mey and I decided eventually to jump in the deep and to organize in a couple of weeks the first online conference at the KU Leuven Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies.

Four Lessons

This experience has taught us that indeed the proof of the pudding is in the eating; and that the digital awareness gained in this period has opened paths for a new understanding of the academic profession and international cooperation. Personally, this experience taught me four main lessons.

  1. It just so happened that the circumstances proved us that the choice of platform is essential: the day after we decided to use the videoconferencing platform Zoom for our conference because of its video layout, Belgium was shocked by a case of zoombombing of an academic conference; although Skype for Business seemed the most plausible backup, we nevertheless decided to go eventually for Collaborate (launched at our Faculty the week before our conference), indeed its video layout and the option to raise hands seemed to play into our aim to make this conference as interactive as possible. Working with Teamplace in addition to provide all participants with draft papers in advance equally enhanced better discussions.
  2. Despite the abundance of possible platforms, privacy issues remain a constant worry when organizing an online conference: many platforms require external users to create accounts or work with non-professional accounts, should permission of all participants be asked to record the academic sessions, and how broadly can you share the guest link to your conference?
  3. Things can and will go wrong so better make sure you have backup at those moments – I am still convinced no one noticed me losing my connection and trying to reconnect in panic. Try to limit at the same time these risks by having one person responsible to share powerpoint presentations, to remind participants to put their microphones on when watching them being intelligent without sound, and to test, test, test the connection of all participants in the day leading up to the conference.
  4. Even in academia online, social skills remain valuable. While lacking the face to face conversations in coffee breaks, clear views on the reactions of conference participants in discussions, or chances to get to know new people or meet old friends; our online conference made clear that social skills are still needed to keep everyone on board, especially in the discussions. The importance of good moderators that are able to make everyone feel comfortable behind their screens and keep their attention proved to be more important than ever.

Benefitting from a Research Infrastructure on Religious Studies

It is my expectation that the possibility and expectations to attend conferences online will only increase in the future. Consequently conference organizers in the field of Religious Studies, will also have to take this into account in their organization, maybe even as an additional feature. A Research Infrastructure on Religious Studies holding the necessary know how in this field or able to redirect to the best services will only benefit academic work.

– Dries Bosschaert, KU Leuven, Faculty of Theology