Higher ed and climate change: the end of academic conferences as we know them

AAEBL conference pplSince I started researching climate change and higher education‘s future I’ve participated in and witnessed many discussions about the topic.  In person and online, academia seems to be increasingly interested in exploring what climate change means for colleges and universities.

One small piece of that broader puzzle stirs passions more than just about any other.  How will academic conferences change in the age of climate crisis?

We usually start with a basic idea.  Air travel emits a lot of carbon.  To the extent that faculty, staff, and some students fly across the world for national and international conferences, we are contributing in a small way to heating the planet.  Therefore we need to rethink this practice.  As FemEdTech put it, “We have to be more responsible.”

What does such a rethink look like?

Several ideas have been floated.

A) Individual academics should fly less, especially at longer distances.

B) Conferences should shift away from national and international scale to local or regional events, which can be reached by less carbon-intensive means, like trains.

C) Conference activities can head online through various technologies.

D) We can all keep flying to conferences, but also buy carbon offsets.

A recent University of Exeter report called for a mix of A-C through:

cut[ting] the carbon footprint from long-haul air travel by 50 percent by 2025 and by 75 percent by 2030, while academics are organizing online conferences with regional hubs in a bid to reduce flying while maintaining face-to-face networking.

In that linked article we can find a version of D, too:

KU Leuven …  has introduced a voluntary carbon tax of 40 euros ($43) per ton of carbon emitted for academics who travel by air. The money is used to invest in green activities at the institution.

I’ve floated plans A-D to a variety of audiences and networks.  The results have been fascinating.  I’ll share some of the ideas that came up, and add some more of my futures thinking to boot.

The hybrid conference has already been successfully implemented. The Society for Cultural Anthropology changed their international conference in 2018 to a new form, which we could see as heading towards A-C above.  Here’s how they describe doing it again this year:

Distribute 2020 will be virtual and distributed: virtual in that it will be anchored by a dedicated conference website streaming prerecorded multimedia panels; and distributed in that presenters and viewers from across the globe will participate in the conference via in-person local “nodes.”

Distribute 2020 will offer three full days of streamed audio-visual panels and in-person local nodes where participants can gather with others to view the conference and join in related activities like workshops, art exhibitions, and dinner salons. Our goal is a low-cost, highly accessible, carbon-neutral conference that might pave the way for rethinking the mega-conference model.

Everything I’ve heard signals that this went well for that academic population.  You can read and watch a series of video reflections from 2019 here.  The Comparative and International Education Society is doing something similar.

Question: is this the next form of the academic conference, or a transition stage to wholly online meetings?

Hiring/tenure/promotion/review has to change. Presenting to conferences is often a useful thing to do for career advancement.  If we cut back on face to face events, we’ll have to adjust academic review.  As Lisa Hinchliffe observed,

Will some departments value virtual presentations less highly than in-person ones?  If on-site conferences dwindle and attendance at them becomes scarce, will be rate participation in those events more highly?  We will have to reset incentives to make this work.

How does this impact equity in an increasingly unequal academy? We could see long distance travel becoming increasingly the province of the academy’s most privileged: tenured faculty members, those working at the wealthiest institutions, parents with the best child care, and so on.  In this way a climate change strategy could exacerbate inequalities.

On the other hand, watching YouTube and interacting on social media is much less expensive on multiple fronts: money, time, accommodations.  If conferences migrate more fully online more academic populations could enjoy increased access to those professional opportunities.

Which technology to use?  I often hear video for primary content, presumably based on live streaming presentations (keynotes, panels, plenaries, talks). This makes a lot of sense, given the enormous and nearly total appeal of video to the human race.  It also might represent an improvement over some keynote speeches, where most of the audience can barely see the speaker and might not be able to interact with them at all.  Other improvements might be available, as Henrietta Carbonel observed:

Social media then fits the role of interaction, starting with Twitter, which already has a long track record of being events’ backchannel.  I haven’t heard LMSes floated for discussion, file sharing, and general anchoring, which might be a sign of that technology’s limitations, or that most academics don’t view the LMS as useful beyond individual classes.

doppelbot_GershovichOther, newer technologies could play a role.  Virtual reality can be great for immersion in spaces.  Social uses are lagging, but down the road they might serve, allowing us to imagine academics in their offices interacting with far-off colleagues through goggles and glasses.  On a different angle I would suggest using telepresence robots (“doppelbots”) for face-to-face events where in-person attendance is dropping. (Here’s me doing this at a conference in 2014) Doppelbots could be a transition technology, a bridge to a totally virtual conference world.

Criticisms and resistance. Asking academics to change their conference structure has elicited some blowback, some quite fierce.  I often hear that academic travel is just too small and cutting it back would have too small an impact upon climate change overall.  Requesting or compelling faculty, staff, and students do make that sacrifice is both a waste of time and also an unnecessary burden on an already stressed population.  Indeed, this could distract educators from taking and/or organizing for more salient steps to mitigate or adapt to climate change.  Couldn’t those energies be devoted to passing carbon taxes, for example?  Ideologically, urging individual academics to change course might just be another form of virtue-signaling consumerism. (This MetaFilter discussion gives a good sense of this line of thought, albeit for a different case)

Revamping conferences might not be a globally applicable idea.  Some nations lack low-carbon capacity for travel – i.e., most of the US, ill served by passenger rail.  Some universities inhabit remote locations or dwell within large, relatively underpopulated areas.  Think of Alaska, Australia, Russia, the northern 2/3rds of Canada.  Would a general reduction of academic travel unfairly penalize those populations?

Academics might find technology-mediated remote conferences to be insufficient for purpose.  Technophobia or unfamiliarity with tech can power some of this, of course, but so can a loss of travel’s pleasures: seeing new places, getting away from the daily grind, serendipitous meetings, reconnecting with colleagues.  Poor tech support could wreck virtual conference participation. And technology can add new problems, such as online abuse.

In fact, digital technology might not be a good solution.  Depending on which measurement one uses, videoconferencing might have higher carbon costs than travel.  This should be true of more computationally intensive tech, such as 3d video, VR, or blockchain, assuming someone finds a way of using that last tech in this cause.

Some have told me that cutting back academic travel is a kind of attack on higher education, participating in a devaluation of academic work.  It might even align with reactionary anti-intellectualism.  They haven’t cited conservative mocking of climate change activists for flying around the world to protest carbon excesses, but they could.

Even more fiercely, some folks got very personal with me, accusing me of holding a puritanical attitude, or questioning my academic credentials.  This was… useful for me to hear, as I proceed along this research inquiry.  As an independent, I have to take care.  And I haven’t even run into climate change deniers yet on this score.*

It may be that these opposition arguments win the day, at least for a while, leaving universities and colleges to pursue option D (above).

Who is involved in strategizing about this? One aspect of the overall problem of higher ed and climate change is who’s involved in making the decisions.  So far I’ve mostly seen people frame it as a question for faculty (well, the tenure-track faculty minority).  Staff travel doesn’t appear much.

Students haven’t played much of a role in this conversation, but that could change.  After all, some do travel for undergraduate and graduate research. Moreover, rising student activism around climate change could turn its attention to this one piece of higher ed’s carbon footprint.  Targeting endowment investments is already occurring.  When will students protest a professor’s global trip, then scale that up?

Off-campus players can also play a role in this topic (cf my earlier post). Local or national governments could pass laws that drive universities and colleges to curtail faculty – say, by insisting all enterprises above a certain size must be carbon-neutral or -negative.  Hand in glove with this are entities that could help academia make such changes.  Which businesses would step forward to help transform academic meetings?  Will nonprofits organize to encourage or assist this process?  Can academic associations, think tanks, or foundations play a role?

There’s still more to conferences than air travel. We can rethink other aspects of academic meetings as part of a global climate change strategy.  Some events have already cut back on swag (printed materials, bags, t-shirts, etc).  Jeroen Bosman sees more to be done:

Let me pause at that point.  Clearly this is not a simple issue.  It can be fraught in many ways.  What’s the best mix of my A-D options?  Which other strategies can we pursue?

Where are we discussing this?  How can we best proceed?

*I see climate change deniers all over the place, including my Facebook page.  I mean I haven’t seen anyone deny climate change is happening during debates about how higher ed should respond.

(doppelbot photo by Mikhail Gershovich; all others are mine)

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13 Responses to Higher ed and climate change: the end of academic conferences as we know them

  1. Jim B. says:

    Interesting that Educause used to regularly host regional conferences and those largely died as universities reduced travel budgets – but back in the day my favorite conference was EduTex (which folded into Educause SW) which basically meant short trips for everybody around the Texas triangle (Houston-Dallas-San Antonio/Austin) for the most part.

    When Educause merged Educause Southwest with the West Coast regional and I had to go to Portland to do the West/Southwest regional, I stopped going.

    The regionals were great because they were smaller scale and often full of familiar faces.

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    As with everything else, this demands a layered approach. We should not eliminate conferences but we should think about ways of opening them up more effectively and making them more accessible from a cost perspective. Many people are shut out of them, not because of concern over climate change, but because of cost considerations. Cost considerations and climate concern often go hand in hand.

    The process here is not to eliminate conferences but to figure out how to open them up using specific technological tools. We need to assess and target our activities based on whether new tools let us move away from the industrial practice of gathering large groups of people in physical proximity with one another and, instead, figure out how to maximize the human connection element of conferences while transferring the information exchange aspect of them to technological solutions.

    There are a vast array of conference modalities and so technological affordances will vary from conference-to-conference. Organizers need to carefully consider each aspect of the event they are wanting to put on and look at technological alternatives that increase access to them while at the same time cutting their carbon footprint. That’s a process, not a blanket solution. (Blankets will be too hot in the future anyway…)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good points, Tom. This is a pretty large, complex, and diverse field.

      Opening up to remote participation seems to have proceeded by fits and starts. Some events are very welcoming, while others look like they forgot the internet exists. There are guerrilla events, too, like my live Future Trends Forum sessions and the work of Virtually Connecting.

  3. Mathieu Plourde says:

    I like the small local gatherings connecting to other nodes around the globe. Open Education Week kinda does that, although it doesn’t attract that many people. But the idea of having conferences that run 24/7 over different time zones and languages is interesting to me.

  4. Pingback: Flying to Conferences

  5. Tom Haymes says:

    The regionals were also my favorite. Some of the best conferences I ever attended were the NMC regionals.

    I think the problem is that the sweet spot for social interaction (probably 100-150) did not intersect with the sweet spot for economic viability at a reasonable registration fee (probably 400+ people). I think the trick is to figure out how to make the smaller model work using technological affordances to reach a larger audience. For instance, charge a higher (but still “normal”) fee to those attending in person who get added access to networking possibilities but allow streaming access to all of the content via streaming services at a “discount” rate.

    You could also make this 2-way so that presenters don’t actually have to be present to get credit for having “presented” – perhaps charge a small “presentation fee” to defray the costs of the additional technical support.

    You would have to cap the “in-person” numbers to keep them small but you could also make them regional and more frequent – say a quarterly conference in four different parts of the country. You could also then use population mapping to figure out where the greatest density of these regional participants might be and locate your conference accordingly – also maximizing attendance while economizing costs.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great thoughts, Tom! Worth a post on its own.

      I wonder about a f2f anchor for a largely virtual session. How it would be to be on site.

  6. Pingback: On Deconferencing – CogDogBlog

  7. Peter Hess says:

    …academic travel is just too small and cutting it back would have too small an impact..

    True, but also an instance of “let some other person, group, legislative body, nation, go first” which has stopped progress at every level.

    … could distract educators from taking and/or organizing for more salient steps to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Couldn’t those energies be devoted to passing carbon taxes, for example?

    Or it could free up time for them to do this. But the net result either way, I strongly believe, is that those who would be active, will be active, and those who would not be, will not be.

  8. Kae Novak says:

    We (eLearning Consortium of Colorado) are giving a virtual conference a try for our first time in 30 years! We’ve always done a regional F2F conference but we’re actually a bit giddy about not being confined to partitioned conference rooms, row seats and hotel food. We’ve been playing with the session formats and we opened it up to just about any affordance that technology could provide us. For the poster exhibition, we’re putting them on padlet. http://www.elearningcolorado.org/sessions.html
    We have a couple veterans of 2009 – 2012 Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) conference planners and while we don’t expect to go 24/7, we have when we did VWBPE.

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