Written and edited by Jan-Willem Wasmann with contributions from Seba Ausili, Liepollo Ntlhakana, Bill Whitmer, Soner Türüdü, Rob Eikelboom, Elle O’Brien, Deniz Başkent, Dennis Barbour, Dave Moore & Charlotte Garcia.
When we started organizing the first Virtual Conference on Computational Audiology (VCCA2020) back in March 2020, we aimed to maximize the digital experience. Our objective was never to emulate a physical conference on a computer screen. A good analogy, in my view, for virtual versus in-person meetings is the difference between a movie (motion picture) and a theater play. A movie director has a distinct toolbox compared to a theater director, including special effects, soundtrack (or score), and close-up shots. Both a movie and a theater provide real experiences and opportunities.
When I was visiting New York in 2014, it was on my bucket list to go to the Mary Poppins Musical on Broadway. It was exciting to go to the theater, and an excellent show. But for me, the real thing includes Julie Andrews and Dick van Dyke. A live performance (repeated for the millionth time) couldn’t top the original 1964 Disney recorded version. Sometimes, the recording feels more genuine than the ‘real thing.’
At the VCCA, we hoped presenters could convey their research by showing a pre-recorded version of their talk. While the short clip was shown, the audience could already type questions into the chat, and as a presenter, one could readily think of strategies to best address those questions showing up. In my previous experience at in-person meetings, I had questions fired at me right after my talk, which I started to address only to realize mid-sentence how I wanted to answer. I imagine that the resulting stutters can sound confusing to the audience. In order to have a worthwhile and informative discussion after a virtual talk, we asked people to switch on their webcam and unmute to repeat the question aloud, and then the presenter responded in live mode. This was a new idea, and sometimes it worked, but sometimes it didn’t due to technical difficulties. What we do know is that in every edition, great pitch videos were created (almost like trailers for a movie) that showcased the research very effectively. In addition, participants shared great simulations, workshops, models, and datasets within the Computational Audiology Network. Here is a taste of the VCCA2022 pitch videos.
|Personal experiences from researchers across the globe|
|Seba Ausili – Research Scientist, University of Miami, Florida, United States.|
We humans are social beings. We need to interact with others as much as we need air to breathe. I was one of the pre-pandemic luckiest, since I had the opportunity to travel around the world for conferences, present the work we were doing, receive feedback, meet new colleagues, make new friends… It’s clear that the pandemic time forced us to seek for new solutions to keep the professional interactions going. After a few months, we were using platforms that some even didn’t know before they existed. This started a waterfall of new developments on the hardware and software side.Virtual meetings are incredibly helpful and useful to keep the interactions on. Initially, their role was to ‘fill the gap’. But, while being used ‘because we couldn’t meet in person’, we learned about their power and endless possibilities that were brought to the table. Now I also feel one of the luckiest, that can connect with incredible people around the world from the comfort of my home office while presenting the work we are doing and receiving amazing feedback. One other aspect I love about virtual meetings is that they waive travel costs (economical and environmental). This made possible that great scientists from developing countries are now being heard and are part of others’ ‘radar’. As an Argentinean (a developing country on the edge of the world), I cannot celebrate this enough. However, even the best of virtual meetings is far from the true social-engagement of an in-person one.I believe that we are going to be living in a hybrid scientific community from now on. Virtual meetings arrived to stay, and in-person meetings are still the social gold standard. As an engineer and technology enthusiast, I foresee integrative meetings with more than one venue, with immersive experiences for the ones that cannot be there (VR/AR/XR), exploiting all the knowledge we gathered so far. This way, we will take better care of our environment, provide opportunities to the ones that don’t always have easy access, and offer new ways to feed our social nature.What an exciting time to be part of!
|Liepollo Ntlhakana – Assoc. Lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology in South-Africa In 2021 I presented at the VCCA. The first I ever heard of the VCCA was when I saw an advert posted by the South African Association of Audiologists (SAAA). For me the timing was perfect as I was almost wrapping up my PhD and had one draft manuscript which fitted the scope of the conference. I clicked on the conference link to register and submit my abstract. Since this was a free online conference, it attracted more delegates. I was pleasantly surprised to see the format of the conference for presenters, and even more, browsing the format for 2020, presentations were advanced, impressive to see how authors engaged with their work, and research content presented. |
Preparing my recorded presentation allowed me to engage more with my research, the message I want to communicate to the audience, but without losing the complexity of the model I’ve built. I enjoyed the process. The questions asked by the attendees and discussion forums were engaging. Having said that, VCCA could follow the hybrid model to accommodate more delegates from across the globe, but there’s more value in virtual presentations though.
|Bill Whitmer – Senior Investigator Scientist, University of Nottingham, UK. |
Can the level of exchange in-person be matched otherwise? I’ve lost count of the number of revelations that have come in the hallways and neuks outside a hall. That said, I don’t think the talks necessarily suffer from being online, though it can be quite the burden for speakers talking into a vacuum (personal experience as well as others). What I do find fails is curiously the hybrid format. No one reacts to the virtual talks, regardless of how provocative they might be. Over many years, I’ve witnessed woefully little reaction to a streamed presentation by a live audience; it’s always been a case of ‘ok, next speaker,’ regardless of how disruptive the piped-in presentation might be. I can recall multiple times where the virtual presentation directly contradicts an in-person presentation in the same session – a great opportunity to try and settle an issue – but it’s never taken up, clearly due to the lower engagement by the live audience with the virtual talk. When the entire conference is virtual, the interaction returns, and in instances surpasses the amount of questions (and answers) of the in-person context. That said, hybrid attendance works, as long as the audio (including Qs from live attendees) is OK [insert how many acousticians does it take to screw in a microphone here], but in my experience, hybrid presentation is still an issue.
Perhaps this issue will go the way of the dodo. It’s worth noting that for a virtual attendee, there’s no clear presence barrier to engagement. Through greater hybrid attendance, there might be more engagement with virtual talks at a hybrid event.
|Soner Türüdü – PhD Student, Department of Otorhinolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, University Medical Center Groningen, University of Groningen, The Netherlands. |
I first met Computational Audiology last year at VCCA 2021. I was already interested in topics such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, and my curiosity increased with the submissions like machine learning models of auditory perception or deep learning models of human hearing. After that, I posted an article on my website about Computational Audiology to make the researchers in Turkey aware of this new field. In the following days, I got many questions from some researchers and students and referred them to the official website of VCCA. This way, they easily reached out to beneficial tools, sources, and the recordings of the online meetings VCCA2021 and VCCA2020.
The VCCA2022 was a virtual conference, but we attended it in hybrid mode with our research team in Groningen. Researchers from across the globe smoothly followed the meeting in their comfort zones since the recordings and sessions had good quality and precise sound. The presentations were impressive and inspirational for everyone, especially early-career researchers. Although in-person interaction was reduced, the VCCA2022 removed the barriers, such as travel and accommodation expenses for researchers worldwide, allowing for better flexibility, engagement, and work-life balance. It was a great experience to follow the meeting as a team.
|Rob Eikelboom – Research Manager-Corporate, Ear Science Institute Australia; Adjunct Professor, University of Western Australia; Adjunct Professor, Curtin University; Extra-ordinary Professor, University of Pretoria.|
Holding meetings online, although necessary in the circumstances in 2020 and 2021, left a lot to be desired. The personal contacts and discussions with new people were difficult to pull off. The physical presence of an audience with immediate feedback of body language, smiles or frowns was missing. Chatting around a poster with a glass of beer? A bit difficult. Catering for the time zones of everyone across the globe was not possible. Conference organisers, for the main part, did not deem it necessary to rethink the format of their normally in-person meetings – VCCA was refreshingly different.
On the other hand, registration was often free (not always), and travel time and costs were reduced. There were also success stories. My research institute set up regular in-house ‘symposia’ for all staff – from admin, clinicians through to research heads. Topics of clinical and research interest were presented and discussed. Post-COVID we continue these as monthly meetings, with almost all staff (>100) online in front of over 60 PCs and phones.
|Elle O’Brien – Lecturer and Research Investigator, University of Michigan, United States. |
From the perspective of the educator, both online and in-person meetings, require very designs to get to a worthwhile experience. The best online meetings probably don’t attempt to perfectly replicate an in-person event. They would use the affordances of Zoom/Slack/etc. to create entirely different experiences.
When I teach online, I design very different classes than in person. And interestingly, I have found it’s still quite possible to create connections with my students – at about the same level as my on-campus students! But the classes aren’t clones of one another, except with one on Coursera- we really have different activities to get to know one another.
|Jan-Willem Wasmann – Audiologist, Radboudumc, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. |
For me, a meeting is about sharing and developing new ideas. So what kind of ideas was I working on and looking forward to discussing? In 2020, I entertained the thought of creating a Deep Learning model to simulate a hearing impaired person. My grant proposal didn’t land. Then at the VCCA2021, I witnessed how Tim Brochier (see video) had developed a fully computational model of the CI. Very impressive! He had pulled it off in a much more sophisticated way than I could have ever accomplished. In retrospect, I’m happy that I didn’t struggle to build a deep learning model, but in contrast, due to the short time from model to presentation, I can now build on (if needed) the work by Tim and others. Similarly, I’m looking forward to the advances by Maartje Hendrikse and Lorenzo Picinali in virtual test environments or the development of serious games in audiology.
|Deniz Başkent – Professor, University of Groningen, University Medical Center Groningen, , The Netherlands. |
Do I like the idea or do I fear the prospect of less long travels to meet other researchers? Both actually. I do not like traveling all the time, both for personal reasons and environmental reasons. But once I am at the location, I realize the value of face-to-face communication. The nuances are lost in online communication. One to one or smaller online meetings are fine, but in larger venues this is difficult.
On the other hand, I like the accessibility of online, I have met many people who may not normally be able to come to the meetings, but it is because I actively participate. I am not sure how many people do that. Older people (established researchers) are already known and sometimes I feel they do not need it, Younger people tend to be shy to show active online behaviour. Active participation is easier, for example, at the posters, or even at social events.
|Dennis Barbour – Associate Professor, Washington University St Louis, Missouri, United States |
The way I explained Zoom classes to my students during the pandemic is that we were giving everyone a cognitive deficit. That meant instructors needed to take more care to get their points across in a variety of ways, and students needed to adapt rapidly to new ways of acquiring new information and practicing new skills.
In the context of conferences, I agree with everyone else that in-person is a better experience in which more can be accomplished in less time and with less effort. However, that is the perspective of an able-bodied, normal-hearing, fluent English speaker from a wealthy country. Technology can be a great equalizer, the way SMS texting completely altered the way Deaf and hearing individuals communicated and greatly cut back the need for TTY/TDD services in the US. We could embrace the momentum toward inclusivity of community members who might be better able to draw benefit from a virtual conference than an in-person conference.
Jan-Willem’s comment that theatre and cinema are fundamentally different art forms to achieve similar ends is on point, I think. I enjoy both, and I think there is utility in having a community that engages with each other in a variety of ways. In fact, as the scientific community most invested in optimizing human-to-human communication in our day jobs, we SHOULD be leaders in this regard. The fact that we can be inclusive, more engaging, and climate sensitive with the same kinds of activities is a win all around, in my opinion.
|Dave Moore – Director, Communication Sciences Research Center, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital|
A recent, delicate situation, a misunderstanding between two colleagues, reminded me of the power of in-person meetings. I do recognize of course the carbon footprint aspect of these encounters, especially when I can’t use my bike or my sustainably refueled electric car to get places! Two weeks ago, for example, I again flew to England for my p/t job at the Manchester Centre for Audiology and Deafness. I had a number of things to do in Manchester, including presenting an in-person seminar, for which there is a huge benefit of being there to network with new people in the Department, and to pursue in a leisurely fashion and one-to-one further discussion that can go anywhere, and often to a nice meal where relationships can really bond. On the same trip, near Oxford, I visited my beautiful two year old grandson in Oxford for the weekend. For anyone with children, or grandchildren, I need hardly say the importance of that sort of in-person encounter! We could argue that we all need to live close to our loved ones and, for most people, that is the norm. But how much culturally poorer would our world be unless some of us felt the urge to reach out across the oceans, to meet other people and to experience what every traveler gets to know with experience that, deep down, all people have the same needs and aspirations. Remotely, it is all too easy to under-estimate the communication gap that must nevertheless be bridged to form the most meaningful relationships. Need I mention “Make America great again”?
|Charlotte Garcia – Post-Doctoral Research Associate, MRC Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom |
I first presented at VCCA in 2020 while I was still completing my PhD. I was lucky to have started my studies prior to the pandemic, and had been able to travel to a few conferences (BAS in London, both CIAP and ARO in California) to present my work in person before everything was forced to go virtual. VCCA was my first completely virtual conference and I feel that I was spoilt for all future virtual or hybrid conferences because of how smoothly it went. I was lucky to have already been able to experience the more spontaneous interactions that are really only possible at in-person conferences, so I entered the pandemic with a small – but existent – academic network. This, and the fact that it was such a well organized virtual conference when other conferences were unavailable, meant that I experienced a great deal of engagement in the meeting. I had some excellent questions from relevant people in response to my presentation, and was easily able to answer follow-up questions via a chat function that we didn’t have time for in the session itself. I also felt very engaged with the other talks throughout the day. Overall, I felt it was a great success, and the meeting website allowed me to engage effectively online with other people’s research.
For early career researchers, it is difficult to build a network from online meetings. It’s important, therefore, for them to be able to attend in-person meetings on occasion. However, the purely virtual format of VCCA allows early career researchers to more actively access the science people from around the world without having to find the resources to travel there. What can otherwise be a large economic and great environmental cost becomes trivial. It also retains access to far-afield science for mid-stage career researchers who may be bouncing from one fixed-term contract to another whilst balancing family responsibilities. I believe meetings that are designed to be purely virtual are incredibly important for the future of science, are especially important for early career researchers, and important for supporting the life-work balance of academics.
The personal stories above show many considerations for choosing between virtual and in-person meetings. Would this multitude of motivations provide room for hybrid (or blended) meetings? One bold suggestion would be to schedule a big audiology society meeting concurrently in the US (AAA), UK (BAA), South-Africa (SAAA), and Australia (Australian Hearing Hub). That way one can meet in-person at the continental hub while facilitating intercontinental discussions via a virtual link. Besides climate benefits (80% of emissions from conferences stem from intercontinental flights), virtual or hybrid conferences could further increase the equity, diversity, and inclusiveness (EDI) of meetings. Delegates who don’t have the means to travel abroad or who can only join part-time (e.g. need to take care of their family in the evenings) have FEW opportunities to join the international dialogue on scientific progress and developments.
This brings me to the networking opportunities. If I’m at an in-person meeting, I spend more time at the coffee corner or the lobby than in the conference rooms. Since the virtual meetings, I have been chatting, emailing, and using Zoom regularly with contacts from Australia, Africa, Europe, and the US. Off course, one must deal with time zones or Zoom fatigue, and a screen2screen meeting is less intimate than a face2face meeting. But the repeated interactions over time have helped my career in a way that would not be possible (within the same time constraints) through in-person meetings. I hope everybody reconsiders what you take home from an in-person meeting and when to set it up versus what to get from a digital meeting (Bousema et al., 2022). For many reasons, including climate resilience policy, digital meetings are here to stay.
It’s probably too soon to evaluate, but I would like to know this: Is there a genuine impact of the Computational Audiology Network? Did anybody use the contacts and discussions at a VCCA to start a new project or improve existing activities? Or prepare a grant proposal? Or have other benefits? Please let us know if it did and what you would need to have more of such experiences in the future.
Take care! I’m looking forward to meeting you in a setting that fits the occasion.
Bousema, T., Burtscher, L., Rij, R. P. van, Barret, D., & Whitfield, K. (2022). The critical role of funders in shrinking the carbon footprint of research. The Lancet Planetary Health, 6(1), e4–e6. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00276-X