by John Q on March 17, 2020

I just gave my first UQ departmental seminar using Zoom. As in most places, our usual practice is to have visiting speakers present their work and meet colleagues in the same field. When large numbers of Chinese students were prevented from returning to Australia in the first round of the coronavirus epidemic, the cost to the university’s budget was such that nearly all travel, including paying for visitors’ travel was cancelled. As it’s turned out, a good thing to. This left big gaps in the seminar program, so I volunteered to present a paper in one of the vacant slots.

By the time the seminar was scheduled to happen, budget cuts were the least of our worries. Lectures were stopped for a week while we switch to all-online teaching, and (nearly all) meetings were cancelled. So, I decided to present the talk from home using Zoom. It went quite well, even though my home Internet is a bit flaky (the much-delayed National Broadband Network is supposed to arrive here next month, and may improve things). In the subsequent discussion, it was pointed out that we could invite people from outside the department to take part. For example, one of our PhD students had a paper accepted for a conference that’s been cancelled, and could ask some of the key people who would have been there to hear the presentation.

It also struck me that we could have gone back to the originally scheduled speaker, and had them do a Zoom presentation. That leads immediately to the question: why carry on with the tradition of flying colleagues in to have them talk to us, when they could just as well do it from home (or at least, from their home campus)? The difficulties are much less than those with online-only teaching.

Of course, I would say that. I’ve been pushing the merits of videoconferencing and related technologies for decades, and regularly respond to travel invitations by offering a video presentation rather than attendance in person. But now that lots of people are experiencing the process and finding it works reasonably well (and in fact has substantial advantages), returning to the old ways once the crisis is over may be too difficult to justify, especially since our budget is going to be stringently rationed for a long time to come.



DCA 03.17.20 at 10:34 am

To answer the question at the end, we fly them in so that they can spend part of the 1-2 days with us having useful (we hope) one-on-one talks with whoever is interested in seeing them, or vice-versa. Not to say this couldn’t be done with video, also, but that would make it less flexible and more formal.


oldster 03.17.20 at 2:38 pm

The present crisis will offer at least one small sliver of hope for the larger crisis of global warming if it persuades people that air travel can be severely reduced, both in academia and in business.

On the other hand, as many have commented, the present crisis suggests that we are entirely doomed on the global warming front, since we see once again that right-wing monsters will lie, deny, deflect and obstruct even when the bodies are piling up.

And if we survive this, someone should investigate the imbeciles at Imperial who played the role of climate change denialists in this episode. That’s not how herd immunity works! That was never how herd immunity would work. What were they thinking? Oh, that’s right — they cobbled together some bad science and caught the ear of the authoritarian government by telling them what they wanted to hear, even though it will get people killed. Well, that’s the way right-wing government works, anyhow.


Kevin Bryan 03.17.20 at 4:08 pm

Video talks are substantially worse. Indeed, I would say they are pointless – we all know how to read. There is an enormous literature on informal interaction and its benefits. The point of visiting seminars is to generate new ideas in these informal interactions, particularly those that are linked to the paper presented in the seminar. On my end, I have written multiple papers that began with a discussion at a conference or seminar visit.

Seniors, who already have their networks and who find the personal cost of travel to be high due to family obligations and age, benefit the least from the current arrangement. I would very much argue against changes in academia which privilege seniors when we have already seen many shifts (e.g., funding practices) that severely limit the productivity of younger faculty.


oldster 03.17.20 at 5:47 pm

I unfairly and inaccurately libeled Imperial College, London in my note above. I mistakenly thought that the initial plan that Boris was following — of letting “herd immunity” take care of the epidemic — came from their advice.

I was wrong, and I apologize to them. The name that should go down in infamy is Patrick Vallance, Johnson’s innumerate “science advisor.”

He probably will not cause as many deaths as the climate denialists will. But he’ll have a lot of blood on his hands, because of his ignorance and arrogance.


John Quiggin 03.17.20 at 10:53 pm

@3 While I am senior now, I haven’t changed my views on this since the early 1990s. Back then, for family reasons, I took a job in a fairly isolated university in the north of Queensland with a tiny econ department. I went to a couple of conferences a year, made contacts there and kept them up by email. I actually increased my research productivity. I became convinced at that time that academics travel too much.

Email was crucial in this. The Web arrived a bit later, and took some time to become more than a curiosity. I started my personal website in 1997 (as you can tell if you visit!), and then blogging in 2002.


Matt 03.18.20 at 8:24 am

For what it’s worth, I’m more with Kevin in 3 – I don’t think video talks are worthless – you can still do Q&A and the like, and there’s some similarity to face-to-face, but I do think, John, you’re projecting your own experience and preference wider than is warranted here, and that the sort of informal discussion and contact that’s possible with personal interaction just can’t be replaced with video. That’s not to say it should never be used. We should of course consider costs and benefits! But, to think it’s a full or real replacement is just obviously unwarranted, to make the reverse mistake of people who think it’s never a good option.


dilbert dogbert 03.19.20 at 5:26 pm


MJC 03.19.20 at 8:08 pm

I agree that we can/should see academic traveling much cut back, primarily due to climate change reasons (and of course the current epidemiological reasons). But I think it should be recognized as a cost as well as a benefit — as people have pointed out, the informal interactions are, typically, the best part of a trip (for me at least), and are not at all replaceable by virtual interactions.

Going to a host’s house, or out to a pub with them and students; visiting field sites (my work is in food, agriculture, and conservation), experiencing the atmosphere, conviviality (or lack thereof) and culture of another place–these don’t always happen during academic trips, but when they do, I don’t think the value is at all comparable to what can be got with a virtual talk & visit. The bonds formed in person, for me, are qualitatively different.

That said, the best of both worlds would seem to be for academic travel to substantially cut back, for there to be more virtual presentations where some useful knowledge and interaction can be had, and hopefully lead us to be more choiceful in attending maybe only one or two events in person each year, and making the most of the opportunities therein to really deeply socially engage (if that’s your bag). You know, a “fewer, better” type approach.


Michael Cain 03.19.20 at 9:19 pm

Like John, I’ve been an advocate of multi-media multi-party “conferencing” for decades now. (I had working prototypes using IP inside one of the giant telecoms as early as 1993.) I believed then, and continue to believe, that we have all been ill-served by the providers’ fascination with video rather than exploring the possibilities in a medium that starts with the conceptual model of a smart shared piece of paper. In our experiments, people quickly reduced the role of video streams to a body-language signaling channel. It’s amazing how bad video can be and fulfill that role; I used 15 frames/second with the (quite small) images done in black and white dots. In those days, black or white were literally the only display capability you could assume would be available across different machines and operating systems.


John Quiggin 03.20.20 at 12:43 am

In the absence of pandemic disease, conferences and workshops are massively more efficient in promoting informal contact than single-person campus visits. Once made, contacts can be maintained by email, and now by Zoom and similar. As I noted, that’s how I was able to be active in a fairly obscure field of research while based in a remote corner of the planet.

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