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Jun 28, 2022

Can I zoom into your class, professor?

This seems to be a persistent post-COVID request, a difficult one to address. On one hand, instructors want to be accommodating and compassionate to students. Everyone now knows it is theoretically possible to have some people Zooming in. Students have very good stories, including being sick with COVID. Other faculty relent, so one may feel a bit of a peer pressure to say yes. On the other hand, it is very hard to do well. The dual or HyFlex modality turned out to be very hard on instructors. First, the technology is not there yet. We thought it is, and some ed tech enthusiasts will tell you it is. But do not believe them. Someone has to point the camera to the right direction, make sure the sound feed is OK (most rooms do not have good microphones). Someone has to monitor the online portion of the class and include them into all kinds of activities. Depending on the class, the effort ranges from very difficult to impossible. Also, you look like an incompetent fool to the students, when fumbling about technology. These impressions may affect your student evaluations and ultimately your career.

Universities are reluctant to regulate for obvious reasons: Faculty tend to value independence on decisions, and classes and programs are too different to merit a one-size-fits all approach. Yet the lack of regulation is a problem on its own: it breeds inconsistency, and makes peer pressure worse. Going through the existing services for students with disabilities seems to be too cumbersome. Those procedures work for semester-long accommodations, but not for short-term, or one-time requests. Even regular doctors notes won’t work consistently.

To address the issue, we have been working on a set of guidelines and best practices. The fundamental assumption is that we should communicate three things to the student:
  1. It is a curtesy accommodation; you are not entitled to it. It comes at a cost to me and to other students in class, so please only request when you are truly desperate. “Gas is too expensive” does not qualify. And even then, I may not be able to grant it to you, sorry.
  2. Do not expect experience similar to being in class. We do not yet have technology to provide full participation for remote students in a f2f class. It is much more difficult than a regular online class, and you should appreciate the complexity.
  3. If I agree, find a zoom buddy in class who will do this for you: turn the laptop around, make sure your sound is good enough, ask questions on your behalf, etc. The instructor is too busy teaching to do this for you. And your zoom buddy should do all of that without disrupting the rest of the class. 
We also started to collect the best practices for such remote participation. I am sure, in a few years, people will find better ways of supporting such requests. I hope some smart entrepreneurs are working on better tech solutions. In the meanwhile, we should try to live with the imperfect the best way can.

Jun 12, 2022

A shoestring conference. Downshifting in the academia.

No deep thoughts here, just some practical tips on how to run an international conference with no budget and minimal support. There is an international network of scholars that has no legal status and no budget. We intend to keep it that way as long as possible, because setting up an organization is a headache regardless of jurisdiction. It is because once money start exchanging hands, tax authorities reasonably require some accountability. It is harder in some countries than in others, but still it is a burden.

We use Qualtrics, a common survey software to collect names of all people who are interested in being in the loop. Conference proposals are also accepted through the same survey software. Once proposals are in, we created one long file with all the anonymized proposals. Reviewers would all go to the same file and insert their reviews right there, after each proposal. The reviewers also use a code number, so we maintain the double-blind standard. This little trick cuts down on writing back and forth, matching reviews with proposals, and virtually eliminates manual data entry. The only small manual step – we mark rejected proposals on the list and mark the rest of them automatically mark accepted. A mail merge trick allows you to send 60 emails in a few seconds. It can send a thousand in a few minutes.

Now, the next trick is important; we discovered it this year, and it works. We created a google doc with empty time slots, and invited presenters to enter their name and paper title in any empty slot. It worked great, and we have a program no one spent any time putting together. It literally assembled itself, and people had a choice on time. The non-editable version of the program is automatically published on the conference website. Now, we got people a little confused because for the global conference, we had to use UTC, and it is surprisingly hard for many people to figure out the time difference. This is something to improve next time around.

Because the conference is virtual this year, we did not have to deal with hotels, contracts, food, receptions, and all that stuff. We sweet-talked the keynote speaker to give the talk for free, which eliminated the need for registration fees. The conference is open to all, so people come to the site, enter a zoom room, and participate. No worries, no zoom bombing took place. I believe it is a very rare event, and even if it happens, no one is physically hurt. Those who ran conference know, what a headache registration is, both in terms of money collection, and maintaining records.

One can, of course, pay someone 50K to run an online conference, and charge a few hundred dollars in fees. The treasurer has to worry that if not enough people register, the conference will be in the red. Well, we have no treasurer. However, the quality of conversation is not affected by that at all. I the end, it is the same 8-12 people in every room, listening to a presentation, and engaging in productive conversations. With available distributed information processing technologies, there is a way to downshift in many areas of life. Scholarly conferences is one of them.

If we ever decide to go f2f, there are ways of keeping the cost down. Any campus can give rooms and tech support for free. People can book their own hotels without conference discounts. The way those discounts work is – you must buy a lot of food in exchange for slightly discounted rooms, and free or discounted conference rooms. And if you do not make the quota – you are liable to pay the difference. It is a racket, really. Unless you run a conference in very expensive cities, the discounts are not worth the registration fees. The local host campus can always sponsor a reception, with a cash bar, of course.

Success of academic downshifting is not entirely dependent on the virtual modality. It is a matter of choice and skill. Simple is beautiful. Sorry, middlemen.