Trialling a satellite conference: FLANZ 2021

By Stephen Bright (University of Waikato, New Zealand)

Kia ora, ngā mihi nui ki a koutou katoa.

I don’t know about you, but after a year I’m pretty much over virtual conferences. This is not to say that I think they have no value, far from it. ASCILITE’s virtual conference in December 2020 was an example of a very interesting and stimulating event in terms of the presentations offered, and the opportunity to view the latest research in the online learning field.

However, while these conferences  all offer insights and the exchange of ideas, they lack the intensity of the interactive element that face-to-face conference opportunities bring. While we all know this has been largely forced upon us by the COVID necessities of life at this point around the world, it doesn’t diminish our craving for some personal contact – in the same room, drinking coffee or tea (or whatever) together and catching up with each other as part of both the formal and informal opportunities conferences bring. Zoom and other similar tools are better than no interaction, but they are still a step back from what happens in a kanohi ki te kanohi [face to face] environment.

In New Zealand, we have been fortunate to largely dodge the disruption and social isolation from interaction that COVID brings to a community. But, as this last week has just shown with a fresh outbreak of cases in our largest city, Auckland, the uncertainty around organising events which involve large gatherings of people is a very real factor. With very short notice, events which have been planned for months or even years can suddenly find that they are either postponed or cancelled because of the restrictions in New Zealand that apply to tertiary institutions.

As well, there has been a considerably reduced income to tertiary institutions because of international student numbers being drastically reduced. This has had a flow-on effect to requiring a more frugal approach to conference registration fees, travel and accommodation allowances for most institutions. Because of the difficulties of travelling between countries (even Australia and New Zealand) with quarantine requirements changing at short notice, there are now much less opportunities for conference travel. It is also means any conference has to be priced at an affordable level for participants to get approval for institutional expenditure.

In response to this, online or virtual conferences have proliferated as a way of continuing the ongoing interaction of ideas and research, and enabling something to happen where the alternative is basically nothing.

The FLANZ conference committee (Flexible Learning Association of New Zealand) considered this when they began planning for their conference, due to be held April 14/15 this year. Having had to cancel last year’s 2020 conference (also scheduled for April) there was lengthy discussion on how we might offer a conference that allows for limited funding and travel opportunities, COVID uncertainties, and yet still has the possibility of some face-to-face component.

The conclusion was to operate on a ‘hub and satellite’ model. One venue (the hub) would manage and host the main conference audience. This hub was chosen as Victoria University in Wellington, which was also the planned venue for the 2020 conference. As Auckland is our most vulnerable location in terms of sporadic COVID lockdowns, choosing another city for the main venue was a ‘no-brainer’. For those with some travel budget, participants could travel to the main ‘hub’ venue and have the full conference experience. For those on a very tight travel budget, the satellite venues in other centres provide an opportunity for face-to-face contact in smaller groups, with low travel costs and a regional or local cohort for face-to-face participation.

Zoom linking for plenary and other sessions means that participants can be with other people to converse and interact, while being able to access the shared learning that the conference provides opportunities for. This makes the conference more resilient and able to cope with fluctuations in COVID levels, as well as requiring less travel for participants who live nearer the satellite venues. Satellite venues will be operating including the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, University of Waikato in Hamilton, and Auckland University of Technology in Auckland. As well, the conference registration is very affordable, with a reduction in registration fees for those attending the satellite venues.

However, if the worst case COVID scenario occurs with another full lockdown for New Zealand in April, the conference can relatively easily pivot to being fully online if that need arises.

If you want to know more, please visit the FLANZ conference website.

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