Conferences in the 21st Century: Why bother?

Kate Kelly on the relevance of academic conferences in the internet age.

Microphone set up at conference

The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes” – Marcel Proust

Conferences are part of the glue that holds an academic field together – a collective mind-meld where researchers share their work and hear about the work of others. Attending and presenting at conferences is an integral part of an academic’s work, and a rite of passage for early career researchers. However, in this age of video chat, email and web-everything, it can be hard to see why. If I can Skype my grandfather in Swindon from the other side of the world, why do academics need to gather together to share information? Surely that’s what the internet was invented for?

Nevertheless, early one Tuesday morning this digital native found herself headed to London for the British Educational Research Association’s annual conference, armed with presentation slides and a stomach full of kamikaze butterflies. This was my first educational conference, and to be honest, I wasn’t really sure what I had let myself in for. I was certainly excited by the opportunity to be star-struck by some of the big names in the field, but this was tempered by the fear that older and wiser researchers would recommend a career move to marketing. If I expected anything, it was that working in a field as niche as assessment, there was unlikely to be much going on which related to my particular research interests. I thought that most of the benefit from attending the conference would be in giving my presentation and receiving feedback.

Score 1 out of 2 for me. My presentation was just a 20 minute segment in a three day event consisting of multiple presentation sessions, keynote speeches, special interest group meetings and, memorably, a question panel with leading figures in education. Although I certainly gained a lot from the experience of presenting, I was wrong to think this would be the most valuable aspect. I was right, though, in thinking that most of the presentations wouldn’t be about assessment. I spent the best part of three days listening to other people talking about research into areas which, while very interesting, were wholly unrelated to my work.

But on the other hand, I spent three days listening to other people talking about research into areas wholly unrelated to my work.  When you are totally absorbed in one small part of a broader field, it’s easy to stop seeing the rest of that field, or to see it only in terms of your part. You are the hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. Going to a conference was like being taken around B&Q and shown that actually, there are also screws, glue, sealants and a whole range of fixatives. The conference gave me an opportunity to look at education through a much wider variety of lenses, and to look at my own field from angles I’d never considered before: to see the landscape of assessment with new eyes. I came away with a better understanding of how our work in CERP fits into the bigger picture, and I think this was the most valuable part of the experience.

Perhaps I could have had the same voyage of discovery on the internet. I’m not so sure though. I love the internet and I can’t imagine life without Google. But you have to know what you’re looking for; you can’t search for something you’ve never heard of.  And when you have so much information to trawl through, it’s easy to quickly dismiss something as irrelevant. It’s harder to do that when the information is being presented in analogue, face-to-face. The conference environment practically impels you to give due consideration to something you wouldn’t normally think much about, and this in turn can lead to unexpected insights into your own work. So all in all, I think I’m starting to understand why academics go in for conferencing. Who knows...maybe I’ll even go again next year.

Kate Kelly

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