So Far, Virtual Conferences Are Unsatisfying

By Terry Calhoun

Personally, I’ve never attended a virtual conference or workshop that was satisfying. Useful, yes. Satisfying, no. And really, none have ever been nearly as worthwhile as a face-to-face conference or workshop. On the other hand, attending a conference can easily be a $2,000 hit on your budget.

There may be progress being made in some places. My wife, who works for a major pharmaceutical company, attends regular virtual team meetings with her counterparts in New York, England, etc. She says those go very well. I bet the major Internet2 users are also having virtual meetings that I would envy. Why not the rest of us?

Will we really all be flying all over the place to face-to-face meetings in 5 years? Maybe. In 10 years? It’s really hard for me to picture that. If petroleum-based fuels are so expensive now, how much more will they be in 10 years? And that’s not considering the desperate need to counter climate change, which will involve broadly applying sustainability principles in our lives.

It’s easy to envision low-emission, sustainable energy local travel in ten years, but low-emission, sustainable air travel? Hmm.

While I write this, I am attending the first annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) at Arizona State University. The conference is being as “green” as it possibly can: attendees have been asked to bring used name badge holders, drinking mugs, tote bags from previous conferences they have attended, and so forth.

But…I still flew here on an airplane from the Detroit Metro Airport. Not a sustainable action and definitely contributing to climate change. I will pay my carbon tax, of course, as I did when I attended the Campus of the Future conference last July.

Speaking of which, it was quite amusing that the Wall Street Journal had an editorial note in early August criticizing the travel of the 4,400+ higher education leaders who attended that conference. WSJ is not exactly well-known as a sustainability savvy publication.

But my point is that, in accord with the strong movement to make college and university campuses greener, higher education information technology staffers could make a great contribution by developing state-of-the-art, satisfying, online conference functionality that is easy-to-use and inexpensive.

What that would look like, I don’t know. But if Internet2, EDUCAUSE, AASHE, and some other organizations could work together in a consortium to develop really good conferencing functionality, I think it could be done.

It would certainly be a valuable resource, and I intend to talk to some people and see if such a project could possibly get underway. If you are interested in this, please contact me at

Not to end on a negative note, but I will admit that this particular issue is one where technology alone can’t solve the problem. One of the main reasons that I have not found virtual meetings to be all that satisfying is that it is really hard to be in your office and actually focus your attention on a virtual meeting while you are still in your office and subject to real world demands.

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