Casting my mind back to the sunlit uplands prior to March 2020, I fondly recall the annual summer FACE conference, and the biennial Easter WP conference organised by the Open University (declaration of interest, the latter organised by my colleagues). There were others of course, and numerous one day events like the regular Action on Access event in London. I enjoyed attending them, pleased to share my research with an audience, to network with like-minded colleagues and to learn what other institutions were doing to widen participation. I was lucky enough to represent FACE at conferences in the US, gaining greatly through interactions with colleagues working in very different policy contexts.
However, writing this after working from home for almost a year, and having become a seasoned user of Microsoft Teams, or Skype for Business, or Zoom (other platforms are available), I reflect on a small conundrum: why researchers and practitioners did not grasp the inclusivity and cost-savings and green practices of remote conferencing before. Face-to face conferences are (necessarily) expensive to attend. Organisers must book conference rooms and provide overnight accommodation and catering. Attendees are forced to seek sparse institutional funding or pay for themselves. This is intrinsically unfair, with senior academics more likely to be able to access funding, whereas early researchers or WP practitioners have inevitably faced institutional obstacles before financial support can be assumed. Colleagues across the UK often had to take a day out of work to travel (especially if assumptions were made about start times in London). And don’t get me started about the impact of hundreds of attendees on carbon emissions.
So, I wonder about two things as I am about to receive my first vaccination: has lockdown resulted in a diminution of research and scholarship activity around WP? Has lockdown reduced sector engagement in WP research findings via conference dissemination?
Well, not in my world. In previous years, at the OU we would have attracted up to 50 colleagues to an externally advertised OU seminar on WP and been pleased to see that many (they were free). This year, forced to shift our planned seminar programme to online delivery, we organised a half-day session addressing the black awarding gap. We were so inundated with colleagues keen to share their research we had to put on two additional events. The eventual series of three half-day seminars attracted around 250 participants to each – unimaginable numbers for a half-day face-to-face event
Previously we would have been delighted to attract around 120 colleagues to our biennial WP conference (I suspect similar numbers to the FACE conference). After the forced postponement of our April 2020 WP conference (scheduled for a two-day face-to-face event in Milton Keynes) due to COVID, we have planned an online event for this month. Drawing on our experience of online meetings during lockdown, we have structured the normal two- day event across four mornings (15-18 March), each session with a distinctive WP theme:
- Race and Ethnicity
- Carer, Care-experienced and Estranged students
- Disability and Mental Health
- Mature and Adult learners
Like a traditional conference, there will be a keynote speaker introducing each morning’s theme, with a range of seminars, workshops, and lightning talks, but all delivered remotely. We have been inundated with colleagues keen to share their research.
We would normally have had a WP policy perspective at our conference – this time Chris Millward has recorded a short video introduction to each theme. We took the decision to make the remote conference free of charge, and so far 600 delegates have registered across the four days (420 for the opening morning). It has of course required a lot of human resource and technical support to organise the event, but we are excited that so many people across the sector are researching WP, want to share their findings, and want to hear about what others are doing.
I wonder if the future dissemination of WP scholarship will become more democratic and inclusive as a result of the disruption to normal academic life prompted by COVID?
Professor John Butcher is Director Access, Open and Cross-curricula Innovation at The Open University
Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi