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Do I really want the world at my fingertips?

The COVID-19 pandemic has had me sitting through a lot of “webinars”. Some of them are the kind of events that I might have attended online anyway, such as those organised by international arms of the IEEE and ACM; some of them I might have attended in person under other circumstances, such as those organised by my employer or other local organisations; but some I would probably not have attended at all because they’re held in some far-off city or just because there’s only so many times a week I’m prepared to go out for a seminar.

There’s a lot to like about being able to “attend” events that I might not have seen otherwise, though I sometimes feel in danger of being overwhelmed by the number of interesting-looking events that appear in my e-mail. Most particularly, I’m not sure I want to spend all of my time in international or even national seminars detached from my local area. Sure, I’m interested in national and international goings-on, but I do actually live my life in a particular region, and one that I have a great deal of affection for.

At the height of the hype surrounding massive open on-line courses (MOOCs), MOOC enthusiasts thrilled to the idea that we could all learn from the top few teachers in the world. It’s easy to see the same logic in attending international seminars by video: why head down to a Siligong Valley event when I could see the greatest programmers in the world on television?

Of course MOOCs haven’t (yet) lived up to that dream. And I’ve seen plenty of international seminars with highly-touted speakers that weren’t necessarily any more more interesting or informative than what I’ve seen in Wollongong and Western Sydney. I suspect that one of the principal reasons for this is that watching a video of the greatest teacher or greatest engineer in the world is missing the point: much of the benefit from such activities comes from interacting with the material and there’s only so many people with whom one can meaningfully interact at any given time.

In planning my attendance at this year’s Science Week, I made a point of choosing events that I might have gone to in person had that been an option. I couldn’t possibly attend even all the events in Sydney let alone Australia, even on-line, so I’ve had plenty to see. But even though I’ve felt vaguely connected with my local area in doing so, I do miss the nights out and the meetings with people that I had when attending the same events in person last year. I don’t know who else was at the events and none of them know that I was there. (I’m reminded of The Register‘s Verity Stob once describing on-line education as more CutOff than LinkedIn.)

I don’t plan on giving up international webinars. I can see an argument that videoconferencing should have replaced a lot of academic conference activity a long time ago. But I don’t think I’m ready to bring the world to my lounge room to such an extent that I forget where my lounge is located.


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