Today was the second and last day of ITiCSE 2020, originally scheduled to take place in Trondheim, Norway. Thanks to the pandemic the conference switched to a virtual format a few short months ago, something that produced a huge amount of work for the organizers. As grateful as I was to the organizers for making it happen at all, I headed into it worried about how it would feel. ITiCSE is my favorite conference (2020 is my 13th ITiCSE), and I didn’t know how it would translate to a virtual format. I’m happy to report that my worry was completely misplaced: ITiCSE 2020 was an amazing experience.
While the time for the first sessions each day seemed early when I looked at the program (2 am on Wednesday and 4 am on Thursday), in practice it wasn’t that bad. Travelling to Europe is exhausting and I typically don’t sleep well at conferences, so having an early wake-up on two days wasn’t much of a stretch. It helped that my partner was as supportive as always and bravely woke up to make me coffee on the first day. Of course, it also helps that my office is in the basement far away from where people sleep in my house. I know at least one attendee in a studio apartment who had to keep things quiet and dark so as to not wake up her husband.
The program was as excellent as always, and I enjoyed the shorter format for talks more than I expected. I didn’t present though, and I’m sure that it was hard for the speakers to try to condense their significant work into only 10 minutes plus 5 minutes of questions. But I felt like I got to see more because the presentations were shorter. I also felt more connected to the speakers, perhaps because I could see them and their slides so much more clearly than in a big lecture hall. Asking questions was different in a good way. There’s something enabling about the Q&A feature on Zoom webinars — it feels less intimidating somehow. It was intriguing how the chats became a way for session attendees to carry on their own conversation, and those conversations were often a great add-on to the formal presentation. Someone described it as whispering to your neighbor, except that everyone could hear what you’re saying. In real life that would be annoying, but in this case that was definitely a plus. The format also elevated the importance of session chairs. Good ones improved the session with the way they handled the questions and the speakers, and I was appreciative of their work.
I love to say that SIGCSE is about the people, and I wasn’t sure how socializing would work virtually. Again, I didn’t need to worry. While you couldn’t see anyone other than the session chair and the speakers in the webinars, the open discussion sessions were a great way to see and talk to people. I just wish I would have discovered that before the end of the first day! I augmented the conference with heavy use of social media (mostly Twitter but also Facebook a bit), which turned out far better than I would have predicted. I got to “meet” several people who were attending the same session as me thanks to their tweets, even seeing pictures of their very cute dogs. Several people who had said they were going to have to miss the conference due to reduced travel budgets were able to make the virtual conference, and I was delighted to interact with them through the various platforms. While I didn’t have any one-on-one conversations, which is something I prize at conferences, I did exchange messages with people who were also attending which was close enough to leave me happy.
Do I want to get rid of face-to-face conferences after this experience? Definitely not! I missed the breakfasts, dinners, excursions, and random walks with other conference goers, something that my family and cats simply can’t simulate. But I left the conference with the excitement about computing education and the computing education community that is the hallmark of a SIGCSE conference. I’m so grateful to the 2020 conference committee for everything they did to make this happen.