Last week I attended my second-ever virtual conference. This time it was the ACM International Computing Education Research Conference (ICER), which was originally scheduled to take place in Dunedin, New Zealand. As has happened repeatedly this year, the pandemic forced the conference online, something that was particularly concerning in this case. ICER is the SIGCSE conference I’ve attended the least, this one was my fifth ICER, but I’ve gone enough to appreciate that the conference is all about interactions with your fellow attendees. I was worried that the virtual version of the conference would be particularly disconnected from the usual ICER experience. As it turns out, and in no small part because of the hard work and foresight of the organizers, the conference felt collaborative and interactive.

I’ll be honest up front in saying that part of my enjoyment of the conference stemmed from the much better timing relative to my home time zone. Whereas ITiCSE 2020 had an opening session that began at 2 am my time, none of the ICER 2020 sessions began before 3 pm my time. And while I previously observed that even a 2 am session isn’t harder than a trip to Europe (or New Zealand), it was helpful to be fully awake and rested for the sessions. I did feel for the European attendees who had to stay up very late to see all of the sessions each day. I’m glad that the organizers asked about times for virtual conferences in their feedback, since I’m more and more convinced that it’s crucial to not consistently disadvantage any continent during a given conference.

As with my ITiCSE 2020 experience, I found myself excited anticipating the start of the conference and at the beginning of each day. This sense of excitement was enhanced by the use of Discord, which allowed me to see the name of everyone logged into the server. It gave me the same feeling I get when I look around the crowd of faces in breaks or during meals, spotting people I know and people I recognize but don’t know. It was also helpful to be able to see in advance who was in a break room or at a table during the parallel sessions, so that I could both find people I knew and wanted to catch up with and also meet new people. I also used the private communication feature a few times to talk one-on-one with people I knew, something that I didn’t have at my previous virtual conference.

As with ITiCSE 2020, it was important to spend time in the break rooms with people, since chatting with groups of people is one of the things I value most about conference attendance.  The organizers scheduled plenty of opportunities for socializing, which was great. I also appreciated the relatively short sessions and short days, which helped me to feel less burned out by the end of the conference day.

One of the things I liked best about ICER 2020 was the structuring of the “live” sessions. All of the talks were recorded, and the conference sessions involved playing that recording while everyone watched. What was particularly enjoyable was that it freed the authors of the paper to sit in the Discord rooms with the rest of us, so that you could ask questions and get answers while the talk was taking place. Having direct access to authors and keynote speakers is something that’s difficult to get at an in-person conference. It did tend to cut down on the attendee discussion surrounding the paper, but I think it was a good trade-off.

The thing I struggled with the most was the poster sessions, although as it turns out that was a misunderstanding on my part. They were structured to allow people to view the posters prior to the session and then join the room for discussion, which is a good design. Unfortunately I misunderstood that and went to the sessions without having viewed the posters in advance, which made for some confusing jumps between poster sessions. I’ll make a note to myself to pay closer attention to instructions for each part of the conference in the future.

Given that the pandemic is still in full swing, I think this is a promising sign for the future of SIGCSE virtual conferences. Our next experience will be at the virtual SIGCSE Technical Symposium 2021, and I’m sure that the organizers will learn from the two experiences that came before. But I’m also hopeful that this will nudge SIGCSE toward including virtual participation even when in-person conferences can be held again. ICER 2020 had 319 attendees, more than double any previous ICER. I believe that a big part of that was the access enabled by not having to travel and not having to pay large registration fees. I think that we can expand the reach of our SIG if we can find a way to keep most of the experience for in-person attendees while also providing a high-quality experience for virtual attendees. Making that happen won’t be easy, but I think we have to try.