The 2021 SIGCSE Technical Symposium concluded roughly a week ago, although preparation for the upcoming Spring quarter has kept me from writing about it until now. For those who don’t know, the Technical Symposium is the flagship conference of the Special Interest Group for Computer Science Education (SIGCSE). It typically occurs in February or March every year, and thanks in part to my service on the SIGCSE Board I’ve attended every Symposium continually since 2010. Last year I was in Portland when the conference was cancelled the morning it was supposed to start, and this year the conference moved to a virtual format.
There were a lot of things to love about the 2021 Symposium. Having a single access point through Pathable made it easier to navigate the significant amount of content available for the conference. While the system could be glitchy at times (I’m looking at you, agenda), I think the organizers made a good choice. There was an impressive amount of support for the sessions, and the support staff I interacted with in my sessions as a speaker and session chair were helpful and cheerful, even while operating on very little sleep. I was happy with the pre-recorded content found on the conference site, both as an attendee and as a presenter. The talks were short enough to keep my focus but long enough to give me a good idea of what the paper is about. And I love (love, love) having a year of access to the recordings of all the sessions, although it remains to be seen how much I utilize that content moving forward. Similar to previous virtual conferences, I felt more engagement with the speakers than I do at traditional conferences. Their faces are much clearer on my monitors, and I can generally hear them and the questions of them better. Asking questions in a virtual session also feels easier, and the extended time for questions was great. I also got a burst of excitement right as the conference started, just like I do with in-person conferences. That energy is appreciated a year into a pandemic.
I’m sorry to say though that virtual conferences have some of the same downsides as in-person conferences. For one, I get distracted during sessions too easily, which wasn’t helped by the fact that the main part of the conference took place during finals when desperate student emails are common. Sadly social engagement online is just not the same as in-person. Once my initial burst of excitement dropped off, I felt a bit isolated in the sessions I attended. While there were features in Pathable to connect to people, writing a message to someone isn’t the same as running into them in the halls or seeing them during a keynote or other session. It takes more energy and thought to have remote connections than in-person connections. But the biggest issue I had with the conference is my own burnout. After a year spent in my home office, I’m just really tired of it all. While connecting remotely with people is better than not connecting, I miss being able to travel, walking around the halls of a convention center spotting people I know, and randomly running into a session that’s interesting just because it happens to be near where ever I took my last break. And, yes, in-person conferences are a lot of work and generally exhausting, but at this point I can’t wait to wander around a huge hallway carrying a cup of coffee and randomly bumping into other sleep-deprived SIGCSE colleagues.