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The organization of conferences during a health crisis. What impact?

These are exceptional times in many ways. Under the effect of the health crisis, each profession must know how to re-invent itself and innovate to continue to carry out its activities. The University and research are naturally impacted by the imperative of social distancing dictated by the will to control the current epidemic. However, colloquia, conferences and teachings must continue. So, what impact does this new organization have on the activities of the Labex EFL and of research teachers in general?

Rethinking exchanges

Although distance conferences are not new in the research landscape, their widespread use in recent months has required a new organizational flexibility. In this case, and this is a positive point, the setting up of online conferences considerably reduces the material constraints linked to their holding. Bringing together several dozen people on Zoom or Skype means no need to look for a room, available slots within a full university, or electronic logistics (microphones, video-projectors, paper supports, etc.). This is a significant saving of time and material, which allows you to focus more on the content of the exchanges.

And if organizing or joining an online conference has never been so easy, it goes in the direction of a wider dissemination of knowledge, with more participants than if they had to travel. Anne Abeillé (head of Strand 2 of the Labex EFL) points to the greater number of participants in recent online conferences, with, for example, nearly 50 people online at the 3rd ECBAE conference (Empirical and Corpus based approaches to Ellipsis) from July 15 to 17, which was initially scheduled to be held in Florence, but which took place online. "The speakers had the choice of registering in advance or speaking online by sharing their screen; they all opted for the second solution, and we had some very lively discussions. "

Technical progress has made it possible to make almost no difference between a face-to-face conference and a remote one: the same possibility to ask questions live, to react to a speaker's comments, or to share documents for all to see. From this point of view, communicating remotely has changed little or nothing.

What suffers from this new way of proceeding are the informal exchanges, or networking, which are usually the interest of meeting places such as conferences. In the course of a break or a meal, links are often forged through discussions that are of capital importance for nourishing reflection, the confrontation of ideas and know-how of researchers from different backgrounds, and that often advance research in an unquantifiable but valuable way. This is the main drawback of the "all connected" approach, for which it is difficult to find a viable solution at the moment.

Towards an evolution of teaching methods

Coronavirus crisis or not, the University and research are currently only following a slightly more accentuated trajectory of what has been going on for many years. The decrease in budgets, the advent of digital technology and the ease of organization already justified the use of distance learning before the beginning of this particular period. The challenge here is for everyone to reinvent themselves and take advantage of the best of both physical and digital worlds, in order to maximize the benefits of both. "For the future, I think it would be wise to maintain this hybridization of teaching with asynchronous lectures (or knowledge-based) and much more interactive face-to-face courses" with, in the background, a "generalization of continuous assessment" explains Anaid Donabedian, co-director of Labex EFL.

For research as well as for teaching, the important thing remains to take the digital turn. And this does not necessarily mean using online communication software to organize its conferences forced and forced, but to think of synergies between the efficiency of digital and the interactivity of real world. The formula "online course + physical meeting to exchange" when possible, as praised by A. Donabedian, allows the best of both worlds to be used for the direct benefit of learners. This is the beginning of a salutary reflection on the future of distance learning that can and should be extended well beyond this turbulent period.

The time and budget savings made possible by the current massive use of distance learning must be translated into an effective improvement in the circulation of information, knowledge and the results of scientific research. This is the price to pay if this situation of forced recourse to digital technology is to open the door to a real evolution of the University's operating methods over time. On this subject again, the future remains to be invented. 

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