Holding space: reflections on QualWorld2017

QualWorld2017: the world’s first interactive virtual qualitative conference. Hosted by the International Institute for Qualitative Methodology, this event was billed as an affordable one-day, interactive, on-line event with live and semi live sessions. Participants could join others from the qualitative research community from around the world to:

  • Hear keynote addresses from known qualitative experts
  • Engage in live question and answer periods
  • Participate in live, online chat-groups with keynotes, IIQM Board Members and other notable guests
  • Present research via the virtual poster session (all abstracts peer-reviewed)
  • Learn about the latest debates and issues in qualitative research and engage with panelists during the, “In Conversation: Current Debates and Issues in Qualitative Research” session

I am currently in South Africa on my post-PhD break – a time of rest and restoration but also, if I am honest, a time of feeling acute disconnection with the world that I have inhabited these past years. So the notion of connecting virtually with a network of engaged and engaging qualitative scholars (from 31 countries I believe), through an event themed qualitative research across boundaries, could not have come at a better time.

The opportunity to present my work in the form of an e-poster helped too. I have attended online events before, and have watched as conferences move to live-stream keynotes…but the ability to be a full participant from home is the real game-changer here. No more FOMO. In my experience too, where universities only fund those actually presenting at conferences to attend, the ability to present remotely adds a layer of credibility to this virtual conference format. [Having said that, QualWorld2017 was already affordable, with a sliding scale depending on the country you reside in]. 

Attending and presenting remotely has implications for academia on so many levels. I could talk about the good it does for our planet not to be flying academics in from all over the world. I could talk about the joy that introverts will express in discovering this format (no awkward small talk, diving right in to the deep talk). But beyond that, what really struck me was the importance of an oft-overlooked and seemingly-superficial aspect of academic conferencing: that of convenience. Further, what convenience actually speaks to: accessibility.

This tweet from Dr. Sally Pezaro demonstrated why she appreciated the accessibility of the virtual conference format at this time:

Similarly, as a currently unfunded ECR on my post-PhD break, I would never have been able to travel for a conference just now. This (and my experience from early 2017 when I was not able to attend a conference held in $$$ Monaco) has left me reflecting often on who actually gets to attend conferences…and who cannot. Whose voices are we missing out on due to issues of academic conference inaccessibility? Who is further placed on the back foot due to not being able to grow their networks? [Aside: this is why I love social media]. This, of course, plays into a much larger systemic issue of a lack of inclusion in academia.

Creating and holding space for academics who traditionally are locked out (even transiently as in both Sally’s case and mine) of the learning and particularly the networking opportunities that conferences provide is incredibly important work. I cannot help but think of academics from LMICs, and those with disabilities, and those with caring responsibilities, and those without funding, and (given the current global conversation) those who have experienced sexual harassment at conferences, and those with any one of a myriad of other reasons that make conference travel not-so-easy.

So whilst I could wax lyrical about the high-quality qualitative content and debate that is a staple of any IIQM conference, the aspect – and real innovation – of this conference that has really resonated with me (and others) is that of accessibility. Whilst I concede that virtual conferences don’t hold all the answers (and may too have different kinds of accessibility issues) – and in some ways cannot replace real face-to-face connection – they do hold a worthwhile and important different kind of space for our academic work.

I have no doubt the IIQM already have ideas and suggestions on how to further push this format (my suggestion was for the keynote sessions to be shorter, as live-streamed long talks can be difficult to access when one is in a regional or remote area in some countries) next time (and I do hope there will be a next time!) – but for now the team should be applauded. Well done and thank you!

The recorded version of the conference and all posters are still available online until the 29th of December 2017, so register now and go have a look. One could even still engage in the conversation via Twitter at #QualWorld2017.

Thank you to the IIQM for providing me with complimentary conference registration in exchange for some prior social media work unrelated to this conference.