The Future of Virtual Participation at AAS Meetings
This post has been prepared by the AAS Board of Trustees in consultation with the AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD) and the AAS Meetings Task Force (which includes members of WGAD, SGMA, CSWA, the Task Force on Green Astronomy, DPS, SPD, and HEAD). Your feedback and thoughts are welcome and needed, and we ask that you email them to [email protected]. A formal survey is also forthcoming from the Meetings Task Force.
A meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) is a vibrant celebration of cosmic discovery and a space where we catch up with old friends, find allyship and community, and form new collaborations that are the engines of progress in our field. These events are also complex, time-critical, and expensive endeavors, and they have become even more so in the past three years. In response to the global pandemic, the AAS has hosted three fully hybrid regular meetings (AAS 240 in Pasadena, AAS 241 in Seattle, and AAS 242 in Albuquerque) that were designed to allow for any last-minute pivot to a fully online format. Their hybrid design was also intended to make the conferences more inclusive, accessible, and safe by welcoming both in-person and virtual attendees.
However, we now have data demonstrating that, while our current solution for facilitating hybrid participation has worked in some ways, there have also been some critical failures for both remote and in-person attendees. Furthermore, this model is unsustainable in the long term both financially and with respect to AAS meeting team resources. Given these considerations, it’s clear we must make major changes for AAS 243, effectively pausing our ability to host a fully hybrid meeting. Thus, for AAS 243, we will offer an in-person meeting experience with limited virtual options. Meanwhile, with your input and ideas, we will explore more compelling, effective, sustainable, and high-quality alternatives for virtual components for future AAS meetings. The information below highlights why we have taken these steps ahead of the New Orleans meeting, why we ask for your patience and support as we identify other options, and how we are looking to get your input on how best to hold future meetings that best serve the breadth of our community.
Few people actively use the virtual platform, and the experience is poor
Our addition of a virtual participation component was intended to increase meeting accessibility in uncertain times, improve inclusivity (particularly amid rising costs for registration and travel), and drive down environmental impacts. However, the actual number of active virtual participants at the past three hybrid meetings has been extremely low, with an average active virtual participation rate of 1.9% of all meeting registrants across every session for AAS 240, 241, and 242.
|Total Meeting Registrants
(in person + virtual)
|Virtual registration as a percentage of total meeting registration||13.47%||8.74%||12.21%|
|Average Zoom participant counts as a percentage of total meeting registration||1.70%||1.40%||2.76%|
|Additional vendor cost for fully hybrid participation||$198,000.00||$271,810.00||$171,946.00|
This table presents a summary of this more detailed spreadsheet, which provides a breakdown of virtual participation (including Zoom participant counts) across all sessions of our three hybrid meetings. Note that only ~12% of registrants attend virtually, and only ~20% of those virtual attendees actively engage with the meeting content. Indeed, the Zoom rooms for the majority of AAS sessions sit nearly or completely empty.
Our virtual attendees have also reported an (understandable) feeling of disconnect and lack of community when attending virtually, and many virtual registrants log on only once (usually to present their remote talk). Some virtual attendees have even (unknowingly) given talks to almost completely empty rooms (i.e., no in-person or virtual audience, except for one session chair). The Slack channels for the majority of sessions go largely unused, and the virtual experience for exhibitors is poor, with extremely low engagement. The fully hybrid meeting (as currently we have been able to implement it) also has persistent technical glitches at the interface of the in-person and virtual programs, increasing the training burden on our session chair volunteers, cutting into speakers’ time, shortening the opportunity for questions and discussion, and increasing the need and costs of technical support. Additionally, in-person attendees have also reported problems with the virtual components of the meeting that are distractions and diminish everyone’s meeting experience.
Our current fully hybrid option is not sustainable for our AAS meetings team
It is important to remember that there is an exceptionally dedicated and hard-working staff that undertakes the vast majority of the work to realize our AAS meetings, from planning to registration to scheduling to the main event. The fully hybrid format more than doubles the complexity of planning each meeting and has become an unsustainable level of overwork for the current staffing. Indeed, many astronomers who teach in our community will understand the manifold challenges and increased workloads associated with hybrid approaches, and the same is very much true for large, complex meetings such as ours. One solution for our meetings team, of course, would be to hire more staff, but that would require increasing AAS membership and meeting costs Society-wide, an option the Board is also reluctant to pursue. Therefore, for the well-being of our phenomenal staff, we must explore other options in a carefully considered and creative manner, and plan ahead for the most effective and rewarding meetings possible.
Fully hybrid components add ~$200,000 to the total meeting cost
A fully supported, stable, and synchronous virtual participation platform adds an enormous cost to the total meeting bill, effectively doubling the most expensive component of each meeting (the A/V vendor’s quote). On average, the virtual platform alone has added $213,000 in total cost to each of the past three meetings. Amid rising costs across the board, we are always concerned about high AAS conference registration fees as a barrier to participation, and fees are kept as low as possible to ensure that meetings are approximately revenue neutral.
There are important benefits to facilitating virtual participation. It allows members who may not be able to travel to the meeting due to cost, disability, logistics, or personal preference an opportunity to participate. In addition, in-person AAS meetings generate about one ton of CO2 emissions per traveler, whereas fully virtual meetings generate less than 1% of that amount.1,2 Our synchronous virtual platform was also designed to allow us to rapidly transition to a fully virtual meeting should the pandemic — or any other emergency — force us to cancel an in-person event as it did for AAS 239.
Finding a balance between cost, complexity, and inclusivity is one of the core goals of AAS's newly-appointed Meetings Task Force in the scope of future meetings. This includes rethinking what it means to hold a hybrid meeting in ways that maximize benefits for the community. To that end, the AAS would like to gather ideas from our community about these and any other potential arrangements and solutions.
A request for feedback as we move forward
The Board of Trustees has been working with WGAD, the meetings team, and the Meetings Task Force to plan our meetings going forward. In consultation with these representative stakeholders, the Board has decided to pause the fully hybrid format of the recent meetings while, with input from the community, we reassess how to make a hybrid meeting that is sustainable, affordable, functional, and enjoyable for the broadest cross-section of attendees. Therefore, while AAS 243 in New Orleans this January will not include a fully hybrid component, we believe that taking the needed time to more thoroughly assess how to hold more effective hybrid (with both virtual and in-person components) meetings will be the most beneficial way to proceed in the long run. Also, we are working on ways that virtual access to parts of AAS 243 will be possible asynchronously.
We're therefore asking you, our Society members, for your reflections, ideas, input, and expertise as we consider how AAS meetings happen in the future. After our pause for AAS 243, should we continue to hold fully hybrid events and simply adjust to the higher meeting registration fees, knowing that we must find some way to lessen the burden on our staff? Should we move to a cadence of alternating in-person and fully virtual meetings? Should each in-person AAS meeting include a low-cost and simpler virtual option? Should all AAS meetings eventually be totally virtual?
Please email your thoughts to [email protected]. All responses will be transmitted in full to the Board and relevant AAS committees to help inform our decision-making. Note that there will also be a forthcoming, more detailed survey from the AAS Meetings Task Force, so this is not your only chance to weigh in.
We are grateful for your ideas and understanding of this complex landscape, and we thank you for your membership and engagement in your Society.