Subject Association Conferences Reflection, April 2021

Easter is the time when both the Mathematical Association and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (I know, I know) hold their residential conferences.

This year of course that simply wasn’t possible so they heade online instead. I have to say that both did an exceptional job under the circumstances – very well organised, and full of great session choices.

Pros and cons? Firstly, one of the pros of going online has been the cost.Being self-employed, paying £500 to go somewhere for 3-4 days of the Easter holidays without family is a big committment. I generally try to attend both just for a day or perhaps two; not ideal.

So you can see why I’m always delighted when MA and ATM hold a joint conference; going to two full conferences in the same month is not a viable option for me.  This year it was MUCH cheaper to attend – the MA in particular had a very generous offer, and subsequently many people attended for the first time, who might otherwise never have done so, so that’s a good thing.

Other pros of online – if I’m not enjoying a session, I can quietly leave and drop into another, virtually unseen. In real life, it can be quite off-putting to a speaker if someone gets up and leaves, but this way nobody is stuck in a session that they decide is not for them.

Pro number three – I’m at home. And perhaps in my pyjamas.! I enjoy travelling, but it is tiring, and costly, whereas I can attend with far less effort when the conference is online.

Pro number four – I can listen back to sessions I missed. No more regrets at missing a session that people tell me was brilliant.

So lots of advantages. But I’d be lying if I said it was all positive. Here are some of the cons:

I love being with people. And online of course, however well run an event is, you simply cannot be ‘with them’ in the same way. I can’t go to the bar with them, eat meals with them, go for walks with them, do card tricks with them (de rigeur at Maths Conferences, obvs :-)).

Sometimes it’s nice just to sit in a group and soak up the atmosphere. Just can’t be done on Zoom.

Secondly, one of the advantages of being away from home on a residential conference is that there are fewer distractions. I often find I am at my most creative when at a residential conference. So the convenience of attending from home is also a weakness – somehow I don’t have the same level of commitment and buy-in, and there’s lots to distract me.

A third ‘con’ is the absence of informal networking. I’ll be onest, I HATE HATE HATE formal networking events; I’m rubbish at it, it feels forced, and I can’t think what to say. Informal networking on the other hand is very different; walking round the exhibitor hall chatting to stall-holders, meeting someone new in a meal or workshop, chatting to someone about a talk they gave earlier; this is the best kind of networking, and doesn’t work as well over Zoom.

On balance though, I still think Zooming is better than not attending at all – but attending live is still the best option. And God willing, 2022 will be exactly that – live and kicking!