Cosmology from Home is an online conference which aims to go beyond being just a platform for live webinars and brief discussions. We hope to capture the advantages of both in-person and virtual meetings.
Benefits of In-Person Conferences
As well as disseminating information, in-person conferences are great places to organically interact, exchange ideas and meet other cosmologists from around the world. This is nearly impossible in a webinar setting without a physical conference location. The difference is that in the real world every participant can see who is contributing to any ongoing discussions and can choose to join a discussion or freely move from one to the other.
To capture this dynamic in an online setting, we make use of a virtual office platform. In addition, we schedule time for idle discussion and social games.
Benefits of Online Conferences
Apart from not having to travel, an online conference has other benefits for participants. For instance, they can partially organize their conference experience around their own schedule, instead of having to maintain attention over a strict full-day conference schedule.
We embrace this by having participants watch pre-recorded talks in their own time, and encouraging asynchronous text-based discussions and questions. The scheduled, live sessions are then entirely spent discussing the talks, with further discussions developing on the virtual office platform afterwards.
Structure of Cosmology from Home
Cosmology from Home consists of pre-recorded talks, asynchronous discussions, scheduled live discussions, informal discussions and social events. In the following, we outline each of these components:
Talks are pre-recorded and shared with the participants via YouTube. All participants then independently (or in groups) watch the talks before the scheduled discussion. This can be done according to their own schedule, personal obligations and time zone. Additional advantages of this approach are the ability to pause the talk, restart the talk, catch up on background details and take more time to think of questions.
The precise format of the pre-recorded talks is unrestricted and could be, for example, a presentation of slides, a blackboard discussion or an interview between the speaker and a colleague. However, plenary talks will be approximately 45 minutes long and parallel talks will be 20 minutes. Initially, the talks will only be available to the conference participants, but the speakers can decide to have their recordings publicly released after the conference.
Asynchronous discussions will take place on a Slack workspace. Discussions of talks can begin immediately after the talks are released, with additional discussions on other cosmological topics happening organically as the conference proceeds.
Similar to the pre-recorded talks, this allows the participants to engage with one another independent of their schedule, personal obligations and time zone. The non-instantaneous nature of this communication also allows everyone to take time to think and research when responding.
Live talk discussions happen in seminar rooms of the virtual office platform Sococo, which seamlessly integrates with Zoom. These are scheduled in specific time slots (see schedule), with 25 minutes for plenary talks and 10 minutes for parallel talks. As a starting point, every speaker gives a very brief, one-slide summary of their talk. This is followed by a moderated discussion, which will be informed by the asynchronous discussions, but will naturally grow beyond them.
These scheduled live interactions of the conference therefore consist entirely of interactive discussions of the pre-recorded talks, rather than being passive webinars. This allows for longer discussions that can lead to more fruitful and in-depth insights.
Live themed discussions are moderated, workshop-style discussions on cosmological themes that are of interest to the conference participants. The topics are suggested, voted on and chosen via the Slack workspace. These sessions also happen in Sococo seminar rooms in specific time slots (see schedule).
The motivation for these sessions is to stimulate further discussion on the ideas, disagreements and unanswered questions that have arisen during the conference.
Informal discussions will continue on Sococo after the scheduled discussion sessions end. The ability to see what discussions are happening and freely move between them allows us to bring the in-person coffee-break atmosphere online. The first hour after the scheduled discussions is designated within the conference schedule as a time for informal discussion, but discussions can and will continue after that (and can happen organically at any other time).
The time allocated to the scheduled live discussions is limited. This means that many ideas (and disagreements) will come up, but can only be discussed briefly. These informal, breakaway discussions allow the participants to have a much more detailed exploration of those ideas and disagreements. Moreover, in contrast to the scheduled live discussions, there is no limit on the duration or number of separate informal discussions. Finally, they can happen at any time since the virtual seminar rooms are available at all hours of the day throughout the duration of the conference.
Social events and interaction formats complement the scientific discussion sessions on all days of the conference. For example, social games and casual get-togethers in a pub-like atmosphere will happen at times that reflect the organic end to the informal discussions on the day. The aim of these activities is to at least partially bring the evening interactions of an in-person event to the conference.
We tested this novel conferencing format at the beginning of May 2020 during a small, very successful one-week conference. You can find testimonials from participants here.