COVID-19, ‘Socially just pedagogy’, and the virtual conference

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Remember that scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian: what have the Romans ever done for us? Well, aqueducts, roads, great wines, public health, medicine, education ... COVID-19 similarly invaded, devastated, destroyed; yet, a number of benefits arose. Haski-Leventhal (April 2020) suggested 7 positive outcomes (some sadly haven’t lasted – e.g. peace, clean environment). The sixth was Reimagined Education – online/remote learning, new ways for student engagement, assessing and teaching. At Murdoch University, for example, veterinary medicine lecturers adorned cameras on their heads demonstrating live surgery for students. It was a better experience for them since they could see and hear everything in real time (where previously they’d gather around with obscured views).

Virtual Conferences and their Hubs

Conferences have also benefited from a more inclusive practice through participating online/virtually, hybrid, synchronously, even asynchronously. This new way needs to be a permanent fixture. It addresses equity in access and engagement in our professional communities of learning and alleviates prohibitive costs of travel, accommodation, and registration.

The WA Teaching and Learning Forum, Perth’s 32-year annual universities’ conference, trialled a virtual half-day for staff of our remote, regional and offshore collective campuses in February 2023. While we hold strong our local community event, our own staff were excluded. A hybrid mode with a dedicated person looking after those participants brought inclusivity and belonging to the wider staff cohort.

CAULLT Conferences for member representatives only in 2019 became online through 2020-2023, and added in-person hybrid hubs in 2022 (see CAULLT Conference 2023). This enhanced the inclusiveness of the Council to the wider community of those in learning and teaching, not just identified leaders.

Thus technology, our familiarity with it, and our comfort and competence with these new mixed modes of scholarly community sharing, learning, and networking has brought a positive out of the pandemic. That is, we were kicked into the twenty-first century. Finally. And that means we are finding new ways for inclusivity, connection and belonging as scholarly peers.

HERDSA Virtual Conference

HERDSA geographically encompasses a huge area of the world – Australia, New Zealand, and Asia. HERDSA Conferences attempt to share location around but distance cannot be helped for a sizeable cohort of the broader higher education community. The cost of travel alone is a significant investment, and together with the registration cost, is beyond the reach of many higher education staff. This is exacerbated by the financial situations of universities and/or staff arising from the impacts of COVID-19.

Cue: HERDSA Virtual Conferences. The conference overcomes the distance of its wide community – both financially and geographically. The software platform used to host the Virtual Conference is fabulous and covers all the things in one place (although, it’s a bit busy, and could use some UX, but overall … thumbs up!).

HERDSA Virtual Conference 2023 participants were able to watch all the in-person keynote presentations, a virtual-only keynote, and 27 presentations across 3 concurrent sessions. For the in-person keynotes, whilst we felt like flies on the wall, and there were significant technical issues, we were linked to the wider conference community, and thus shared a common set of experiences.

We were … put on your jealous hats in-person attendees …. privileged with one of the best keynote presentations: David J Hornsby, “Socially just Pedagogies and the Future of Universities”. Professor Hornsby (see publications) engaged us in a compelling narrative, leading us to the ‘aha’ and ‘of course!’ of the simple thesis: in socially just pedagogies,

  • who teaches and participates, matters
  • what is taught, matters
  • how we teach, matters.

And he potentially unintentionally set up a community, with a simple survey on preferred toast spreads (vegemite, peanut butter, Nutella – winner was Nutella FYI).

The interactivity embedded into David J Hornsby's keynote using the platform's chat and polling function made the experience feel more intimate than just passively watching a presentation. (virtual participant)

This seemingly random social connection linked virtual participants through the chat for the rest of the day. Genius!

HERDSA Virtual WA Hub

We also attempted a hub at Murdoch University, WA (see image), where any registered Conference participant could attend and watch together and engage in networking and scholarly conversation in person. The benefit of a hub was the capacity for that community and networking that’s often felt missing from the online-only attendance. And a sundowner! Our experience of the hub resolved that need effectively (truth time, though: 6:30am dark winter start was a bit much for most).

Towards virtual as a socially-just conference

So, what did COVID-19 do for us? Well, it brought those of us passionate about Higher Education teaching and learning engagement, but otherwise excluded, together to be actively included in our community of scholars.

And, to echo Professor Hornsby, socially just conferences recognise that: who attends matters.

Photo: HERDSA WA Branch Conference Hub attendees snacks and screens Credit: Ashleigh Prosser (Murdoch University)

The HERDSA Connect Blog offers comment and discussion on higher education issues; provides information about relevant publications, programs and research and celebrates the achievements of our HERDSA members.


HERDSA Connect links members of the HERDSA community in Australasia and beyond by sharing branch activities, member perspectives and achievements, book reviews, comments on contemporary issues in higher education, and conference reflections.


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