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I was never a big fan of live online (research and technical) presentations, lectures or seminars. I'd use pre-recorded online materials when looking into a topic myself, but I was never able to immerse myself to a live online lecture anywhere close to the level of an live in-person lecture.

And this was never a problem. One course during my graduate programme became online-only last minute as the Lecturer decided to go for an academic visit to a different University. I dropped it (wasn't my top choice anyway) and replaced it with something else. On conferences, it was very rare, and every time a talk was delivered online, I could usually find an almost word-by-word pre-recorded version somewhere, and just go through it at my own pace and time.

For the above reasons, I never really considered "following online presentations" as a crucial skill in my academic career. (And my progress reflected that.) I think I can passably give a presentation online myself, but I lose my concentration way faster trying to follow an online presentation than an in-person one. I can identify several reasons for why I find this to be difficult for me:

  • I can not put my computer away as I'm using it to watch the presentation.

  • There's no "setting change" between my "work space" and the space where I listen to a talk.

  • Even with the most comfortable and quality headphones, prolonged listening to presenters (people talking rather than music) on headphones gives me at least a mild headache.

  • I'm already self-conscious about asking questions, and I don't think I can get them across half as well in writing: they either sound clunky or unclear to me, so I'll avoid asking questions.

And then, enter the global pandemic. Everything shifted online for over a year now, with some very mixed reactions from the community. Some think that online and hybrid approachers "work well". But they really really don't, for me. Up until this point, my attitude was grin and bear it while we have no other choice, and then jump right back into the real, in-person thing when we can (maybe, jump really slowly and carefully at first, through small local events etc...). I think that it was the best possible stop-gap solution, but that it lacks the most valuable part of in-person meetings, which is the unstructured mingling before and after the talks. But more and more people are lauding the great success of hybrid events. So the title question: is the ability to follow online presentations now an essential skill in academia?

While I list the reasons I would find this difficult, I did many difficult things in my life already, especially when I set my mind to it. Note that I'm not looking for advice on how to concentrate during online events -- advice on that has proliferated since the start of the pandemic. I'm not asking if it's "just" useful either -- the ability to do long sums in your head can sure be useful if you're working in maths, but probably not crucial. To avoid sounding like I'm asking for an opinion, I am interested in whether there's any evidence that progress in one's academic career might be severely impacted or impossible without this ability in the post-pandemic research landscape..

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  • "I am interested in whether there's any evidence that progress in one's academic career might be severely impacted or impossible without this ability in the post-pandemic research landscape." At the moment you may find empirical evidences ---> xkcd.com/1827 I had a quite succesful academic career (I left after a couple of year of professorship, for personal life choice and I moved to industry) but I stopped attending lessons, just studying on books&co. starting in my 2nd year of uni. I attended seminars, yes, but not anymore courses'lessons.
    – EarlGrey
    Jul 14 at 14:27
  • Do you have the ability to record them? Download a saved version? It is probably too early to make predictions about your main question, but I'd guess there are alternatives that can be made to work. I'd also guess that "severely" is too strong.
    – Buffy
    Jul 14 at 14:27
  • I'd guess that the inability to ask questions is more of a career killer than this, to be honest.
    – Buffy
    Jul 14 at 14:34
  • Yes, there are alternatives, and they work as stop-gap measures and while online talks are treated as stop-gap measures. The inability to ask questions (on the spot) has never been a big problem: there'd always be a coffee break, or a social, or a whatever, and I'd be able to get a discussion in. And asking questions after a live talk somehow seems easier: a written word is much harder to change, and it's certainly much easier to correct yourself (and have a "mini-discussion" almost) when there isn't 2 other people facilitating that a question at a hybrid or online talk reaches the presenter.
    – penelope
    Jul 14 at 14:52
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There are a lot of skills that contribute to a career, but those skills aren't binary - you have it or you don't. Instead people exhibit various levels of ability with any given skill. To list a few: writing, listening, speaking, collaboration, explaining.

One problem we have now with the pandemic is that there has been a vast change in how things are done, and, frankly, not everyone has the skill to do them well yet. Hopefully we will learn to do better in the future, but long, uninterrupted videos that can only be experienced in real time are a problem. Short videos are much better; no more than 15 minutes. Feedback and questions possible. For courses, a way to give assignments and give feedback on answers.

But, for a skill that is now needed you can start to obtain it by just trying. In the situation you mention, trying to get a stable copy (downloaded, perhaps, or recorded) so that you can listen in smaller chunks and watch important parts more than once. Take a lot of notes, especially noting questions (and the place in the recording where the question occurs. Creating a feedback to the speaker if none is offered.

Skill comes from practice, just like swimming. No one swims well when they first jump in the pool (worse, the ocean).

People with disabilities of various kinds can become successful, but they usually need to make accommodations to standard practice and seek the help of others to accomplish it. It can be difficult, but not impossible.

And, for the actual question, it is too early to make judgements about how disruptive current practice will be for careers going forward. But, I'll predict that the worse it is the more pressure there will be to fix the problems. And improve any skill that might be useful.

In NYC, people sometimes get asked "How do I get to Carnegie Hall"? The answer is, of course, "Practice. Practice. Practice."

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  • I get that skills come with practice. As I wrote -- I find this difficult, but I've done many difficult things in the past when I've set my mind to it. However, I find that with transitioning to a new role (permanent academic position), there is a large number of skills I now have to learn, and I only have a finite amount of time and capacity. I don't necessarily have time to learn even all the skills I find useful, so it's always a "pick and chose" situation. So while I'm not denying this would be a useful skill, I'm trying to figure out if it's worth the effort and really needed.
    – penelope
    Jul 14 at 15:00
  • Yes and yes. It is worth the effort. It is really needed. But you don't need to be an expert practitioner to get started. Evaluate you trials and correct as needed. Avoiding learning some skill is no path to success.
    – Buffy
    Jul 14 at 15:04
  • And trying to learn every skill is a path to burnout. The skills you list above (reading, writing, collaboration, explaining...) are crucial: you need to be able to do them to a certain minimum standard at least. You might be better at some then others, and work to improve your weaknesses. Not being able to follow online presentations never before seemed like a weakness - it occurred so rarely that just "not doing it" had an almost negligible effect. I guess you're saying that it's now here to stay.
    – penelope
    Jul 14 at 15:28
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    Hope for the best. Plan for the worst. But improving current practice should be a goal for every academic. We didn't choose to undergo this disruption. And is unlikely that a few years in the future will be "just like" a few years in the past. At best there is likely to be overhang. Learn to adapt to changing conditions (or go extinct).
    – Buffy
    Jul 14 at 15:49
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    @penelope you are asking us to predict the future. Divination is a discipline in Hogwarts, but not in any university I know. So there is no definite answer (unless you wait till the future has become the past). However, one consideration could be that "the time after the pandemic" may never happen if the group of people who refuse to get vaccinated remains as large as it is now. Jul 14 at 18:52
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I'm with an engineering program, and our corporate stakeholders are asking us to make sure that are students are capable of interacting and collaborating in ANY environment.

It's a brave new world. Though face-to-face interactions are very nice, we now see that they can be an impediment to communication. My own opinion is that we've been forced into a new way of doing things, some of these ways will stick.

I won't go so far as to say to ability to follow online presentations is an essential skill, but getting information from any source you need to in order to enable your work is.

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