When examining equality and equity, there is quite a prominent image: Three people, an adult, a child, and a person in a wheelchair, trying to look over a fence. The adult can see, the other two cannot. Equality gives them each a single box to stand on to see. The adult, who could already see over the fence, can see even further. The child can now see, but only when standing on their tiptoes. The wheelchair user still cannot see, for they cannot climb onto the box. The three people receive the same support but are not equal in outcome.
Equity each gives them support based on need. The adult receives nothing, for they can already see. The child receives two boxes, so they can see clearly. The wheelchair user receives a wooden ramp, so they can see clearly as well. They each receive different amounts of support but are equal in outcome.
After a conversation with some members of ASME, I began to reflect on my attitude to education during the pandemic. Based on the number of wonderful, and fascinating papers, abstracts and applications that I have read through over the past year, it is an attitude I believe is shared by many – that this is the time to innovate. Whilst video abstracts are nothing new, the popularity of Zoom, video conferencing and webinars, have meant they seem more accessible than ever. Video abstracts at conferences are one simple, readily available innovation that can advance our capacity for academic discourse. Or so I thought.
Recently I gave applicants of a conference in Edinburgh the option of creating a video abstract in addition to the traditional written one. Each video, whilst containing a consistently high quality of academic content, was starkly different. It made me understand that video submissions where the only guidance is the video’s duration, and the abstract content, creates a canvas that is wide-open. It creates differentials in camera quality, in editing skills, in technological literacy, in the Wi-Fi connection needed to upload the video to an application form. Even if we were to ask people to record a video on their phones, we would be creating a difference between the people with £1,000 pieces of tech, and those with £50. This wide canvas has been evident in many conferences over the past year, with submissions that varied from recorded Zoom calls, to voiceovers narrating PowerPoints, to slick, expensive productions.
In my rush to leap to the next innovation, I forgot that whatever technological advancements we make, we are only as advanced as the people with the least access. We should constantly ask ourselves – if we strip away the technology from our education, does the foundational theory still hold up? If not, then the tech is a gimmick, and it is a gimmick that could be denying some people the chance of being involved.
However, I still believe that there is a place for video abstracts in conferences, and we do not need to wait for an equity in technological access before using the medium. Videos offer a tremendous amount of creative liberty, and more means of communication than the written word, that we should not simply discard. Instead, we need to analyse the tools that we offer to applicants: When we ask people to create a video abstract where the only limitation, as some conferences have implemented, is the video’s duration and some semblance of structure, it is akin to asking for a written abstract where the only guidance is that it should be on an A4 piece of paper. On that A4 page, people would be free to move margins, to add in a barrage of hyperlinks, to utilise a wonderful array of technologies that have been available for decades. In reputable conferences, this does not happen, because we offer crystal clear guidelines and restrictions for what we expect in written abstract applications. Currently, video abstracts do not have such well-defined guidelines.
So, what would those guidelines for video abstracts be? Should it be that all video abstracts should involve a screen-captured PowerPoint presentation and a voiceover, negating the need for a camera? Should there be a technological limit? How do we ensure that the members of our audience with the least access aren’t at a disadvantage, whilst not stifling the creative potential that video abstracts can offer?
Abstracts are more than just adverts for the wider research paper/presentation. They are opportunities for the author to reflect on their work’s most important elements, and to communicate them concisely. Concise communication through video, such as on social media, is becoming a more necessary, widely used skill, and so I believe we should pursue video abstracts further. When poorly handled, video abstracts, as with any technology, can become a barrier to the few – we inadvertently take away the box helping those in need to see. When handled correctly, they can benefit us all.