My first virtual conference!
Before the Coronavirus situation hit, I had about five different conferences and trips lined up for this year. Naturally, though, as the situation grew more serious and borders began to close, like dominoes, every single one of those events was cancelled. However, one of them, the JALTCALL conference -- run annually by the computer-assisted language learning (CALL) special interest group of the Japan Association for Language Learning (JALT), decided to shift their physical conference (which would have been held in Akita Prefecture, in the far north of Japan) to a virtual conference, giving all presenters the option to join in the event online, via video conferencing.
Frankly, I was a bit hesitant to join in. My experience with video conferencing in the lockdown situation is not completely pleasant, and I had a hard time imagining how an academic presentation would proceed productively in that context. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try, if nothing else, for the experience.
I was not disappointed. First, the organizers of this conference deserve high praise for getting things together in such a short time. They had a beautifully organized web site showing the scheduled events with all events easy to find and with a direct link to the online meeting location. If you've ever been at a physical conference where you find yourself wandering around some labyrinth of hallways to get to some distant room, only to find no one there because you took a left rather than a right turn along the way, then you would really appreciate the ease with which one could switch from one virtual presentation room to another. Furthermore, although many presenters were inexperienced at sharing their screens in advance of meetings, and the risk of start delays would be very high, the organizers managed to have experts in every room to help presenters get set up quickly. I think I noticed only one delayed start, early on the first day. After that, everyone (I saw) could get started right on schedule. For a multi-room conference, that is, of course, critical. So, anyway, kudos to the JALCALL 2020 organizers for their expert work.
There were many good presentations at the conference, but there are a couple I'd like to highlight because of their relation to my own work. The first was a report on ongoing work by Todd Cooper to develop a system for the detection of facial expressions in speakers as part of a presentation assistant system. the work is still in progress, so he didn't really present any data or proof-of-concept work. But I was very intrigued by the idea. I have been working on my Fluidity project which provides feedback to learners via an on-screen avatar. But the idea of detecting speakers' own facial expressions and their match with their speech could easily be an extension of what Fluidity does. I shall have to watch this work to see if it produces useful technology that could be merged with Fluidity.
The keynote address was given by Charles Browne who is behind the effort to construct updated versions of classic word lists for second language learner study. He talked about the New General Service List (NGSL) and New Academic Word List (NAWL), among others he and his team are working on. These lists are gradually taking hold (though the existing GSL and AWL have such firm footholds around the world, that I think it will be quite a while before they are supplanted). They are especially relevant to the (unrelated to fluency) application I've been working on that automatically produces word quizzes from word lists. At the moment, though, my application assumes AWL as the starting point and is not compatible with other lists. But it needs to be. And this talk by Charles Browne is a reminder that I need to make it compatible soon.
And that brings me, actually, to my talk, wherein I talked about the word quiz constructor application (which I have written about before here). I had originally applied for this to be a showcase/demo at the physical conference. So, it was a little odd to turn it into a slide-based non-interactive presentation. Still, I did what I could to make it a little more demo-like by incorporating a screen capture of the real-time verbose console output of the application while it was constructing one quiz. I also managed to get together a public page with a download of the app. If you're interested, you can check it out here.
Well, if this conference is to be the standard for virtual conferences going forward, then I'm beginning to wonder whether I will ever travel to a conference again. Well, actually, I will. One thing missing from a virtual conference is the serendipitous off-line chat that starts friendships and collaborations. But I suppose some smart people will figure out yet how to recreate that in a virtual environment as well. It's just a matter of time.
[Note: This post was written in September, 2020. However, in order to preserve the chronology of the blog, it has been dated to reflect when the described events actually took place.]