Affiliated Societies

Make History Online: The AAHC's Virtual Conference

David J. Staley, January 2006

The American Association for History and Computing (AAHC) will be holding its 2006 annual meeting online April 24–27, 2006, the first history conference to be held in this asynchronous format. Titled "Make History Online," the conference will be electronically hosted on the Ohio State University’s Carmen course management system. Like a traditional face-to-face conference, the 2006 online conference will provide an opportunity for scholars to meet and share ideas. "Make History Online" will invite historians, librarians, archivists, graduate students, teachers, and others who work at the intersections of history and new technologies. The online format will allow for a great variety of presentation formats: papers, e-posters (online posters), roundtables, and "flash" sessions (where 4 to 10 people make five-minute presentations to share their experience or examples of technology use according to the topic of session). Some participants might find it easier to record their presentations and make this available on their web site via a link. We will also consider other formats. The audience will be able to view these presentations at any time during the four-day conference, and will participate in ongoing question-and-answer threaded discussions.

The themes of the conference will be broad and inclusive, but will focus on the AAHC’s traditional categories involving the relationship between the practice of history and computing. We are therefore encouraging anyone who wishes to participate to propose a session or an individual presentation. We invite participants to share ideas on how the practice of history is being transformed by new technology, and hope to have presentations about innovative web pages, blogs, podcasts, and vodcasts. We also want to include presentations and discussions about the future of history, the transformations and implications that might arise from the advances in technology and their applications to history. In such a technologically mediated environment, what role will the professional discipline of history play? What will be the implications if historians and other history-related professionals ignore these new technologies?

We are quite aware that an online conference will not be exactly like a face-to-face conference, but neither are we attempting to completely replicate that experience in an online environment. What the conference will allow us to do, however, is to provide scholars with a space to submit their ideas to professional scrutiny, and to engage in an extended dialog about those ideas—the hallmarks of any successful conference. Additionally, we anticipate that an online conference will prove useful to those for whom conference attendance is cost prohibitive. While there will be a registration fee, conference participants will not need to pay for travel or lodging. We also believe that such a format makes international participation easier. For me personally, the question-and-answer period at the end of a session is always the most interesting part of any conference, yet that time is usually limited in a face-to-face conference, with most of the two-hour session given over to the presentations. In an asynchronous environment, we can devote more time to discussion and dialog; an audience member can read the presentation at their own pace, and the discussion does not have to be cut short because of time constraints. In theory, a discussion can last over the entire four days of the conference; the asynchronous dialogue allows for more carefully thought out comments and questions and gives all participants the opportunity to "speak up."

An online conference I "attended" in April was a fascinating experience that augurs well for the AAHC conference. The conference—on visual literacy and new media—lasted for two days. I spent that time in my office watching the presentations, engaging in discussions with other presenters, and observing the keynote addresses (and reactions to them) live and in real time.
Interestingly, I had to remind my colleagues here at Ohio State that, while I was physically in my office, I was virtually participating in a conference and thus not really "here" to be available for consultation. In fact, the organizers of the conference provided us with "Do Not Disturb—Participating in an Online Conference" signs to hang on our doors. Participants came from across the globe to share ideas within the virtual space of the conference site, but were still nevertheless rooted in their own physical environments.

The conference was not without its hiccups, of course. Although my office door remained closed, work did manage to seep in, demanding my attention, something I rarely have to deal with when I travel to traditional conferences. And the informal "mixers" that the organizers planned for us were only mildly successful; one, a real-time chat room, filled up so quickly that I had to leave (for anyone who has tried it before, real-time chats with 30 people are a bit overwhelming and not at all the same as going to a real mixer). But otherwise, the experience was not unlike the one many of our students experience when they sign up for an online class (and indeed, "Make History Online" will also look very much like an asynchronous online course).

I made my own presentation at the visual literacy conference using presentation software that allowed viewers to hear my recorded voice over my PowerPoint slides. Reading my paper to my computer screen rather than to a live audience felt very similar to working in radio: I was speaking into a microphone and imagining an audience at the other end but unable to see their expressions or gauge their body language as I do when making a face-to-face presentation. This experience, rather than being disorienting, was similar to what I experience when I write an article or book: I also must imagine an unseen audience of readers who will be reading these words asynchronously, and whom I cannot see. For the AAHC conference, presentations will largely be in written form, a medium in which historians are most comfortable working and one that is itself asynchronous. Once they overcome any initial disorientation, participants in the AAHC conference will soon discover that online presentations are very similar to writing and (because of the threaded discussions) are a kind of "interactive publication."

As technology advances around us, the historical profession needs to develop a culture where appropriately vetted online work is valued in the same manner as traditional scholarly presentations. Asynchronous conferences are becoming more commonplace in some academic disciplines and in the corporate world. We believe it is time for the historical profession to welcome the presentation and discussion of scholarship in this important medium. The AAHC understood this when, in the late 1990s, it launched the online Journal of the Association for History and Computing and when it developed its "Guidelines for Evaluating Digital Media Activities in Tenure, Review, and Promotion.htm." These guidelines have generally been accepted and have been reproduced by many scholarly associations. Since then, academia has made much progress, but we continue to hear accounts of some departments refusing to accept electronic work for tenure and promotion. "Make History Online" is designed as the next step to move this effort forward: the AAHC believes it is time to explore the possibilities of presenting and discussing scholarship in an online environment and treating this as legitimate scholarly work.

Let me be clear: I am not proposing that online conferences will someday replace face-to-face conferences. I believe that there is still much value in face-to-face conferences and that historians will continue to present at these well into the future. But I also believe that online conferences offer many advantages. Technology is not a zero-sum game; adding online conferences to the historian’s scholarly repertoire need not—should not—replace or diminish other traditional venues where historians can meet and share their research.

The long-term goal of the organizers of the AAHC conference is to provide a model for other historical associations (indeed, even the AHA itself) for using the Internet as another way to present scholarship. Historians have been engaging in asynchronous online scholarly communication for at least 10 years now, chiefly through H-Net and other online forums and through the limited number of e-journals that exist. The AAHC’s online conference, however, will be a more formal kind of scholarly communication than what transpires over online forums, and more interactive than what we currently see with e-journals.

Please plan on joining us—virtually—at Make History Online this coming April.

—David J. Staley is executive director of the American Association for History and Computing, and director of the Harvey Goldberg Program for Excellence in Teaching in the Department of History at Ohio State University.