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AES 2020: Great Education, Difficult Networking

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The recent virtual American Epilepsy Society (AES) was a great conference to update my knowledge on the cutting-edge literature in seizures, a review of evidence-based practice, and the various efforts to improve the quality of care that we provide to patients with seizures. The virtual format had some benefits, but also some costs.

The educational presentations were first-rate. Of the sessions that I went to, the virtual format allowed me to have a front-row seat and not get as distracted by finding a seat in the room or navigating physically from room to room between sessions. I thought that each presentation prompted more questions, and presenters had more opportunity to answer questions. This may have been because many presentations were pre-recorded, so they kept to the intended time allotment, as compared to the typical academic presentation that always runs over the time limit. I always find the questions the most interesting part of presentations, because it allows for engagement and consideration of new ideas, but that is just my preference. 

While I’ve been to AES for more than five years now, I found that the virtual presentations may have been more engaging and well put together than in prior years. With a few exceptions, there were not many technical issues that hindered the presentations. The main criticism that I would have is that the large symposia were livestreamed on the conference website. However, the conference website had a large sidebar, and the symposia page made you choose between the video being 15-20% of the screen or using the fullscreen option. When you used fullscreen, you were unable to see the live chat. I would have much preferred the ability to resize the video so that I could make the presentation take up more of my screen, but not all of it.

In the smaller sessions, each webinar took a slightly different tactic. The smallest sessions used an open format where participants were able to turn on video and sound. This had a high risk for interruptions due to pets, children, snoring, and participants that don’t otherwise mute themselves, but those interruptions were rare. This open format also allowed for direct messaging with a presenter after they finished their talk, lowering the bar for interactions between the audience and presenters. For me, I had some great conversations with presenters after their platform presentations in breakout rooms, but it seemed like these were poorly attended. 

The slightly larger sessions utilized a webinar format where participants could pose questions to the question-and-answer box but could not otherwise interact with panelists. I was struck by the high quality of the text questions in these sessions. Even when these questions were not addressed verbally by panelists, others addressed them through text, which was a unique way of using the split format. Verbal responses often take more time and speak to the audience of everyone on the call, but the text-based responses allow for efficient side conversations between interested parties.

However, the struggle with the virtual format was the opportunities for casual and informal meetings and networking. While breakout rooms and text-based interactions are better than nothing, the virtual format made it hard for participants to network with each other. While I didn’t attend any of the formal “networking” sessions, I often find that speaking to fellow attendees while standing in the coffee line, lunch line, or while walking from session to session can be rewarding. At prior conferences, I would notice someone going to a lot of similar sessions to me, which would prompt a friendly conversation and maybe even a productive relationship for future clinical and research interactions. 

As attendees become more familiar with the didactic information of the presentations, the benefit of conferences will shift from education to networking. While continuing medical education credits are necessary, the memorable experiences at conferences are the people. The virtual format maximized the quality of the education but overall struggled to capture these personal interactions that we otherwise had. In that way, I think the virtual AES conference was great for trainees, community practice providers, and people early in their careers. However, it likely left much to be desired for the more senior professionals. In order to maintain the high quality of these conferences, there needs to be a benefit to everyone who attends, no matter their seniority. While I sincerely hope we will return to in-person conferences after the pandemic, there were many benefits to virtual AES this year. 

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