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Being There - Reflections on a Zoom Symposium

18 Jun 2020 | Janet Legrand QC Hon Janet Legrand, Senior Lay Member of Court at the University of Edinburgh, reflects on Advance HE’s Online Scottish Governance Symposium - how did it compare to being there?

How will attending a Symposium by Zoom compare with attending in person? I asked myself as I clicked the link to Advance HE’s Zoom platform from the comfort of my home in London.

Having recently been appointed as Senior Lay Member of Court at the University of Edinburgh, the programme was an invaluable part of my induction. In a pre-Covid-19 world, I would gladly have spent 12 hours travelling to and from the venue to benefit from the wisdom of the speakers, but the luxury of having that wisdom delivered to my desk was undeniable.

Keynote speeches, slides and Q&As

The HE policy landscape in Scotland is very different from England and Alastair Sims’ excellent first keynote presentation not only unpacked the politics, it also explained why my appointment had involved a contested election; an experience I thought I’d left behind in the world of legal professional partnerships. Alastair’s speech was clear, his slides comprehensive and shared on screen (so no strain on the eyesight while peering across a crowded room). The questions and answers were informative and well chaired (as was the entire event) by the knowledgeable Aaron Porter.

Elizabeth Passey then gave a very generous presentation on effective governance and risk, drawing both on her extensive experience as Convenor of Court at the University of Glasgow and her broader governance experience in the corporate world. Again, the questions and answers were comprehensive and hugely valuable. Elizabeth’s slides  - delivered subsequently - were an added bonus, as she hadn’t spoken to them during her presentation.

Tea breaks and Presidents 

Zoom meetings are exhausting, so the tea breaks (on time) were welcome, as was the variety of the next presentation - a panel of three Student’s Association Presidents discussing their experience of University governance and thoughts on how student engagement with Court could be improved. They also addressed the impact of Covid-19 on their work and on the student experience, more generally. It was hugely valuable to get that perspective; particularly from universities other than your own.

Eye contact, body language - can you network on Zoom?

At this point, the delegates were divided into smaller groups to discuss specific issues arising from the wider discussions - the ultimate test of an IT platform. I fully expected to lose connection at this point, but the technology worked perfectly and I finally met some of the other delegates. Time was too tight and our number too large for our discussions to be particularly meaningful and the limitations of Zoom technology as an effective networking tool were perhaps most evident here. The feeling of being stared at by 14 people who aren’t making eye contact at all but simply staring at a screen, remains disconcerting; even after two months of lockdown. 

Had we met in person and chatted in the margins of the day, I might have made some of the personal connections that are such an important by-product of Advance HE’s events. But sacrificing personal contact at a time of lockdown was a small price to pay to gain the benefit of delegates’ knowledge and experience and at least I have now seen and heard from people I hope to get to know in person, once the world returns to something closer to normality.

The verdict?

So how did the half day Zoom Symposium compare with the experience of attending the event in person, in a pre-Covid 19 world? Surprisingly well. 

Thank you, Advance HE, for delivering what felt like a bespoke and personal induction, directly to my desk.

Janet Legrand QC (Hon) is presently an external member of the Audit Committee of the University of Cambridge, Deputy Chair of Council at City, University of London and Chair of The Children’s Society. She takes office as Senior Lay Member of Court at the University of Edinburgh on 1 August 2020.

Forming part of our Governor Development Programme (GDP), this year's governance conference under the theme "Good Governance for a new normal" will be delivered online on 20 November 2020. The conference will provide a mixture of live keynote presentations, on-demand recordings as well as panel discussion, debate and opportunities for virtual networking.


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