“A blank page is both an exciting and a frightening thing,” said the playwright Harold Pinter. So is a blank computer screen, when you are the Master of Ceremonies (MC) for a synapse- rupturing academic conference. When the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) abandoned the notion of its face-to-face annual research conference, known as [...]


Zoom is the name of the game

Lal Medawattegedara gives an introduction on how to crowd a conference into a computer

“A blank page is both an exciting and a frightening thing,” said the playwright Harold Pinter. So is a blank computer screen, when you are the Master of Ceremonies (MC) for a synapse- rupturing academic conference.

When the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) abandoned the notion of its face-to-face annual research conference, known as OURS 2020, and opted to host it online with only nine days to go, I assumed that the role of the MC for the inauguration, which has been one of my responsibilities by default, would shift to a virtual catalyst like R2-D2 in Star Wars.

Lal Medawattegedara: All set to go virtual. Pic by Suminda K. Gunarathna

I was pathetically mistaken—as I usually am in matters related to IT. “Now Mr. Medawattegedara, you’re the compere for this online inauguration event…we’re depending on you…” said OUSL’s formidable Director of Research, Prof. Shyama Weerakoon in measured syllables, and I realized that a predicament worse than a viral infection (whose name ought not to be typed) was about to browbeat me. Zoom was the name of the game, and I was the impossible case.

A trial run was held two days prior to the event, a sort of net practice. The participants were too relaxed, at least one key speaker had not composed his speech. It seemed that me (and Mozart) were not the only ones who wrote things at the last minute!

Precautionary measures were needed and I took a firm decision to master the ceremony from the university, not from home. Let me chart my historical virtual tragedy on a more sleek and sophisticated computer at the university. Then, I bought a mini microphone, a glossy upright vertical lizard, to prevent my infectious technophobic bacteria from affecting other ‘normal’  individuals.  I dressed well—why I still do not know! Zoom mythology narrates the exhilarating moments in the life of this lecturer called Deepal who conducted a Zoom class wearing only a shirt. Well, be assured that I was completely dressed. Then, I went to the location a little early.

The Control Room at the Colombo Regional Centre (CRC), at the Nawala entrance to OUSL, was like the Mission Control Center at NASA. Kanishka managed the control terminal and looked the sombre bridegroom at a poruwa; Tharanga looked waterproof and insulated; Saliya’s head was submerged in a laptop; Prof. Weerakoon’s gaze was averted, yet upon us; Vindya simultaneously spoke to the phone and people; Uthpala was about to prove Newton wrong. Everyone had an existential hypothesis, and a face to match the moment  – I only had a Julian Barnes novel, The Noise of Silence.

I sat down at the host computer. Zoom screen recorded 92 participants. My university colleagues were inside cosy containers, breathing, blinking—and occasionally twitching, from mosquito bites I assume, all drenched in anticipation. 10 minutes to go! I fixed my mike, arranged my notes, looked at the boxed audience and absorbed their rectangular energy. Kanishka suddenly wanted me on centre-stage privately. Click, click, and there I saw myself (never knew I was this ugly) and heard myself (sounding like Shakespeare’s subject in Sonnet 130) welcoming everyone. The 45-second trial ended after changes to the backdrop and camera angle.

98 participants. 9:05 a.m., and time to take off.  I went on virtual air, welcomed everyone, reminded them that this was a virtual event before inviting selected participants to virtually light the virtual oil lamp. 102 participants! Yes, there was an illustrated lamp on the screen, with (coconut) oil and (cotton) wicks. Of course, lighting any lamp -virtual or actual – is a risky business. An oil-drunk wick ignites slowly; a hot tempered one explodes with black smoke; stubborn ones ignore all flames—absurdity of the absurd. The virtual lamp on our screen was upheld by a software and if an invitee failed to click a given link on time nothing happens— the flicker occurs only if you ‘click.’ So, some flames emerged, others emerged later with a little help from the ‘clicker-happy’ staff at the Control Centre. Then we paid respects to the national anthem—and I did resolutely ask everyone to stand.

Once I invited a speaker on to the Zoom platform, I needed to sustain my focus on the content (for my knowledge) of the speech as well as the discourse markers that usually signal its conclusion. I needed to manage the endings by taking over the virtual platform and bring in the next speaker. So when Prof. Weerakoon in her welcome address uttered something like, “…before I conclude my speech….” I would signal the Command Centre to be on stand-by. When I  moved my left palm up like a trainee orchestra conductor, Kanishka, Tharanga and Saliya would lunge into a high state of alert. My camera and mike would be enabled, while Prof. Weerakoon’s disabled.

I invited the next speaker, Vice Chancellor, Prof. Anvahan Ariadurai to speak. A few minutes into his speech, it was my turn to twitch as the visual of a young male in glitzy BA garb displaced the VC’s mage, though his speech was uninterrupted.  Someone had unwittingly enabled his video function. Kanishka and Saliya responded like the Special Forces and cut short the ill-gained fame of the young man restoring the VC’s image on screen. This was followed by a firm message from Kanishka commanding the participants—now 110—not to enable their video. It was the VC’s unpremeditated act of pausing his talk to take a sip of water that suddenly reminded me that the neatly packaged audience was human, they needed their supply of fluid for the day.

When it was the Chief Guest Dr. Priyanie Amarasinghe’s turn to deliver the keynote address, tension in the Command Centre spread vertically and horizontally—there was no escaping its effects. No one wanted a wrong click at the wrong time, and definitely not stylized photographs descending from a virtual heaven to disrupt the Chief Guest.

One of the oddest and rapidest virtual events occurred after this speech: a virtual awarding ceremony of OUSL Research Awards and the Best On-line Course Award. In an auditorium, an awardee would come on stage demurely and decorously, accept the award from a distinguished person and smile for the camera—a rehearsed tradition one could say carved into our genes. In this virtual platform, the person’s picture (good choice of pictures— the majority of participants looked incredibly young) floated onto the screen, I read the name and a flamboyant cheer went out which I never heard by the way, I heard it later in the recorded version of the event.

Of course, the cheering was not a supernatural event, but a deliberate action from the Command Centre Team. I mean who would want to collect an award without an ovation?

When the ‘thank you’ speech was being read, the mood was part-euphoric and part- impetuous—we knew freedom from the virtual detention was about to end. Participants had dropped to 92. My legs demanded yogic stretches, my common sense restlessness, and my stomach a coffee. Finally, it was time for me to conclude the event and I could not help but end with the observation that even though this event was quintessentially virtual, the command centre was infectiously human.

The ending was an anti-climax to say the least: no one to complain that I had pronounced his or her name wrong; nor was there someone to tap me on the shoulder and say that I did a good job—even when I did not. There was no gentle build-up of voices in the auditorium of natural human absurdity resuming its race, nor any appetizing smells of refreshments.

‘OURS 2020’ the virtual event was an astounding success, daring shrinking of space and a bold initiative. Yet my heart yearns for the time-space immersion and a crowded conference, where a carelessly dumped paper coffee cup cartwheels in the air shouting, “this is life, this is life…”

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