Association of computation linguistics (ACL) is one of the central conferences on the subject. Due to recent COVID-19 pandemic outbreak in 2020, it was moved from its initial venue in Seattle to online. The format was new to many people and brought a very different experience. In this post I write about the overall impression of the conference and its format.
Better Learning Opportunities
Every author was asked prepare a 12 minute video instead of a usual poster or talk. In general, the paper videos were on average of a very high standard. It made it easy to understand main ideas and contributions of papers. During a typical talk/presentation, there is little or no time to take notes without missing what the author is saying. Yet in this format, it was possible to follow one’s own pace: pause the video, takes notes, or replay some part that are not entirely clear. Also, because the videos were available all the time, one could create a custom agenda and not to worry about missing an interested talk. Overall, you could learn more by watching the videos and iterate over more works, and have easier time understanding details.
Besides a video, every paper had two slots for a 1 hour Q&A session. Q&A sessions were channeled via Zoom, where you could interact with the author and ask questions. My personal impression was that on average less people attended such sessions than one might expect at a conference. For example, the best awarded paper got around 20 participants. I particularly enjoyed the Q&A session of Climbing towards NLU: On Meaning, Form, and Understanding in the Age of Data.
While the format allowed for great learning opportunities, it had one major drawback that is probably not possible to bridge in the current format. Normally, you meet interesting people across the world, have informal chats about science (and sometimes life), enjoy a couple of organised tours, not to mention a novel venue and great restaurant food. This makes a conference an escape from a daily routine and a novel experience. And while some communication tools were provided for social interactions, like online chats, the overall engagement experience was very poor. It also seems to be something that my peers agree unanimously.
First of all, you could only ‘see’ people who are active in chats, and there were not that many of them. Second, because it was designed to account for different time zones and in the ‘follow your own pace’ fashion, it pretty much gave the same vibe as Coursera in contrast to a university course. Yes, you learn, but in a relatively shallow and isolated way. Finally, there did not seem to be much space for asking oftopic questions.