Grassroots Vol 20 No 3 | Page 8

CONGRESS 55 Internet connectivity was an intermittent problem throughout Congress. This might have been exacerbated by the high demand from the home-based workforce using the internet to continue working, teaching, learning etc. Poor internet connectivity caused pixelation of the videos making it difficult to read small-font text e.g. on graphs. In some instances, poor connectivity caused delays between the audio and the video. In anticipation of these issues, compounded by the possibility of electricity load-shedding in South Africa, all videos from each session were available to delegates for 48 hours for on-demand viewing. The willingness of participants to adopt new technologies varied. The guideline documents and videos went a long way to allay these fears and as COVID-19 lockdowns extended around the world, these technologies are becoming the new norm not only for running congresses but also for on-line teaching in schools and tertiary institutions and are gradually becoming less intimidating than they were at the beginning of lockdown. Some delegates did not adhere to the guideline documents. This led to some editing problems. A few presenters were uncomfortable speaking into a camera and microphone but again, this was no worse than ‘speaker-nerves’ at a physical congress. This problem might have been overcome had presenters practised their presentations more before submitting a final version. This suggestion is provided because some listeners found instances of hesitancy distracting. Some participants were concerned that their employers would not regard a virtual congress being a ‘real’ event and were therefore concerned as to about how to prove their attendance at a virtual congress. However, the Zoom ® software automatically tracks logins of participants, hence it was a simple matter to provide proof of attendance for delegates if this was required. Similarly, some employers were reluctant to pay for employees to attend a virtual congress because of a lack of experience or insight. Shortly before our Congress, concerns were raised around the world about the security of the Zoom ® software. This was compounded locally by a parliamentary Zoom ® meeting being ‘hacked’ (it subsequently emerged that one of the attendees at this meeting had posted the Zoom ® invitation publicly on social media, hence there was no control on who could attend the meeting). Some government departments and companies subsequently banned the use of Zoom ® software. The organising committee worked closely with the developers of Zoom ® to draft a letter outlining the security features of this software. It was also ensured that attendees used the latest version of Zoom ® (version 5 or later) which had updated security features and full encryption. Letters substantiating these upgrades were provided to delegates who were required to allay the concerns of their IT departments. Initially, the physical Congress was fully sponsored. Changing to the virtual online format required revision and remotivation for funding. Fortunately, the Eastern Cape Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform, the main sponsor, was prepared to fund a virtual event. It was, however, extremely difficult to obtain funding from other usual sources due to the severe economic implications linked to the extended lockdown. Severe budget cuts and staff retrenchments associated with economic repercussions of lockdown resulted in many members who usually attended Congress being unable to attend even a virtual congress. Problems such as these were not foreseen in March 2020 when planning started. A popular part of the physical congresses has always been the conference tours. The change to virtual format meant that tours had to be cancelled. Because the organising committee felt that this would diminish the ‘fun’ aspect of the congress stakeholders were asked to provide short videos highlighting the projects or tourism facilities available in the area around Jeffreys Bay and the Eastern Cape. Submissions were played during session breaks to ensure a full engagement throughout the Congress and prevent ‘dead’ time. Care was taken to ensure that no copyright issues were infringed by any of the promotional material. A unique feature in hosting a virtual congress was that this made it possible to engage with people around the world, to advise with planning the event or participate as presenters/attendees. Here time differences between RSA and other parts of the world had to be accommodated as far as possible. In this regard, thanks are extended to the American presenters who stayed awake until 2 am (their time) to participate in the live question and answer session linked to their presentations! The organising team worked under exceptionally challenging conditions to put the Congress together. As already mentioned, lockdown in South Africa meant that only essential workers could go to work. Everyone else had to either stay home or, where possible, work from home. Schools were closed, meaning that parents had to balance altered working environments with revised home responsibilities. Consequently, many a child and pet unintentionally participated in various planning meetings! Travel bans associated with the lockdown regulations compounded stresses for members dealing with their own or family health issues. There can be little doubt that the ban on the sale of alcohol increased the stress levels of at least some members who believed that a ‘sundowner’ or two would have helped them cope better! Successes The online Research Skills Workshop, R for Biologists, hosted by Dr Victoria Goodall, was a resounding success. By 23 June, the course was oversubscribed. Initially, the course was limited to 30 participants, however, Victoria graciously accepted another 6 delegates. The poster presentations were similarly hugely successful, notwithstanding initial resistance by some members to use Twitter ® . The first poster ‘tweeted’ on the first day of Congress received 1148 views on the first day alone. Other posters received similar levels of interest. This was a remarkable level of exposure for the authors and their work. The success of using the Twitter ® platform requires dedicated input, however, to stimulate conversations around the Congress. No parallel sessions were run thereby making it possible for delegates to attend all the sessions. This aspect received many positive comments. Delegates appreciated not having to ‘run’ between different sessions thereby possibly missing the start of a session. Undoubtedly delegates did miss the inperson interaction and networking opportunities. However, one positive comment received was that there were no distractions from chatting to others causing one to miss a session! Requests were made to include Zoom ® ‘break-away rooms’ or ‘chat-rooms’ to improve networking opportunities. This will certainly be considered going forward. Delegates were encouraged to use the Zoom ® chat box and the Twitter ® platform to engage with one another and this was well supported. Congress topics ranged from droughtstressed rangelands, communal rangeland dynamics, governance and res- 07 Grassroots Vol 20 No 3 September 2020