IIAS Webinars: A new experience
Every two weeks or so, the International Institute for Asian Studies (IIAS) organises a lunch lecture at which one of our fellows, or another interested speaker, presents the developments of his/her research to an often very lively and interested audience. The atmosphere is informal, which stimulates the discussion afterwards. And of course, we provide a free lunch, which promotes a general feeling of well-being. At least, that is what we used to do, until the middle of March, which is when the corona pandemic reached most of the world, including Leiden. We were forced to cancel all in-house gatherings, and like so many other organisations, we switched to online meetings: the ‘Webinar’ entered our vocabulary.
Sometime in the middle of May, we set up a series of online lectures by our fellows, on a wide range of subjects that reflect the diversity of Asian Studies as promoted by IIAS: from aerial navigation in precolonial India, the position of Pakistan in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to the migration of Baluchis from Iran to eastern Africa in the nineteenth century.
We use the Kaltura system, which is supported by Leiden University and has proved to be a reliable medium and easy to use, not only for the organisers, but also for the participants. The webinars are opened by a moderator who welcomes the participants, introduces the speaker and explains the ‘rules’ of the game. All participants can use the chat module to type in their questions during and after the talk, and the moderator selects a number of them to put to the speaker. The talk itself takes some thirty minutes, which is then followed by a Q&A.
For the speakers who are interested, we offer a course specifically designed for people who find it difficult to talk in front of a camera. Our fellows are taught how to present themselves, look into the camera rather than read from a written text, be aware of the physical background and the lighting. It is fantastic to watch how professionally some of them present themselves after attending the course and learning some basic tricks.
In general, the system works well. On average we have some 100 participants that log in for each lecture. The questions that are typed in and passed on to the speaker are often very to the point, motivating the speaker to elaborate on the issues raised. We do not know what the future will bring. We would like to re-instate the in-person talks, but only when it is safe again. Even then, we are seriously considering continuing the online webinars as well, to attract a worldwide audience and help our fellows make new contacts.
Willem Vogelsang, Deputy Director International Institute for Asian Studies