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Breaking Barriers: Fostering Inclusivity in Online Astronomy Education Gatherings

By Eduardo Monfardin Penteado | May 7, 2024  | Event Researcher Experience Conferences

The world faced a significant health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak at the end of 2019 causing widespread disruptions imposing several challenges for all societies worldwide in the following years. The rapid spread of the virus urged social distancing measures to reduce the contamination rate, prompting a swift adaptation to a new reality where gathering together for a meeting was no longer possible, at least while the pandemic was ongoing. As a response to the pandemic and the need for social distancing, there has been a significant rise in the use of online platforms for meetings, conferences, and workshops, facilitated by advancements in digital tools, offering a viable alternative to physical gatherings. [1]

Beyond the need for keeping social distance during the pandemic, another key benefit of this shift to online conferences is the positive impact on the environment. By reducing the need for travel, virtual meetings contribute to a significant decrease in carbon emissions and environmental pollution as it reduces our carbon footprint. Additionally, oAn open laptop screen showing blurred out faces of multiple people on a Zoom call. A small plant is the background and a white mug is in the foreground.nline conferences often require fewer materials and resources overall, leading to less waste and a more sustainable approach to hosting events.

The Shaw-IAU Workshop on Astronomy for Education (SIW) serves as an excellent example of this adaptation to the new digital era. Initially conducted in person for its first edition in late 2019, the workshop quickly embraced the shift to a fully virtual format for subsequent editions. This transition also opened up opportunities for broader participation and collaboration on a global scale. 

Scientists and professionals across a myriad of disciplines can also benefit from the rise of online meetings. These digital platforms offer a flexible, accessible, and inclusive environment for sharing groundbreaking research, exploring innovative ideas, and nurturing collaborations. Virtual gatherings offer a convenient and efficient way to engage with colleagues, stay updated on the latest developments, and make meaningful contributions to one's field. 

Online meetings might help not only scientists, but anyone interested in keeping a dialogue with and worldwide presence, enlarging your networking or just getting to know people from different cultures. Therefore, the experiences acquired during the SIW online events and shared here can also serve as examples to other meeting organizers that face similar challenges and to anyone who endeavors on the online gathering. 


The Shaw-IAU Workshop on Astronomy for Education

The Shaw-IAU Workshop on Astronomy for Education is a series of events organized by the International Astronomical Union's Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE) [2], these workshops align with the strategic plan outlined by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) for the decade of 2020-2030, which recognizes education as a key aspect to reach a better world. In fact, high quality education is enshrined as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals [3] established by the United Nations, aiming to foster peace and prosperity for all. Given its interdisciplinary nature and its ability to captivate through stunning images of the universe, astronomy is recognized as a gateway to science and an invaluable tool for classroom instruction. The SIW explores astronomy education in its multiple facets with several talks delivered by experts in their own part of astronomy education. Topics such as the availability of excellent tools and resources are explored alongside experiences of astronomy in practice in the classroom, astronomy education outside the classroom, curriculum development, and others. The SIW is a great opportunity for everyone working on or interested in astronomy education as they can share their knowledge and learn from practitioners from all over the world.


Inclusivity as a Driving Force of the SIW

In our increasingly interconnected world, the pursuit of inclusivity in events is paramount to ensure equitable access and participation of individuals from diverse backgrounds, locations and capabilities. The SIW organizers have recognized the pivotal importance of this objective and have undertaken proactive measures to enhance inclusivity with each edition of the workshop.

A major stride in advancing inclusivity is that participation is completely free of charge for anyone. Another important characteristic within the SIW framework has been the complete transition to an online format. This strategic shift not only aligns with sustainability goals by reducing carbon emissions associated with travel, but also democratizes access to the workshop, transcending geographical barriers and financial constraints. By circumventing the necessity for physical presence, the SIW now extends its reach to participants worldwide, fostering a truly global community of learners and collaborators.

Nevertheless, the challenge of accommodating attendees spanning diverse time zones persists in the digital realm. To overcome this challenge, the SIW has devised a meticulous scheduling strategy, ensuring that each session is conducted twice at different times to cater to participants across different regions as best as possible. This inclusive approach guarantees that individuals can engage with the workshop content at a time that suits their local schedule, thus enhancing accessibility and participation rates.

Another key component of the SIW's inclusivity efforts is the utilization of pre-recorded talks, which provide flexibility for the speakers, to record at their convenience, and for the organizers to schedule repeated sessions. These pre-recorded talks are then broadcasted from OAE's YouTube channel [4] as an integration of the online platform used.
Throughout each session, attendees are actively encouraged to participate in discussions and pose questions through the workshop's interactive platform. These inquiries are then addressed during live Q&A sessions, fostering dynamic exchanges between participants and speakers, and enriching the learning experience for all involved. Recognizing the linguistic diversity among participants, the SIW endeavors to provide comprehensive language support. English captions are meticulously prepared for every talk, ensuring accessibility for individuals with hearing impairments or those who may not feel comfortable listening in English. Moreover, speakers are afforded the liberty to deliver their presentations in their native language, provided that they provide us with a file with English subtitles, which we attach to their videos, thereby further enhancing inclusivity and ensuring that language barriers do not impede engagement. To facilitate seamless interaction during live sessions following the videos, English transcriptions are readily available, either through human transcription services or integrated technology. This feature not only aids individuals with hearing impairments but also promotes accessibility for non-native English speakers, fostering an inclusive environment conducive to collaborative learning and dialogue.
 Photo of the Orion Nebula
In recognition of regional variations in internet accessibility, particularly with regard to platforms such as YouTube, the SIW has expanded its efforts by hosting pre-recorded videos on alternative platforms. This is particularly important for attendees from China. In collaboration with partners from China, starting from the fourth edition, all videos have been uploaded to the Chinese video platform Bilibili. The links are then provided in the event schedule, ensuring that those unable to access talks on YouTube can still have a satisfactory experience. This approach guarantees that all participants can access workshop content without encountering technological barriers or restrictions.

During the event, all videos are placed as unlisted on YouTube so that only participants can have access to them during the event. However, following the conclusion of the event, all sessions are archived and made available for on-demand viewing on YouTube. This enduring accessibility ensures that the workshop's educational resources remain accessible to anyone long after the event has concluded, thereby maximizing the workshop's impact and extending its reach to a global audience. Regarding the videos on the Chinese platform, the ones from the 4th SIW edition are now available while the videos from the 5th edition are currently being prepared for public availability and should be available in the near future. Chinese subtitles will also be available in the future.  

In summary, the SIW's steadfast commitment to inclusivity permeates every facet of its organization and execution. By embracing digital innovation, linguistic diversity, and accessibility best practices, the SIW fosters an environment where individuals from diverse backgrounds can converge, collaborate, and collectively advance knowledge in the field of astronomy education.


An Eye to the Future

The SIW organization has made significant strides towards inclusivity by hosting a completely free and online event, scheduling sessions at various times to accommodate different time zones, allowing speakers to present in their preferred language, providing subtitles and live transcriptions, and offering talks on platforms other than YouTube. More details can be found on the proceedings of previous editions as well on the feedback on audience reports from the 5th edition, all available on our website [5].

We recognize that there is still much progress to be made to achieve our vision of an ideally inclusive event. For instance, internet access is not universally guaranteed, possibly limiting participation for some interested individuals. Moreover, as English is not the primary language for many attendees, providing subtitles in multiple languages, especially if available to the videos published after the event concludes, is essential. Additionally, the current setup lacks accessibility features for visually impaired attendees, and sign language interpretation has not yet been integrated into the event. Nonetheless, we remain optimistic about the future of the SIW and are dedicated to enhancing accessibility and inclusivity in each subsequent edition.


Previous Meeting Recordings

OAE's YouTube channel:

While the videos of the 5th SIW edition are not yet publicly available on the Bilibili Chinese platform, the ones from the 4th edition can be found in the links below according to the event sessions:


Next Event

The 6th Shaw-IAU Workshop on Astronomy for Education will be held from the 12th of November 2024 to the 14th of November 2024. For more details, please check our website which will be constantly updated: https://astro4edu.org/shaw-iau/



[1] Moss, V. A., Hotan, A. W., Kobayashi, R., Rees, G. A., Siegel, C., Tremblay, C. D., Trenham, C. E., Engelke, U., Gray, A., Hurley-Walker, N., & Roos, G. (2020, December 18). The Future of Meetings: Outcomes and Recommendations. The Future of Meetings Symposium (TFOM), Virtual. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.4345562

[2] Office of Astronomy for Education website: https://astro4edu.org/

[3] Sustainable Development Goals: https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-development-goals/

[4] Office of Astronomy for Education YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/@astro4edu

[5] For more information about past and future Shaw-IAU Workshop on Astronomy for Education events, please visit: https://astro4edu.org/


First image: Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Second image: Photo by Bryan Goff on Unsplash

Thumbnail image: Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

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