I took part in my first pure ‘broadcast’ webinar yesterday. This was a presentation where three speakers covered the subject of eMentoring for forty minutes, then opened the session up to questions.
I’ve used the software extensively before, but only for project meetings, proposals and small scale discussion. The session yesterday was scheduled for over 40 people, so quite different from my experience so far.
The Webinar is a comparatively new tool in the training armoury, falling somewhere between face to face training and pure e-learning. It has the benefits of e-learning, in that there are no travel or accommodation costs, but some of the advantages of face to face training in that you can respond to the mood of participants and conduct some dialogue. It allows users to view a slide deck, or other media, to share a ‘virtual whiteboard’ or note space, to conduct private or public chats (like MSN messenger) and to carry out actions like ‘raising’ their hand, or saying they are having trouble hearing, by using ’emoticons’, icons that represent the action.
Overall, the experience is slightly surreal. You are ‘broadcasting’ in the purest sense of the word, as you would in a lecture theatre or seminar room, using the Webinar software as the channel of communication, and yet you are also involved in a conversation, with two way dialogue. One of the most apparent differences is that you don’t have the immediacy of face to face contact. You can’t look at people’s faces and read their level of engagement or boredom. In fact, sometimes, you’re not even sure if they’re there at all!
There is a reasonably high level of adoption of the Webinar in training, although it still tends to be seen as a pretty poor cousin of both face to face and e-learning, and there is remarkably little research or training on ‘how to run great Webinars’.
One of the most useful things to do is use a Facilitator, who can marshall people, queue up each of the speakers and keep things moving against an agenda, as well as managing questions and technical issues. With so many people involved, it’s important that one person has responsibility for ensuring that the event is well coordinated. Systems like Webex or LiveMeeting allow different people to take control, so that each, in turn, can share their slides or desktop, although in reality, better results can be achieved if everyone submits their presentations in advance and the Facilitator is in charge of the slides. This can reduce the possibility of clumsy handovers and keeps the focus on what the presenter is saying.
Participants in webinars are likely to display similar symptoms of low engagement as with any pure forum or online experience, and you can end up with a largely silent majority, with a vocal, questioning, minority. Asking users to pre submit questions, or to participate in pre webinar surveys are both good techniques which allow the presenter to engage directly with individuals within the group.
A great ‘levelling’ advantage of webinars is that they allow users to submit questions, during the session, by typing, which can allow users to overcome any embarrassment that they may feel about speaking up in front of the group.
Ultimately, the widespread adoption of webinars is likely to vary widely between companies, depending upon their learning culture. Financial pressures alone mean that we are already seeing far greater experimentation in this area, and the technology is now sufficiently mature to have been adopted, or at least allowed, by most businesses. The leap to webinar is not great, after all, most businesses routinely use conference calls as an alternative to travelling, and, at the higher end of the spectrum, full video conferencing (which is still very expensive at the multi user end of things and complex to implement).
Certainly webinars will form a significant part of any of the online communities that we are creating at the moment, forming the public spaces and forums that are necessary for integrated dialogue to occur.
There is certainly risk in using webinars, because it’s so very easy to disengage from the discussion. I certainly found myself answering around half a dozen emails and carrying out several gesticulated conversations whilst i was on it. The technology certainly doesn’t remove the need for great speakers and great presentations. It is, i the truest sense, just another channel for communication, and whilst adoption is good, and seamless facilitation necessary, they are just hygiene factors against the importance of great presentation skills.