This is the third in a series of blog posts looking at my experiences of developing online learning materials. Hopefully sharing these is helpful as people work to deliver online training at their own. As always, this blog post only represents my own views and experiences. Webinars have been around for a while but they have taken on an increased significance during the COVID-19 crisis. Suddenly everyone seems to be offering webinars - with varying degrees of success!
What is it?
Most people are probably familiar with webinars - certainly more so than before they went into lockdown! There may even be some webinar fatigue starting to set in...
A webinar is an online presentation which is usually delivered live and/or recorded so other people can catch up later. They are often used to replicate lecture style sessions or conference presentations - anything where a presenter would be talking to an audience. Traditionally this involves talking over a set of slides, much as you would in a traditional lecture. Live webinars increasingly involve elements of interaction such as quizzes and online chats designed to engage learners.
How are we using it?
I first started giving training sessions as webinars in 2017. At the time I was responsible for an educational programme aimed at teaching librarians the basics of scholarly communication and one of the biggest problems was getting people to attend face-to-face sessions. Cambridge is a large university with locations spread both across and outside the city. For some people, coming to an in-person session meant a half day commitment with travelling time and this resulted in a drop in attendance. I introduced webinars to replace the majority of the lecture style sessions meaning more people could attend online and then had more free time to attend the interactive workshop style sessions. Since then I have regularly given webinars to both staff and students, both live and recorded sessions. These typically last between 45 and 60 minutes and you can see a recent example below:
The good news is that most of the popular online meeting tools such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams can also be used to record videos and deliver webinar like sessions using screen screensharing. Up until recently at Cambridge we have used a paid-for tool called Adobe Connect but unfortunately that is being discontinued by the University so I've had to get up to speed on other methods quite fast! One thing I've learnt is that you don't get a lot for free and most of the true webinar features of these tools such as chat boxes are only available via paid accounts (often as an extra cost add on). However, you can still deliver online presentations to a live audience and record them using the free versions.
There are many how-to guides available so I won't reinvent the wheel:
I will add a few top tips I've learnt from hosting webinars on different platforms over the years:
- If possible have two people to host a webinar, one to deliver the content and the other to moderate. This helps to deal with any chat messages and technical issues without distracting the presenter.
- Send out joining instructions a few days before the event, even if you think people know how to use the software. It can help to answer many questions and deal with last minute problems.
- If possible, mute participant microphones when the main presenter is talking. This helps to stop pets/children/noisy neighbours making background noise that can make it hard to concentrate on a webinar. You can always unmute people if they have questions. To eliminate your own background noise invest in a set of headphones with a microphone. I bought some for about £25 when I first started hosting webinars and they really help the audio quality.
- Run through the webinar first without an audience. If you're recording the session, a rehearsal can sometimes be a good time to do this. It allows you both to practice what you're going to say and allows you to create a recording with no identifying attendee information/questions. This obviously depends on how interactive your webinar is intended to be.
- For live sessions try to include some level of interactivity which makes it worth the audience taking the time to attend. One of the negative pieces of feedback I got from my sessions was that there was little incentive to attend the live session if it would be just as easy to watch the recording later (a fair point).
For teachers, webinars are one of the easiest ways to replicate the content of a face-to-face session, especially if there was minimal interaction involved. You will already have some slides and a script/notes so all you really need to do is to choose the right tech and you're ready to go. The webinar format really forces teachers to think about their slides and general presentation style - something I see as a positive although I can appreciate that others won't! Getting the design and content right is always important with a presentation but I think it's even more vital when giving online sessions as this is the main thing people will have to focus on. Students find webinars useful as a way to review topics they might want to go over again as they can access the content on demand. It can also be nice in these times of social isolation for both the teacher and the student to have some interaction during a live session and many good webinars start or end with some general chat. Of course one of the main benefits of webinars is that it means those who wouldn't be able to attend a face to face sessions have a chance to get some of the same experience - something particularly important at the moment.
The big mistake people make with webinars is assuming that they will be a straight replacement for a face-to-face session. You can replicate the content but not the experience in a webinar and you need to treat it as a different type of reaching session. For teachers delivering content online it can be really hard because it feels as though you are talking to no one (and I've held webinars where this has literally been the case!). This can make your delivery quite stilted which in turn makes the session boring for attendees. It can be hard to keep attention over a long session so shorter is better. I'm rethinking the length of the webinars I deliver as I think that even 45 minutes is too long in my context. It might be worth thinking about chunking up the content into several shorter sessions or at the very least including a time-stamped index to content. It's harder (although not impossible) to include interactivity in a webinar. You need to consider both your own and attendees technical capabilities including access to broadband. It's great to plan a highly interactive session but not much point if this causes everything to freeze. It's impossible to find a time to suit everyone who might want to attend so just go for the best you can and make a recording if possible. Again, this impacts on interactivity as those watching the recording are unlikely to get the same benefits as those attending live. Finally, remember that your attendees are likely to be suffering from webinar fatigue. Since lockdown began and sessions began to run online there has been a dramatic increase in webinars covering all sorts of topics and it may be hard to convince them to attend yet another one. Consider whether a webinar is really the best format to deliver your session and consider looking for alternatives that might be better suited for both you and your students.
Webinars are definitely something I'll continue to deliver as we move into the new academic term but I'm going to need to rethink exactly how I deliver them and what I include. So many of our students and researchers have returned to their homes across different time zones that it is going to be impossible to find a time to suit everyone. This means that I'll be relying on recordings and so I need to balance this with including interactive elements. I also want to shorten the length of the sessions in order to encourage higher attendance. Not everyone is experienced with delivering or attending online training and a successful webinar can be a good introduction into moving towards online learning.