Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My Learning About Webinars

Rachel Burnham writes: I have been wanting to write about my experience of working with webinars for some time, mainly because I want to pull together my learning for my own benefit, but I have decided to share this.  

The allotment - definitely a work-in-progress - just like me & webinars!

First Experience

My first experience of participating as a guest speaker in webinar was about 5 years ago and of course there are lots I don’t remember about that experience.  I do remember a thoughtful & helpful practice with using the technology, a couple of hours before the session, supported by a technical specialist that made all the difference to my confidence. I do remember feeling less prepared for how the content all worked together, as I only had a small 5 minute slot in a 75 minute session and wishing I had sight of a session plan, rather than just the powerpoint slides that were being used.  

What I remember from the delivery of that session was just how truly weird it felt to be speaking to a group of people, but with no visual feedback from them at all – I particularly remember how peculiar it felt to not make eye contact.  On that occasion, there was little feedback through the chat-box, so there was an absence of much feedback at all.  But the other aspect that made it a very strange experience, was that I was also cut off from the other presenters & facilitators – for some reason I had decided to switch to using the Mac, rather than my PC and found to my dismay that it didn’t support many of the features that I had practiced using in the technical run through earlier that day – so I had no access to the chatbox myself and couldn’t even ‘raise my hand’ to attract the attention of the lead facilitator.  Note to self – practice on the equipment you will be actually using.  A limited & limiting experience.  But I was asked back to do more guest slots, so I knew I needed to learn more about webinars.

Participating in Webinars

At some stage I adopted the approach of signing up to participate in lots of different webinars in order to learn about what was effective practice and to build my own experience.  I had noticed that they were becoming a learning option used by more organisations and wanted to make sure I was keeping up with this growing practice.   I probably had begun to do this prior to my first experience as a guest speaker, but I certainly hadn’t participated in more than a couple before to this experience.  So now I started to participate with more of a pressing need.

I participated in free sessions offered by the providers of various webinar/virtual classroom technology; sessions offered by my former university by visiting speakers; and sessions delivered by a number of ‘expert’ presenters – ‘expert’ in their topics or in webinars.   Some sessions involved a single facilitator, some a panel, some a facilitator & also a guest speaker.  The level of interaction with participants varied tremendously between the sessions and my experience was that the most effective sessions were the more interactive sessions.  All of these webinars involved some use of slides, but some used a range of other tools as well.   

One of the sessions from Aston University made use of a video camera, alongside very visual slides and this gave this session the feel of an expert & effective lecture - just delivered at a distance.  There was opportunity to put questions to the presenter, who gave them time & attention. It was great being able to see the speaker – the visual made them seem more real.  Other sessions had incredibly lively chatbox discussions going on throughout the session, in which participants posed questions, answered them, challenged the speaker, challenged each other – this was when I first became aware of the learning power & vitality of a ‘backchannel’ alongside the formal learning delivery.

One session, which was focused on how to design & deliver interactive webinars, was great for demonstrating a range of tools for doing that – it really delivered on its promise.  During the session polls, whiteboards, the chat box were all used effectively.  But we also got to do some things that had never occurred to me before in the context of a webinar – such as drawing pictures and then discussing what we had drawn (and as I love to draw, this really fired my imagination). 

It became clear to me that webinars have the potential to take a number of different formats and be effective.  I also realised that the typical format of a webinar of a talk supported by powerpoint, can be made much more effective by applying many of the same design principles as a face to face session and particularly by making them more interactive.

But the webinar that had the greatest impact on me, from which I learnt the most, was the most awful, boring webinar that I have ever attended!  It started badly for me, as I had a random technical problem joining the webinar and of course this had nothing to do with the organisers of the event, but it meant that I joined about 4/5 minutes after the start.  This is always a risk with webinars, so it is something to consider in your design that people may join late.   By the time I had joined the first speaker had started talking – I had missed the introduction as to who they were or what they were specifically speaking about and there was nothing on the screen to indicate this – no photo of the speaker, no name, no title and no slides (this is one of those rare occasions when I would have cheerfully welcomed more powerpoint slides).  They spoke for 20 mins and I hadn’t a clue to what they were talking about – as the whole session went on it became apparent to me that the focus of the session was somewhat different to the session I had signed up for (or at least what I had understood from the session description) – I stuck with it because I became fascinated by how the session was being run – though I do confess to switching to answer an email during his talk – the only time I’ve done this.  I admit that the second & third speakers were slightly less dire, mainly because I heard the introductions and they did use powerpoint, but the bar had been set pretty low & they didn’t raise it that much.

You may be wondering why I didn’t assert myself and use the chat box to ask another participant who the speaker was etc.  Have a guess?  They had turned off the chat box!   It was the most dispiriting realisation that they had chosen to do this – it was in the long, long 60 minutes that followed that I learnt just how important that feature is for enabling webinars to be a vehicle for learning – this is where the real exchanges take place and they are mostly between fellow learners. 

The other learning I did was to do some reading around about webinars.  Perhaps it seems strange to seek out a book to learn about how use webinars/virtual classrooms, but this is such a valuable way for me to learn that I didn’t want to ignore it and found an excellent guide in ‘The New Virtual Classroom’ by Ruth Colvin Clark & Ann Kwinn.   It is full of practical advice and enabled me to put some of my observations & experiences into a wider context.

Growing My Experience

So I continued to regularly contribute as a guest speaker to webinars and started to apply some of my learning, particularly around the value of involving participants and making use of the chat box. 
We did this by making sure that we posed questions very early on in the session both verbally and using the chat box itself and inviting participants to respond.  We kept the questions simple eg Where are you calling in from? and frequently repeated the instructions about how to use the chat box, as each session often included people new to webinars.  It helps to have more than one person working on each webinar, so that whilst one person is speaking another person can respond to questions via the chat box – just as in a face to face session, having your questions responded to promptly and respectfully tends to encourage more questions and sharing.

Another advantage of having more than one person involved in the session is that it gives you more flexibility when things go wrong.  On one session the sound quality for the main speaker was particularly dreadful – even though they were using the same equipment & set up as in many previous times – I was able to privately communicate with them via the chat box and take over an earlier part of the session to give them time to switch over to a telephone from a microphone connection.

Designing & Delivering Webinars 

Eventually an opportunity came for me to design & deliver some webinars from scratch, as part of a wider blended learning design.  The design involved a series of three webinars as part of the blend for a group of learners.   This gave me the chance to apply more of my learning and also to design for others to deliver the same webinars.

Here are some of my key learning points from this experience:

·       Keep the design simple – Although there are many tools you can use in a webinar, you don’t have to use them all at once.  As many of the intended learners and also the other facilitators were new to webinars, it was important to build their skills & confidence in using this new medium and these tools.  So I designed the webinars to gradually introduce a mix of tools & methods.  Each session was designed to meet the learning objectives and as a result different methods were appropriate in each case.  I began with the chat box, polls and paired discussions and then in subsequent webinars added in other features.

·       Build in lots of interaction – I don’t design face to face sessions that are lecture based and I didn’t think this would be effective in a webinar either.   I concentrated on finding ways to prompt interaction between learners, initially mostly through the chat box and I was delighted with the quality & depth of the discussions possible.   But then this is also true of discussions via Twitter!

·       Don’t rely on verbal interaction too much – We have struggled to get a consistent level of sound quality to enable group discussions verbally.  This is in part because we are designing sessions for learners who are based in different organisations and who also may be participating from home or whilst travelling with variable bandwidths on different equipment.  Therefore, we have kept mikes on silent for the sessions – except when a specific individual is presenting work – most of the interaction takes place in other forms.  That said two of the sessions do involve learners each doing some presentation.

·       It really helps to have some tech support – I have discovered that it really helps to have some additional technical support from a colleague at the start of the session.  It is my practice to be available to support learners entering the webinar from about 30 minutes prior to the start of the formal session to iron out any technical issues and test mikes.  I find it helps to have an additional person on hand during this time and for about the first 15 minutes of the actual session.

·       Create social presence – I usually include in my webinar view a photo of myself, so that I seem a bit more present for participants.  It would be great to use video to enable this, but we have decided not to go down this route because of issues of variable bandwidth (see above).   I also encourage learners to chat & share during the pre-session time – just as I would in a workshop setting, so that ideally each participant establishes their presence.  One group in particular changed the font colours in the chat box so they each contributed in a different colour – they each had their own voice.

·       Allow plenty of time -  It took me far longer to design & practice each of these webinars than it would a face to face session – unsurprisingly, but then I have many years of face to face facilitation experience.   This was also true for the other facilitators – for the first webinar where I was also still learning how to use Adobe Connect, I estimate that the set up and practice time for a 90 minute webinar was about 21 hours – that is aside from the time spent designing the session, creating activities & materials.  It is also worth bearing in mind that you will need people to practice delivering the webinar with - I worked both with my co-facilitators in doing this, but also had to draft in my son (always noted for his robust feedback).

I am still learning & experimenting with webinars, so this is an opportunity for me to stand back and assess my progress to date.  I feel I have lots more to learn & try out with webinars.  My colleagues are also doing some interesting experimentation using the webinar technology in different ways.  Webinars won’t replace face to face or other more self-directed learning methods, but they are another useful option.

Rachel Burnham
27 August 2014

Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.
Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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