aLearning Blog

Online Learning for Trade Associations

When a Webinar is a Bad Idea

Posted by Ellen on May 11, 2008

Webinars (aka Webcasts, Web conferences, etc.) comprise the most common type of online learning associations offer. This makes sense for a lot of reasons — organizing them is similar to organizing live events (determine the topic and speaker, review the content, then “go live”). So despite their unique challenges, they seem the easiest transition into online learning, certainly the most familiar.

But I’m hear to tell you, they aren’t always the best answer.

Let me give you an example.

Awhile back I was asked to sit in on another association’s Webinar on a benchmarking survey they conduct with their membership. The Webinar was free and open to anyone, so I registered.

The registration process was easy and access to the Webinar painless. The Webinar session itself was technically flawless — the two speakers had clearly rehearsed passing the mic and moving through their Powerpoint slides. I had no trouble hearing them or following the flow of their presentations. I could tell the presenters were familiar with their topic and they discussed it comfortably.

Then the presentation took a turn. But not because of a technical glitch or other problems.

Instead of using the Webinar to generally discuss the survey and its advantages, or how its results could be used, or who fills it out and why, the presenters started explaining how to fill out the survey.

Despite knowing I would never fill out the survey, I stuck with the Webinar. I was curious about how they were going to tackle this objective via a Webinar.

They tried, but they couldn’t. Here’s why (using just one example from the presentation).

The screen showed a mathematical formula which the presenters read, saying it’s needed to answer question x in the survey. And that was it. They went on to the next slide.

If the formula was important enough to include it in the presentation, then people must have needed to know about it. And usually when people need to know something about a formula, it’s how to work it (as we used to say in high school math class).

Could they have done this in the Webinar? Sort of. They could have:

  1. Shown the formula.
  2. Explained (and shown) how “real numbers” fit into the formula using an example.
  3. Demonstrated how to work the formula. (First this, then this… to get this answer.)
  4. Shown how the formula fit into the survey.

THEN they could have:

  1. Shown the formula again.
  2. Provided new numbers to plug into the formula.
  3. Asked the Webinar attendees to spend a few minutes working the formula on their own.
  4. Played quiet music or something for a few minutes (resisting the urge to talk or otherwise fill the silence, which would have set in about 15 seconds into the “no talking” zone).
  5. Shown the answer.
  6. Shown the method for using the formula for calculating the answer.
  7. Told the learners where they could find the information about the formula elsewhere in case they wanted to refer to it after the Webinar closed (this would have been for those who had trouble solving the calculation on their own).

This is not ideal, but it would have provided an extra layer around the content. What would have been ideal would have been to do the above, then give a quiz at the end of the Webinar, the answers to which the learners send in for review and comment. Only then would they truly experience the benefit of remedial guidance where needed.

A Webinar without such supportive interventions doesn’t promote learning, it only promotes the conveyance of information.

Webinars require — by and large — PASSIVE learning. The speakers are actively engaged, but the learners are passive. They watch and listen. (Pardon me, but “chatting” alone doesn’t make a Webinar “interactive,” nor “engaging,” nor does it promote “active learning.”)

“Attendees” will only become “active learners” if you design the learning event (Webinar or any other) so that such a transformation can occur.

So when is a Webinar a bad idea? When what the learners need to do to absorb the content requires activity, and when that activity is not supported within or around the Webinar itself.

When is a Webinar a good idea? This will be covered in an upcoming post.  Stay tuned!

Meantime — what’s your take on when Webinars succeed and when they fail? What makes a Webinar interesting and useful for you? Have you used a Webinar successfully for active learning? What are YOU doing to make your Webinars less passive? Most importantly, how do you KNOW your members are actively learning from attending your Webinars?

7 Responses to “When a Webinar is a Bad Idea”

  1. […] to increase interaction, stating that not doing so results in a mere conveyence of information (Ellen has some musings about why this is a bad idea).  How was this potential being left unfullfilled? By asking questions and answering them […]

  2. mullygrub said

    This post is exactly what I’ve been training our webinar trainers and moderators about! It is so true that a conveyance of information does not lead to learning. Unfortunately “banking” information into people’s heads is too often mistaken for learning. Even back at the beginning of the 1900’s Dewey was wondering “why is it, in spite of the fact that teaching by pouring in, learning by passive absorption, are universally condemned, they are still entrenched in practice?”, yet today, here we are, still railing against the same practices.

    Very glad to see a like minded educator🙂

  3. Ellen said

    Thanks so much, Mullygrub! Great post on The Sound of Silence — Finding the best ways to leverage the technology to match the best ways people learn might seem clear to us, but getting our trainers and moderators and others onboard is a constant challenge.

    I got some great tips on doing just that from your post! Thanks so much!

  4. […] on the right things? Assuming you have content that’s best matched to the Webinar format (see “When a Webinar is a Bad Idea”) don’t overlook the opportunity you have to produce your own Webinars, keep more of the […]

  5. […] if you have information-focused programs, consider them for online delivery via Webinars (see When Webinars are a Bad Idea for ideas on making this decision). If you have content that is conducive to hands-on learning, a […]

  6. […] Webinars are a great example. They’re easy to conduct and attend, relatively inexpensive, and everyone seems to be offering them. Even when they should be doing something else (see When A Webinar Is a Bad Idea). […]

  7. […] When a Webinar is a Bad Idea Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Example of a PowerPoint… […]

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