In December, CTL fellow Simona Lorenzini and I co-facilitated a pair of webinars on the use of webinars in online learning. In a post on this blog last month, Simona reflected on our planning process. We had fun and learned a ton in our preparation for and facilitation of the webinars. We got a lot of it right, too: we produced a goal-driven lesson plan and rehearsed ahead of time; we designed ice-breakers and activities to keep our participants engaged; we were punctual in starting and ending; and we accounted for digital fatigue and distractibility by keeping the meeting short and sweet. But would we do it all over again in exactly the same way? Absolutely not. In this post, I’d like to explain some of what we learned along the way.
The webinar model most people are familiar with is focused on content delivery and usually involves one or more presenters, a behind-the-scenes navigator/troubleshooter/producer, and a listening audience. Because we were working with a smaller group and wanted to mimic the seminar-style atmosphere of a typical CTL Advanced Teaching Workshop, we tried to operate in a more collaborative, interactive mode. We were surprised to find, from the post-workshop feedback we received, that the most effective and appreciated moments in our webinars happened when Simona and I were “delivering content” rather than facilitating discussion. The takeaway: Webinars work best for sharing well-defined content with a crowd.
We offered the webinar twice, each time to a group of about a dozen participants. These upper limits were partly due to the limits imposed by Google Hangouts and partly because we thought that between ten and fifteen participants would be the sweet spot for a seminar-esque conversation. We bumped up against a significant challenge, however, in that we were working with groups of people without significant shared histories. This circumstance would also have been true had we met in person, of course, but we discovered that it is more difficult to “break the ice” online than in person. The takeaway: Collaborative webinars work better for people who have a shared history.
Though Simona and I spent a lot of time crafting our learning goals and a lesson plan, our meeting was not structured around a single, collaborative task. We might have been able to get away with throwing a bunch of strangers together for a general conversation if we each had a specific role and were collaborating on a specific task, like building a website or organizing a conference. But we wanted to facilitate a general discussion about webinars—when they might be useful in teaching, and what their advantages and disadvantages might be—as well as give our participants a first-hand experience of what it might be like to participate in a collaborative webinar. The range of questions we were interested in engaging might have worked well in a seminar, but felt in this medium like waffling around without focus. The takeaway: Webinars work best for groups of people who have a single task that can be accomplished in a compact timeframe.
In the early stages of planning, the idea of discussing webinars in a webinar seemed like a fun way to model the best practices we were promoting. As we neared the event, it turned out that this was our only “Really Compelling Reason” for having this discussion online rather than in a seminar room. We weren’t in a situation where participants were geographically dispersed, nor did weather conditions, physical disabilities, travel times, or financial considerations pose obstacles to our coming together. The conversation we were having didn’t require us all to be on our computers (e.g., manipulating data on a spreadsheet or composing a jointly-authored text). Had we met in a physical classroom, though, we wouldn’t have experienced the weight of these lessons as immediately and memorably as we did. The takeaway: educators should only opt for online meetings when they can say why a webinar better suits their participants and goals than a face-to-face meeting.
In the feedback we collected, our participants appreciated first-hand perspectives on the tools of a webinar and the immersive dynamic that wouldn’t have been possible had we simply discussed these lessons in the abstract. But a part of us also found the form and the content to be uncomfortable bedfellows. Webinars are exciting and efficient vehicles for some kinds of teaching and learning scenarios. By preparing for them, teachers are learning to be more focused, efficient, and accessible. But webinars can’t do the same kinds of reflective, interactive, relationship-building work as a seminar or a workshop, and it would be unrealistic to expect them to. This is worth remembering at a time when some entrepreneurs and proponents of online learning are pushing to “unbundle” or even eliminate bricks-and-mortar universities as loci for learning.