Why webinars are generally bad and how they could be better

The typical “webinar” that I have experienced thus far involves an instructor speaking on a conference call while she pages through a series of slides that are viewable using screen sharing software such as WebEx. There could be some great webinars out there, but the ones that I’ve been involved with as a participant could be much better, both from pedagogical and user experience perspectives.

In a classroom, the instructor can look around the room to see if the students look confused or bored. This feedback helps her know if she should go back and explain a difficult point in a different way, or maybe tell a good story to wake the audience up. She can also ask poll the students, through a show of hands or more advanced solution, to discern the level of expertise of the group. She can then adjust her presentation as necessary.

A webinar instructor cannot see her audience. She doesn’t know if people are paying attention or falling asleep. She can’t easily poll her audience about their understanding of the material. She slogs through, slide by slide, with no way to easily adjust her delivery of the content or even know that she should adjust it.

Now let’s think about what a website can do, pedagogically. A user can go through material at his own speed, diving deeper into subject matter that he’s interested in or looking up any words that he hasn’t heard before.

The rigid nature of the webinar environment means that participants can’t adapt the experience to meet their learning needs, like they can on a website, and the instructor can’t adapt her presentation delivery like she can with an in-person lecture.

I posit that the webinar could be a much better learning tool by incorporating some of these aspects of in-person and online learning:

  • Have the slide deck available for viewing or downloading at the beginning of the presentation. The participants can then go back and look at previous slides if they missed something, or skip ahead if they want to understand where the discussion is going.
  • If the screen sharing tool has a chat function, use it. Ask the participants at the beginning of the session to share their level of expertise with the subject matter. You can make this easier by specifying for example that 1=newbie, 2=somewhat familiar, and 3=very familiar, and have them just type that one number. A quick scan will help clarify what kind of audience you have.
  • Decide on a Twitter hashtag for the session, and share it at the beginning. Encourage participants to use the hashtag in their tweets. Monitoring the Twitter backchannel is a good way to know if the participants are bored or confused. (They are unlikely to use the screen sharing chat function to do this.)
  • Share a list of URLs with the participants where they can get more information about your subject matter. Advanced members of your audience will benefit from being able to go deeper into the topic while listening to the presentation.
  • Encourage the participants to use either the screen sharing chat function or Twitter to ask questions during the presentation.

Let me know if you have other tips! Let’s make webinars a better learning experience.

5 thoughts on “Why webinars are generally bad and how they could be better”

  1. Your tips are what we follow with our online conferences at Environments for Humans where we do our online Summit Series.

    Most of the tips were learned from going through Aral’s head conference in October 2008, but some of them are just common sense if you’ve been to a web design conference in the last few years.

  2. Hey Christopher, I’m happy that there are really good webinar experiences out there — let’s define some best practices so that people doing unsuccessful ones can improve them! Could you share what you’ve learned? Though it isn’t rocket science, most folks aren’t doing it well.

  3. I appreciated your thoughts regarding webinar presentations and their efficacy. I have seen (and perhaps given) webinars that had just the negative aspects you’ve spelled out. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed plenty of powerpoint slide slog from face-to-face presentations.

    Unfortunately, in our case, the webinar is the only way to go, as our travel budgets have dried up.

    On a side note, I’ve been really pleased with the series of web summits put on by Christopher Schmitt. Although they don’t do all of the things you suggest, they’re reasonably close. Hopefully, they’ll pick up on your advice!

  4. Hi Juliette!

    I posted a follow-up to the CSS Summit here. I wish Twitter search didn’t die after a couple of weeks, otherwise you could see how strong the backchannel was during the Summit. It was actually stronger than a lot of other conferences I’ve attended.

    We are still learning a great deal, actually. I am excited to step into the breach here, and work to make this the best experience possible for everyone involved. Your insights here are an affirmation of what we’re doing right and a reminder of what we’d like to avoid.

  5. Hi Bruce and Ari! Bruce, I agree that in-person lectures can be pretty terrible. A skilled communicator can read her crowd and adjust accordingly, but you’re right that this doesn’t always happen. Ari, thanks for the info. Let’s do think about how to share some lessons about what works well and what to avoid when doing webinars.

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