Reclaiming the webinar: challenges and opportunities for live online learning

 Are webinars critical for distance learning? This question sparked lively conversation on the ALT mail list recently. The answers, from individuals with a wealth of experience in delivering live online learning, ranged from ‘not critical’, to ‘important’, to ‘it depends on the context’. Whatever the answer is in a particular situation, there was an underlying plea for educators to reclaim the ‘webinar’ to help move it away from any association with business-related marketing presentations towards being a platform for engaging synchronous learning – and there were examples given of how this is already being achieved.

worldmapWhat live online learning offers

Synchronous approaches add social and personal dimensions to distance learning by allowing immediate interaction with other people, although it should be noted that a sense of an educator presence can be created without live sessions (as some current MOOCs demonstrate). Regular live sessions can provide a structure and framework for learners which helps to keep them on track and within which they can share experiences and discuss learning. Well designed sessions offer opportunities for rich communication and interaction, using features such as chat, video and whiteboards. Diana Laurillard provided an example of using daily live sessions to keep people on track during a week-long international design challenge. There were also examples of the use of live sessions for independent student group work, to integrate on- and off-campus students and of sessions being led entirely by students.

Facilitating live online learning

It can be difficult for facilitators to engage learners in synchronous sessions where there is limited visual contact and where learners might be easily distracted within their local environment. Dom Pates suggested that the facilitator needs to have furious multitasking skills to effectively troubleshoot individual technical problems and keep the larger audience engaged. Effective facilitation is critical and needs a blend of pedagogical and technical skills. Facilitators also need opportunities to practice – and to be inspired. To break away from the passive webinar experience the facilitator also needs to ensure that participants know that they will be expected to participate,  not just listen. Using breakout rooms for group activities is one strategy that can be used to transform a webinar into a more interactive, engaging, social learning experience.

groupschema2Improving the learner experience

Evidence suggests that learners value live online experiences, and Tim Neumann reported that once students had experienced live online learning in one course, they began to demand them in other courses. Contributors to the discussion had experience of working with a wide range of software products, including Blackboard Collaborate, Adobe Connect, WebEx, Google Hangouts, WizIQ and Big Blue Button, but there was a general call for better, more reliable technology. In particular installation free fully browser based systems would make access easier for learners. Mobile access is also important. Breakout rooms are generally regarded as essential for effective student interaction. It was also suggested that the use of recordings could be enhanced if software allowed these to be annotated privately or publicly, for example to allow time-linked discussions to continue after live sessions. Annotated recordings could then be used to support additional learner interaction and discourage passive webinar watching.

large_CPD Rebooted Holding Slides.pptx (2)_0Significant improvements in software are known to be in the pipeline, but this particular ALT mail list discussion highlighted the need for the ALT community to share experiences and issues with software developers to ensure that we get the tools we need to support effective teaching and learning and help us reclaim and repurpose those that were developed with other contexts in mind. So, are there any suggestions for a new word for a ‘webinar’?

Acknowledgements and resources

Contributors to the ALT Mail list discussion included: Dawn Alderson, Clive Buckley, Will Burrows, Leonard Houx, Tim Neumann, Richard Oelmann, Dom Pates, Diana Laurillard, Gilly Salmon and Mike Wald.

Images provided by Tim Neumann,

Teaching with web conferencing was the topic of a workshop at the ALT-C 2012 conference and resources from this are available from:

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Article compiled by Sarah Cornelius, ALT Newsletter Co-editor @sarahcornelius.

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member

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