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Do Webinars Work?

By: Jonathan Downie    Date: August 10, 2016

They have become ubiquitous in most industries. The ease with which we can now beam live audio and video over large distances has led to an explosion in online training in the form of webinars, MOOCs and other online courses. Sure, organisations like Open University have been harnessing that kind of technology for years but the number of providers continues to grow almost exponentially.

 

But wait, have we ever sat down and had a serious conversation about the benefits and drawbacks of this way of learning? Sure, we all know about the fact that webinars make it possible to learn wherever you are and they seem to democratise access to knowledge but are they actually effective?

 

I am sure that, even by asking that question, I am tacitly inviting providers to slap me round the head with satisfaction statistics and stories of happy clients. As someone who has created webinars myself, I am not about to gnaw on a hand that fed me but still, we would be wise to be cautious.

 

When I went through my training as a university lecturer, we were introduced to the idea that there are such things as deep and surface learning. Surface learning is the name given to the (temporary) memorisation of facts and figures, such that you can regurgitate them later. Deep learning is when the knowledge becomes part of you and makes an actual, lasting difference.

 

If you take Marta Stelmaszak’s Business School for Translators, for example, surface learning might involve writing a marketing plan or thinking for a few minutes about your business strategy. Deep learning would be applying it each day to your work.

 

My fear is that the very setup of webinars, which very much resemble old-style university lectures, encourage short-term, surface learning. Just like those leading university lectures, webinar leaders can and do encourage deep learning by setting exercises and offering individualised feedback. But, in my experience, this kind of involvement is still all too rare. The more common (although thankfully, not universal) model is for the webinar to stand alone as a unit with very little in the way of support or monitoring before, during or after.

 

Universities have learned that the traditional model of an “expert” taking for an hour while a group of novitiates sit and take notes is not exactly the most effective way of teaching. People seem to learn better when they are involved in the process and get a chance to apply their knowledge as soon as possible.

 

Do webinars allow this? How often do those attending a webinar lose focus and browse cat pictures in another tab?

 

At the very least, I think it is time to have open honest conversations about what webinars can and can’t do and where in-person teaching, as expensive as it can be, is the best option. Oddly enough, it’s a lesson that even the old-hands at Open University have learned, as they combine multimedia, online learning with a few choice sessions, in-person with a tutor and the rest of the class.

 

I don’t pretend to know all the answers and even writing this has opened more questions than answers in my head. The whole area is crying out for research and for providers to think beyond the kinds of questions found in a satisfaction survey.

 

I do know that, for now at least, I want to concentrate on in-person courses both in the CPD I deliver and in the CPD I attend. As an interpreter, I know that there is something about being there in the room with other learners and with an experienced tutor that you simply don’t get from a webinar. It is even better when you are learning alongside your clients and growing with them too. This is not denying that webinars have their place;  yet I do wonder whether we need to rethink the format.

4 comments on “Do Webinars Work?

  1. Hi Jonathan,
    great post.
    I am a bit addicted to MOOCs, I have to confess. But the quality of MOOCs vary enormously. I attended one in Forensic Anthropology and it was great – very interactive, lots and lots of “homework”, interesting links to resources and so on. Other were just boring, with no incentive for me to get more involved in the topic.
    And then there are webinars. Most of the time, I am really,really disappointed that I took the time to attend. I even felt ripped of my money: Presenters constantly bragging about their success, but nothing meaningful is told. Many explanatory videos on youTube are more interesting than most of the webinars. But maybe I just attended the wrong webinars so far.

    • Hi Manu,

      I should hope that not all webinars are like that but I do think that the range and quality varies massively. I do hope that this post will kick-off a conversation on their use and on quality standards.

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    this is an interesting question indeed. In my opinion, the effectiveness of webinars depends to a number of factors including (but not limited to) the individual topic/subject, the trainer’s own understanding of teaching and learning, and the willingness of participants to engage in active learning.

    Indeed, the webinar format poses limitations in terms of interactions with the audience. There are solutions to that, provided that trainers know what they’re doing from a teaching perspective.

    Nevertheless, the trainer can’t do that much when the audience is not willing to jump out of the “lecture comfort zone” and contribute actively to the conversation. Or when your webinar’s virual room is empty because everybody opts for the asynchronous replay instead.

    In my opinion, our industry has developed a “CPD as commodity” mindset that will be difficult to overcome in the near future. Webinars are not the Big Evil – but we should reconsider their role in the broader scenario of all training formats, as they are not a panacea for all of our educational needs.

  3. Hi Jonathan,

    There are new tools that allow for real-time interactivity between presenter and attendees that make webinars less tedious. I prefer short presentations with Q&A integrated.

    Maybe use a platform similar to the ones used for remote conferences where one can see the presenter, the slides and ask questions in real-time would be a good way to do it. These are usually proprietary and not the same as the webinar platform I mentioned above.

    This is still the infancy of webinars and everyone is still fascinated with the “baby’s cheeks.” I am looking forward to learning more as this segment matures and we get better platforms out there.

    Remote learning is a reality that requires trained professionals and willing learners. @Alessandra Martelli is right, webinars are not a panacea and we need to learn how and when to use them.

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