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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.