Imagine training that actively engages participants and facilitators as they share and explore a new software product. They pose questions and debate the answers, they challenge assumptions. They revise documents, adjust numbers on a spreadsheet, and explore alternative solutions.
Were you imagining this taking place in a traditional classroom setting? Change your picture and imagine it in a virtual environment that can be instantly manipulated to meet the needs of the participants in reaching the training objectives. Participants can submit questions to the instructor, and can discuss issues among themselves without interrupting the flow of the class.
These features and many others are part of a delivery method that goes by a variety of names: virtual classroom, synchronous learning, online instruction, and many others. I refer to these events as Webinars.
As travel costs increase, and as “virtual organizations” become more common, robust virtual training, sharing and working together are also becoming more common. Webinars meet the demands of this environment. In this article, I explore Webinars and offer some ideas for making them highly effective.
What is a Webinar?
“Webinar,” of course, is a made-up word, back-formed from “Web” and “seminar.” In other words, a Webinar is a seminar that takes place on the World Wide Web. You might think of it as a specialized form of Web conference.
Like a seminar conducted in a meeting room, a Webinar has a start time, an end time, and a plan or agenda that describes the activity and the objectives. There may be one or more presenters, or even a panel discussion on the agenda. The presenters or panel members need not be in the same physical location — like the audience (the learners or other participants), they can be anywhere.
While all Webinars allow vigorous interaction between the participants and the presenter(s), the specific forms of communication in any given Webinar may depend on the technology available to support it. In my organization, we use Microsoft Office LiveMeeting (see Figure 1). My descriptions in this article are based on the capabilities of LiveMeeting — other software may provide different capabilities. However, what I present here will be useful with any tool that supports Webinars.
Figure 1 The Microsoft LiveMeeting interface
In addition to the appropriate Webinar software (which they will usually download at no charge), participants will need access to the Web, preferably a high-speed connection. If several people are at a single location, they may want to set up a conference-style microphone for making spoken responses to questions or discussion. In some cases, where participants are on dial-up connections to the Web, they may want to use a separate phone line (and perhaps a conference bridge) for spoken responses.
Ways to approach Webinars as training events
For my purposes in this article, there are three ways to use a Webinar for training. Each of these approaches has advantages and disadvantages, but any of the three can meet the needs of most organizations.
A didactic Webinar is similar to a face-to-face instructor-centered training session — in other words, a lecture. An engagement Webinar requires participants to become involved with the training and content, and to interact with the instructor. In an immersion Webinar, the learning centers on the participants.
Although each of these approaches has its distinct characteristics, when you’re designing a Webinar, just as for any training event, you can mix approaches. There is no rule that says a Webinar must be explicitly didactic, engaging, or immersive from beginning to end. Rarely does one approach stand on its own to compose an entire effort. Typically these overlap and blend.
The decision as to which of the three to use, or a combination thereof, depends on the course content, audience, trainer, training objectives, and the myriad of other issues that come into play when applying instructional design principles. The ability to exploit the different capabilities to make certain the training is coherent and effective in a virtual environment, is what can make a Webinar an ideal medium to support a successful training effort.
The didactic Webinar approach is probably most similar to Instructor-Led Training (ILT). In ILT, the instructor stands in front of a group of learners (“the class”) and presents the content, primarily as a lecture. Though there is some interaction with participants, the main focus behind such training is that it is “teacher-centered.”The trainer determines the learning outcomes and the instructional agenda, and the trainer provides the required knowledge and content to the participants. An ILT will often use visuals and other graphics to support and enhance the delivery of the content.
Because Webinars have several presentation capabilities, a didactic Webinar does not have to be limited to a slide show. For example, it may include demonstration of software applications, or sharing of a Web site, among other resources. But in the end, a didactic Webinar is one where the information flows one way, from the instructor to the participant.
Didactic Webinar pros and cons
One of the most important advantages of a didactic Webinar, as opposed to a live or face-to-face classroom, is the ability to train many people in different locations at the same time. It is very easy for all participants to view a document or a software application of any sort. The didactic Webinar format is very similar to the way many of us were taught in school, so participants are used to the approach and know what is expected of them. The format is expedient, since the setup for such a Webinar usually focuses on the information the trainer needs to provide. Finally, didactic Webinars are not as resource-intensive as the other two formats.
There are a number of potential negatives for employing a didactic Webinar. The didactic approach often doesn’t take advantage of the Webinar software and what it can do to enhance a training effort. Other disadvantages to consider are similar to the shortcomings of all ILTs, including limited participation by the class, and the fact that this type of instruction doesn’t always lead to good retention.
A Webinar that promotes engagement is an interesting variation on the ILT. An engagement Webinar may be characterized as involving the participants in the learning. The participant becomes an active learner through dialog using the several different tools available in most Webinar software. The interaction between the instructor and participant, and the use of the different Webinar functionalities, actually composes the learning. Of course, it is up to the instructor to focus and align the dialog with the training objectives. Otherwise, inadequate direction of the Webinar dialog could defeat the purpose of the training. A classic example of engagement is a dialog between the instructor and the participant. Such an interaction allows the participant to exchange thoughts and ideas with the trainer, ask questions, clarify points, and raise different issues and alternatives.