Today I have been learning about Webinars with the team at Reach Further (http://reachfurther.com). The demonstration was set up on DimDim (http://www.dimdim.com/ )which provides a free webinar facility. The limitations are that only 1 person (the speaker) can be seen by video and only 4 people can speak, so the microphone has to be passed around different people and this felt a bit awkward. The session was really useful because the only content was about the technology which meant we could explore different aspects of the software to see how it could be applied.

 I can easily see how I could use the technology to support learning; it would be particularly useful for a briefing before a programme so that I could easily give participants some information about the programme, answer their questions and agree expectations in advance. It would save on travel for these types of very short events. It would also be good for collaborative project work. An example was also given about how it was used to deliver a pitch when snow prevented the team attending the actual venue.

 The benefit over the traditional telephone conference is the whiteboard element which means you can explore a document together or add comments. You can also upload presentations and handouts to the site so that everyone can see them together and can comment either via the voice chat or the typed chat board.

 One of the challenges of the webinar over face to face will always be the perception of the format as something inferior. People are comfortable with the idea that you travel to a venue and attend a meeting with a group of people in a room. The value of this type of meeting is often in the informal news exchange and discussions which take place before or after the meeting. In comparison the webinar type meeting can feel much more restricted with a pure business focus. The unfamiliarity of the webinar and the emergent nature of the technology means that it can feel awkward and some of the topic learning will be lost as participants get used to the technology interface and are therefore distracted by the different elements of the technology. It made me realise that before offering this type of facility for content delivery I need to offer a short overview of the technology so that participants could have a go and play with the technology before the distraction of the actual content.

 There are free webinars advertised all over the internet, so one of my learning activities will be to sign up to various free events to see how others are using the technology. It would be great to hear about examples of good practice. It would be also good to get experiences of people who have participated in webinars. At the weekend I mentioned it to some friends and it got a massive “groan” reaction. They worked for public sector organisations in the UK where the webinar was being used in a way that sounded like a “Boreinar”. I guess that comes back to a common problem with standard presentations, just changing to a web based method doesn’t make the average presentation anymore exciting or interactive.

 With the credit crunch and the growing green agenda there is a pressing need to reduce the amount of business travel and Webinars might help towards this if they are used in a strategic and well thought out manner. If we simply try and reproduce the current “training” sessions and business meetings into a webinar format then it is not going to be something that people will willingly engage with and this is the learning technologist’s challenge.

I would really welcome any of your thoughts and experiences about using webinars in your industry.

Christine Bellthompson