Rose loved the idea of attending webinars, or online professional development (PD) presentations, online. If she watched them live, she could chat with other participants while hearing about new content from national experts. If not, she could tune in later to the archived version, cranking up the volume on her laptop while making dinner or grading papers. Best of all, she could learn from home instead of staying after school for PD, which gave her more time at home with her young children.
Unfortunately, however, so many of the webinars she viewed were no more than lectures with slide decks. Besides the convenience of listening from home, were they really any better than the speakers her district brought in to lecture to her? Was there anything about webinars that made for better learning, not just greater convenience?
Rose decided to research this question, but to her surprise, very little was written for educators about best practices in webinars, even in scholarly circles.
Focus on interactivity
For the past four years, we have felt a lot like Rose. Three of us have been giving webinars for years, following our own instincts and, occasionally, the format requirements of host organizations. Some have been more like conversations between presenters, with the visual component merely a backdrop for what was essentially a radio broadcast. Some have been lectures. Occasionally, we have shared a videocam of our faces, but more often, we have been like Oz — a booming voice with a hidden face. We have let the sidebar chat conversations between participants grow in disconnected parallel with our formal remarks at times, while at other times we have engaged participants in polls, chats and whiteboard sketches. We’ve told our stories, given pedagogical advice for implementation and shown examples of student work. We’ve experimented.
Meanwhile, hardly a day goes by when our email inboxes do not bring invitations to join webinars from Booklist, ISTE, EdWeb.net, ASCD, Classroom 2.0, The Future of Education and many other organizations. Webinars are everywhere.
To better prepare our graduate students for professional networks and online learning, we’ve started asking them to present webinars for one another. To support this endeavor, we’ve formed the 4T Virtual Conference, an online technology integration conference that the University of Michigan School of Education hosts each May for a global network of educators.
Our guiding principle has been to emphasize interactivity. We decided that if we could increase interactivity — between presenters and participants, between participants and tools, and between the participants themselves — we could improve not only the level of webinar engagement but also the level of engagement with the material and, by extension, pedagogy in the classroom.
However, our shoestring budget meant that we could rarely do more than suggest strategies to presenters. A grant from the University of Michigan’s Third Century Initiative gave us the opportunity to more closely study interactivity and begin to parse which of its aspects are most valuable.
Steps to better webinars
During the 2013-14 school year, we shifted away from a model of national keynote presenters and concurrent sessions. Instead, we recruited local educators with leadership potential to engage with us in ongoing face-to-face and virtual professional development around how to design effective webinars. Along with their PD attendance and engagement, we asked them to blog and verbally debrief their experiences with us. And we asked attendees to share feedback about resonant and valuable aspects of the webinars they viewed. Here are some things that we’ve learned work effectively in a webinar:
1. Plan with learning outcomes in mind.
When preparing a webinar for our colleagues, it’s easy to assume that we should talk about something we’ve done that worked very well (in other words, to brag modestly). That may be part of the plan, but more important, we should remember that webinars are about the development of our colleagues’ professional capacity. So keep the focus on what your attendees will learn. What can participants take away from your webinar that solves a problem they have, provides inspiration for how to improve on existing work, or identifies new opportunities or challenges on the horizon?
Participants gave us feedback like, “So many great ideas … I could use them with ease next year,” “I left thinking about new ways I can use this in the classroom,” and “Helpful guidelines for implementation in the classroom!” These comments signal that this webinar is about building the participants’ capacity in the classroom, not celebrating that of the presenter.
2. Make your webinar a conversation.
Draw your participants into the webinar as active participants. We host webinars in teams of two: a presenter and a moderator. The presenter takes primary responsibility for planning the webinar, sculpting content and finding interactive opportunities. The moderator takes the lead in working on technical glitches, providing links to resources in the chat, creating a welcoming tone in the chat box area, and spurring ongoing reflection and discussion among attendees. Moderators also keep an eye on time — protocol expects webinars to begin and end at the scheduled times — and look for questions that the presenter can answer in the final moments of the webinars.
Our lead presenters acknowledge again and again that moderators help them focus on ideas, add a sense of security and keep things going when trouble arises. Webinar attendees tell us that moderators add cohesion and a friendly tone to their webinar experience.
3. Signal from the start that participants matter.
Moderators sometimes welcome participants into the webinar by name. They pose thinking questions that ask for participant input. These moves — before sharing a word of content — signal that participation is a tacit expectation of the community.
We also start our national webinars with a map slide and invite participants, using Blackboard’s “magic wand” tool, to mark their current location. Some webinars personalize content by asking participants up front to share their grade levels, subject areas or levels of experience. We look diligently for places where we can invite audience members into the proceedings, taking advantage of the webinar's intimate learning space for the collective benefit.
4. Practice, practice, practice.
In education courses, many of us learned to ask a question and wait a full 10 seconds before expecting answers. In webinars, the lag time increases, and presenters — even those with wide experience leading face-to-face PD — can accidentally come off as abrupt. Our first-time lead presenters tell us that repeated rehearsals with an authentic audience — someone who is actually online viewing your practice in the software’s participant view — helps them learn to anticipate the hiccups and challenges of online presenting. Preparedness builds confidence, and confidence inspires us to welcome the voices of our participants into the conversation.
5. “Goldilocks” your topic.
Attendees often complain when presenters run short on time and begin skipping slides or talking too quickly. Throughout the practice sessions, continue to sculpt the topic so it fits “just right” in the amount of time provided. Building in 5-10 minutes for question-and-answer time at the end can help provide a time cushion.
6. Don’t be afraid to go offroading.
In webinars about technology, our lead presenters often say, “I’ve just shown you my favorite aspects of this website. Now step out of the webinar room and go explore it yourself for a few minutes. Leave this window open, and we’ll call you back in five minutes.” This ability to try technology hands-on is one of the interactive strategies our participants noted as most helpful. It allows participants to interact not only with the presenter and one another but with the tools and resources themselves.
7. Remember that interactivity is just one piece of the webinar.
One lead presenter heard so much about interactivity that he worried it was taking over his webinar, crowding out content! Know what your non-negotiables are: What do people really need to know from me? What parts of my webinar are essential take-aways, and where is there room for participant ideas? We balance direct instruction with exploration time in the classroom and should do the same in webinars. Our webinar participants say they want to learn from the experience of the presenter, not merely engage in peer-to-peer conversation. Determine when it’s most efficient and/or effective for you to talk and when multiple voices add value.
Today, when we work with teachers like Rose, who are moving from passive observers of webinars and into leadership roles as presenters, we share how important preparation time, framing and practice are. As education continues to develop informal and formal online learning opportunities, it is critical that we don’t merely digitize the kinds of PD we have done before. Instead, let’s see webinars as a new “genre” of PD and strategize how to leverage its potential impact.
Join co-author Liz Kolb in Philadelphia this month where she will present the team’s research paper, Live Webinars: Participant Identified Effective Techniques in Educational Webinars, and a session, Connected Webinars: Effective Strategies in Developing a Live Educational Webinar, at ISTE 2015.
Kristin Fontichiaro is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and the author of many books on making and digital and information literacy for children and educators. Liz Kolb is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Michigan School of Education and the author of ISTE’s Toys to Tools: Connecting Student Cell Phones to Education (2008) and Cell Phones in the Classroom: A Practical Guide for Educators (2011). Jeffrey Stanzler is a lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Education and director of the Interactive Communications and Simulations group. Kwame Yankson is a doctoral candidate in the University of Michigan School of Education.