Strengths, Weaknesses and New Ideas for Webinars for Professional Development

PD colleagues,

Many here have no doubt experienced several -- or many -- PD webinars.  Let's hear what you like and don't like about the webinar as a tool for professional development. What are its strengths? What are its weaknesses? What (parts of what) webinars stand out for you as engaging and useful. What webinars have caused you to drift or flee, and why? From your perspective as a participant what are best and worst webinar practices?

Here are some of my thoughts about PD weaknesses and strengths.

PD Webinar Weaknesses:

  • They’re too short, just scratch the surface
  • They’re unconnected to opportunities for serious dialogue and practice – the chat area on a webinar is often either sparse, vague, uninformed, redundant, or irrelevant – or it is jam-packed with potentially useful information that whizzes by in ways that make real dialogue impossible.
  • Some presenters, for example officials representing their agency, read prepared presentations. Regardless of how well they read out loud, participants often turn to other tasks. Even in otherwise excellent webinars, if these read out loud remarks are first it can doom the webinar to participant drift or flight.
  • Some webinars, while offering an introduction to a topic, are annoyingly primarily about promotion of particular organizations or products. Webinar hosts may need guidelines to prevent this practice.
  • Webinar archives are often not watched. Webinars are sometimes archived, but I suspect that almost no one has the time or patience to watch an archived webinar beginning to end. Archiving software often does not allow the webinar to be edited and re-purposed for more substantive professional development such as courses.
  • Multi-part webinars don't always work. In an effort to add depth or breadth, sometime webinars are multi-part, however if the first part was not engaging enough, participants rarely watch the second part. Also, if one of the two parts is cast at an inconvenient time, even though it may be archived, it is rarely watched.
  • Some webinar platforms are not Macintosh friendly, either cannot be accessed from a Mac or require additional software downloads.
  • An unmuted participant microphone. In some webinars it's up to participants to mute their microphones, and they don't always (know how to) do that, which often creates distracting background noise.

PD Webinar Strengths

  • Webinars can be excellent introductions to a topic.
  • They are a way to learn about new research or developments in the field or topic area, and usually links are provided by the presenter(s) to pursue these further.
  • Presenters are sometimes top experts in the field, people whose work one might want to explore further.
  • Longer PD webinars, for example 90 minutes or two hours, in some webinar platforms can be organized so that there are online "breakout groups" that focus on certain questions or topics, and the notes from these can easily be posted for the participants after the webinar, or there can be brief highlight report-backs. The breakout group format is often engaging, especially necessary in a longer webinar.
  • Informality. For example, the host of the New Jersey Association of Lifelong Learning webinar series, engages in informal dialogue with his guest presenters, orally providing participants' questions and comments that are posted in the chat area, posting quick polls and reading and commenting on their results, and chiming in with thoughts of his own in response to the presentation. (NJALL PD webinars are designed for NJ adult educators, but others who may be interested may also register.)
  • 75 minute webinars, with the first few minutes devoted to learning how to use the webinar platform, is a good idea. This helps webinar newbies and may also be helpful as a refresher on a particular platform for the more experienced.
  • In addition to a screen that has the name of the webinar and says that it will begin shortly, music for participants waiting for the webinar to begin is helpful to those who wonder if their audio is working.

Okay. It's your turn. Reflect on PD webinars you have participated in, been a presenter in, or moderated. What strengths and weaknesses would you add to the list? As this is a Community of Practice, your reflections here will be very helpful to others, particularly as some here host or present webinars and may be able to make changes to improve our PD webinar experience.

This would also be a great time to think about how PD webinars could be done differently; for example, PD webinars might:

  • Have no experts presenting, instead have a skilled discussion facilitator; they might use short authentic videos of adult education classes, or TedEd talks, followed by opportunities to discuss the videos;
  • Focus on particular teaching strategies or skills, with very short videos that demonstrate them, and that could be followed by an online or blended course that enables adult education teachers to learn, practice, reflect on and discuss the use of these strategies. (Think of this as a "trailer" for the course; it could be presented this way so that those who may be interested in knowing more about the course could register for the webinar first to see what it's about);
  • Offer presentations by enthusiastic teachers who, through a face-to-face or online PD course, have learned, practiced and become successful users of new strategies that they can talk about and/or demonstrate through short videos. This could be the capstone (summative) project for their course(s), and would introduce others to the PD course who might be interested in enrolling in the future.

Do you have ideas for how PD webinars could be re-designed to be more engaging, more a part of a sustained PD experience, or in other ways more useful? Let's hear them!

David J. Rosen

djrosen123@gmail.com

 


 

Comments

Hi David,

Thanks for posting this inquiry, it certainly is timely since we often use webinars as one form of distance PD, yet we find can ourselves grappling with the engagement aspect.

I recently scheduled two webinars for the EBPD Group, one for January and another for February 2015, on featuring state professional development systems. We plan to focus on discussion via breakout groups, using our featured states as springboards into the issues. One goal is to identify hot topics and PD needs professional developers face so that we, as an EBPD Community of Practice, can begin tackling the issues head-on in 2015. February's discussions will build on the themes and threads that carry forward from the January webinar and from the online follow up discussions.

I welcome others' comments on what they've found successful in making webinars engaging and participatory. I'm always looking to incorporate ideas in our community initiatives.

Jackie Taylor

PD Colleagues,

You have probably experienced quite a few webinars, some that appeared to be for your professional development. After the webinar you felt great -- that you really learned some new things to use, explore, or reflect on. OR -- you felt let down, it wasn't what you thought, or it didn't meet your needs, or for other reasons it didn't go well for you. In December I posted a message (see above) in which I tried to get at what makes a webinar successful for PD -- or a bust?

Surely you have views about this. I want to hear them, and probably others here do too. I think December 20th wasn't the best time to pose this question so I am trying again because I still want to know what you think. I hope now is a better time for you. You don't have to reference or name specific webinars, but do tell us what about the webinar made it a PD success for you, based on your experience: design features? technology features? how the webinar was marketed to you? kinds of presenters? format of presentation? opportunities for interaction? something else?

Thanks.

David J. Rosen

djrosen123@gmail.com

For me, good webinars have opportunities for interaciton, might incorporate a vidoe or a look at a website, and possibly two presenters who play off of each other.  Content that is presented in a way that is useful and not overly theoretical. Examples that help participants understand the content and how it can be used. Maybe a link to a tool I can use or a resource that will be helpful.

A not so good webinar is someone reading their powerpont slides to me. Puts me right to sleep. Just send me the notes and save me the time.

Thanks Di,

I like your ideas and would especially like to hear more about:

  • Good ways to incorporate videos in webinars
  • What you find compelling in looking at a website in a webinar -- is it a quick overview of the website so you can decide if it is something you want to come back to later, or is it pointing to interesting features of the website that you hadn't seen in other websites before, or something else?
  • How two presenters play off each other. I have experienced this myself, as a webinar participant and as a presenter, on NJALL webinars moderated by Erik Jacobson. Erik asks his presenters in advance if it's okay to interrupt them, so it isn't a surprise. He has interesting questions and makes short observations that keep things lively. I wonder if informality is important in making this work. Do you or others here have thoughts about how to make two presenters playing off each other, or a moderator and presenter doing this, work well?

I hope we hear from others here, too. What do you think makes a good learning webinar? If you are doing a webinar yourself, what do you try to do? What has worked for you as a participant in others' webinars?

Have you experienced successful breakout groups in webinars? If so, what made them successful?

Have you seen polls used well in webinars? If so, what made them effective?

Have you seen webinar presenters take effective face-to-face seminar or training strategies and successfully modify them to use online? If so, I would like to hear what they did and why you think it was effective.

Any other webinar teaching or learning features that you have found particularly satisfying as a participant?

David J. Rosen

djrosen123@gmail.com

 

I agree with most of what Di said. I haven't lead many webinars, but here is my feedback as a participant:

I hate it when the first 15 minutes are spent teaching everyone how to use all the tools available on the webinar platform and then we never actually use them, or only use one or two of them...Teach the skill when you're asking people to use it. Even better, just have a tutorial that people could do ahead of time so that we can all assume that everyone knows what the features are and how they work. If you're going to be including interactive elements, you should incorporate them early on so that people know they have to pay attention. Otherwise, you'll only have 50% response rates to your polls and the people who are still paying attention will realize that most other people aren't, which is demoralizing.

I like when people can respond simultaneously (for example on a whiteboard feature) because once you see a couple people participating, it's easier to join in yourself. I don't like when the presenter asks a question and waits for someone to speak (verbally) unless there are only a handful of people participating. It's easier to have everyone type their questions and responses and let the presenter read and respond to them aloud, as long as you can get to them all. It goes even better if a moderator reads the questions aloud and the presenter answers. If the presenter is going to give time for participants to respond to something via a poll or chat, then I prefer if they say how long they'll wait and then just be quiet for that long so that people can type without also trying to listen.

I also dislike hearing a person read their script word-for-word. You wouldn't do that if we were meeting in person, what makes it ok in a webinar?

Well... you asked for my opinion...

Rachel

 

David, I'll answer your questions in order :)

A good use of a video would be to show something being done, e.g. a classroom activity or a strategy for students to use. I can hear about how to do something but once you show me how it's done, I'm more likely to try it.

Looking at a website as part of a webinar can accomplish both things you mentioned. Again, telling me about a good website, or any resource for that matter, is not nearly as effective as showing me some of the features and making some points about how those features can be used to my advantage. 

For me, hearing two voices and sometimes two perspectives makes a webinar more interesting. I've co-presented webinars in a similar way that you and Eric have, with each of us taking turns presenting the information but also jumping in to add to what the other presenter is saying. When a question comes up, one of us answers it and then asks the other for her take on it. Co-presenters, either on a webinar or in a face to face training, can also model the thinking and discussion that can take place if teachers work together on things like selecting texts for their students or creating standards based lesson plans. 

I've used Blackboard Collaborate to have webinar participants work in small groups by assigning them to breakout rooms. When the small group activity is done, everyone comes back to the main room to share. So in that aspect, something that I do during a face to face training was adapted for the webinar. So far it's worked well and there have been some good discussions in the breakout rooms that may not have happened in the larger group.

I appreciate the time people are taking to respond to this topic! And I like the idea of having two or more voices. I have heard some very good webinar presenters who use lots of interaction (mainly through chat, but also polls and status updates), but it's hard to keep the energy level up sitting in an empty room talking to yourself for an hour!

One question I have is about video. I haven't had good luck trying to show a video in a webinar. Do you send people to YouTube and hope they'll come back, or did I miss a technology development that allows video to be played in a meeting room now?

Marian Thacher

Marian, I haven't actually tried using a video yet. I'm thinking I might try showing it with the screen share feature to see how that works. 

Hi Marian,

We use a couple of different webinar products in PA.  GoToMeeting has just added an in-session video player feature that is in it's labs section. (I think this means it's in beta testing).  We haven't had the chance to try it yet, since it's new. But I can certainly let you know how it works.

For our other webinar products, we've done two things for videos.  We've sent people a link to the video ahead of time as a pre-webinar assignment.  We've also sent people a link via the chat in-session and then asked them to come back. We did this with a webinar we were doing with our Career Pathways Support Project and participants did very well.  We gave them clear directions before we posted the link and then asked them to type a message when they returned. We also did a large group check in before moving on to make sure we had all (or at least most) of the participants before moving on.

When I've contacted tech support about playing webinars, we were told that videos refresh at too fast of a rate for webinar software to keep up with so playback becomes choppy.  I'll be interested to see how GoToMeeting does with this new feature that they've added.

Does anyone else have any tips for playing videos in webinars?

Thanks, Destiny! I like the idea of assigning the video as a pre activity, and also sending participants to a video and having them come back and write something when they are back. I have pretty much avoided videos because you can't play them in the meeting and you can't have them in the recording, but both of your suggestions are great work-arounds! I'd love to hear if the video play feature in GoToMeeting works. We (CALPRO in California) have some great videos and I would love to be able to use them in webinars.

My favorite video right now is one I showed in a recent presentation on building your personal learning network. It's by Steven Johnson about where good ideas come from, and talks about the critical importance of collaboration and how most good ideas come from collaboration and conversation, not in a blinding flash of light! They come from conversations like this, so thanks!

Marian Thacher

I use WebEx primarily, which makes it super easy to show video.  However, on other platforms, I have had to be creative.  I always try to have a copy of the video on my hard drive because for some platforms, the demands of the platform and showing video at the same time can cause one or the other (or both!) to crash.  But even then, some platforms (like Blackboard) take FOREVER to make a video shareable, so you have to have alternate plans ready.

Plan B: I'll share my screen and run the audio for the video from a separate speaker (not my headset) through an external microphone (not my headset).  It takes a little skill to set this up, but it is a great Plan B and has saved my skin a couple of times.

Plan C: I have sent people to view web-based videos on their own, and they do usually come back.  The only problem is that some folks with less skill managing their computers have trouble toggling between two programs.

Plan D: If I know in advance I have very low-skilled participants, I'll just take screen shots of parts of the video and talk about it.  Then I give them the link to view the video in full later.  This is not my favorite option, but it works.

Peace,

Glenda

Glenda, this is all very useful! Thanks for the recommendation of WebEx - expensive but maybe worth it for this particular need. I also appreciate your plan B! I'm not sure I have the tech skills to set this up, but I'm going to try it and see what happens. So by sharing your screen, participants see the video running, and by feeding the audio into a separate mic they can hear it? Maybe if I had a separate computer logged in to the meeting and could play the audio through that, it might work. Or does everything have to come through your login?

Marian

Videos

I think videos work best in webinars when they are short (1-3 minutes) and used as stage-setters for a discussion or a section of a presentation. Depending on the webinar platform, there are lots of ways to show video, but they don't always work so well for some participants and it's hard to troubleshoot their tech issues remotely. Keeping them short mitigates that somewhat. If there is a really great 10 minute video that you want to show, it might be best to make it a pre-webinar assignment or post-webinar resource. Long videos also start to cut in to overall webinar time, which is usually fairly short to begin with.

Websites

In Webex (not sure about other platforms), you can share websites in a few different ways. You can "share your screen/browser" and demo the features, which like Di said is much more compelling than just giving a url and describing it. But you can also "share web content" which shares the site within a Webex tab, but allows people to explore/control the website themselves. You could use such a feature to do an interactive website scavenger hunt, or similar activity. I find it's nice to show people something, but then quickly let them dig their fingers into it.

Multiple Presenters

Multiple presenters is always nice. Since there is often no visual besides slides, just hearing a different voice can re-tune people in. Even if there is just one presenter, I have done things like read quotes on a slide for them to vary up the voices (while acting as the host/webinar support). We have recently experimented with panel and interview formats. I would say keeping it natural is important here, and not over-scripting the discussion, or at least leaving deliberate pauses between question and answers.

A healthy mix of all three of these things (if applicable) could make for a really nice webinar experience - I think too much of any one thing (long panel discussion, single presenter plowing through slides, a series of website demos one after another) could make for a dreary webinar.

I've been in and facilitated many PD webinars, and here are some quick thoughts:

  • Participants who are comfortable with the interface.  Just a short video or tutorial made available in advance can make a world of difference.
  • Having a designated "tech help" person available during the webinar, especially for ones with high numbers of participants.
  • Rehearsing!  
  • GOOD (EXCELLENT) equipment.  Professional quality headsets are a must for the presenter.  High-speed, stable Internet is another.  A battery backup that connects not only to my computer but the router has saved my presentation on several occasions.  It gives me at least an hour after the electricity fails to wrap up.
  • Having a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D...
  • Interaction.  Avoid "talking (disembodied) heads."  Engage everyone in the conversation as much as possible.  Most learning / professional growth comes from collaboration, not listening.  If breakout rooms are not available, you can do wonders with chat groups or Google Documents / Sheets.
  • Timing.  Trying to do too much works even worse in the digital world than in the face-to-face world.
  • Cushion time built in for questions.  I'd rather have a few extra minutes at the end than have to cut questions short.
  • Purposeful use of color, images, animations.  I ask myself why this color? Why this image?  Do I need this animation or will it be distracting?
  • Follow up.  A quick email with a note or resource makes a world of difference.

Peace,
Glenda

 

As David mentioned, I have been running free webinars in New Jersey for the last few years. We generally run about 10 -12 per year (six in the fall and six in the spring). I do have a particular structure at this point. At the beginning of the webinar I introduce the guest facilitator and tell people how to interact. They can either raise their hands to be unmuted or use the chat or question feature. Then I turn it over the presenter and monitor the backchannel. This allows me to respond to people who are having technical problems without the presenter getting involved.

I tell the presenters to have a planned interactive activity or break at least every 8 minutes, and as David noted, I chime in from time to time to make it more like a conversation.

During the webinar, in my backstage capacity I also often have running conversations with people. Via the chat or question function they will ask a question or make a suggestion and I'll keep going back and forth with them while the presenter is moving forward. I think this allows people to not feel rushed if they want to think about something for a while. I get good feedback from them about this side conversation. I don't post it on the screen - for me that would feel distracting and I think it would also be the case for the presenter.

I find that most people would rather write the question and have me read it aloud than get unmuted and ask it themselves. However, I try to use people's names as much as possible (e.g., "David, Jolene had a good suggestion. She thinks that....") I joke around about being the teacher from Romper Room (dating myself here) speaking to kids via the screen. As the backstage person I can also read ten questions and synthesize them into one that the presenter can respond to.

It is a bit more informal, as I talk about the weather in New Jersey or other such things to make it feel like we're human beings having a conversation.

We use GoToWebinar and run videos as others have suggested by using screen sharing. It works OK, but the audio can get slightly out of sync.

As a side note, when we got into this we took turns signing up for trial runs of services. Having the various members of the board sign up meant we got through at least a year without having to pay.

 

 

 

Several years ago, a family literacy colleague and I were part of a cross systems group of TA's who were tasked to develop competencies and PD for technical assistants/coaches/consultants in the early childhood/family services fields. We decided to have a series of webinars on the fourth Friday of every month. The purpose was to help the participants become better at working with the folks that used them as technical assistants/coaches/consultants (everyone had a different name for the position, so I am just going to use the term TA from her on). Our theory was that a TA was being trained in the content area of their field, but perhaps not in how to teach others what they know. In our competencies we addressed things like conflict resolution, cultural competency, and working with adults (as opposed to the preschoolers that many had worked with before becoming a TA). We thought these would be the topics of our webinars.

The first webinar was an introduction, explaining what we had been working on and what the participants should anticipate in the coming months. (I think we held them for an hour during lunch, but now, I'm not sure why.) Since my colleague and I had the adult education experience, we presented the second webinar. We discussed the fact that adults learners already have background knowledge, they need to be engaged, the presentation has to be interesting because unlike compulsory school, they will leave. We included polls, short quizzes, opportunities for people to write their answers on the whiteboard. My friend and I shared the presenting duties. We felt we had done a good job in teaching people how to engage people in a webinar so that they would gain a lot of information from the presentation. (And not fall asleep!)

Many of the presenters that followed ours evidently did not attend our webinar or else did not pay attention. They created screens with too many words on them, and then read them. They talked at people and did not allow for much engagement. Other than leaving time for questions, they did not expect much in the way of dialogue with the participants. Eventually the presentations become specific to certain entities, especially about regulations in the early childhood field and I stopped attending. My guess is that shortly thereafter, the presentations were scrapped altogether.

I have come to dread webinars as I find them to be very droning, even the ones that try to be interactive. Unfortunately, sometimes they are a necessary evil.

Interesting enough, PA's Division of Adult Ed. decided to switch to webinars because of the expense of travel both in time and dollars. But people said they missed the face to face interaction. When I went back to the field and started to try to get local administrators together as part of the PAACE Administrators Division, I heard "Can't we just do 'go to meeting' or webinars or something. We don't want to travel." I suspect that if we started to have electronic meetings voices would raise for face to face.

Not sure there even is a solution...

Susan