Teaching and Learning in Short Webinars
If you enter “how to be a good online learner” or “how to be a good online instructor” in an Internet search tool, you’ll immediately see a long list of relevant results. As an instructor of computer software classes for nearly 20 years, the past 10 of which have been primarily in short (1.5-hour) synchronous webinars, I’ve developed some strong opinions of my own about this.
I’ve noticed that many of these articles assume that you’ll be taking a lengthy online course—one that perhaps spans weeks, with homework assignments, readings, group work, etc.—such as a course at a traditional university. While many of the tips for these learners and instructors are indeed relevant for short, one-time online webinars, I think it’s beneficial to focus specifically on this type of class and discuss what success looks like, both from the instructor and learner points of view.
All classes—in-person or online, synchronous (live, instructor-led) or asynchronous (e-learning) —are like a dance, with the partners being the instructor (or instructional designer, in the case of e-learning) and the learner. If one person stumbles, the other most likely will too, and the experience is less than it could have been for either. And for a short “dance,” like that in a typical webinar, you do not have the benefit of many classes spanning weeks or even months to get a feel for each other and “gel” over time. Instead, both partners must jump right in and be ready to perform, if the dance is be effective and (hopefully!) enjoyable.
That said, the following paragraphs list what I think are the important things for each partner to do for a short, synchronous webinar to make the learning effective. (Most of these are also important for longer classes, and a few are even useful for e-learning.) While the main point of training is that the learner does actually come away with new knowledge and/or skills that they can (and will) apply to their daily work, I certainly believe that the instructor’s experience is also important. Think of this as a contract between the learner and the instructor for any webinar. You’ll note that each point I make for the learner has a matching point for the instructor. (It is a dance, after all!)
Before the Webinar
The Learner Should: Read any email messages or other communications that you receive about the class, and follow any instructions within. Be especially careful to test your computer, audio devices, and Internet connection, to make sure that you’ll be able to join the class quickly and without technical issues. When you only have an hour to two for class, you do not want to use the first 10 or more minutes just trying to join the session and get situated. If you cannot test ahead of time, plan to join the session 10-15 minutes prior to the start time, so you can work out any technical problems with the instructor’s help or using the help method the provider offers. If there are specific materials, software, etc. that you need to download or verify that you have installed, make sure that you have these things done; again, do this well before the actual session. Also, be sure you have completed any pre-work that you were asked to do.
The Instructor Should: Become thoroughly familiar with the content of the session, and make sure that you know each demonstration, exercise, etc. that you will perform and/or have the learners perform, and also verify that all will work as planned. Only after you have taught the same session many times will you be familiar enough with it to go in without looking over your content and training plan ahead of time. You should also be able to teach and answer questions to at least one level above the level of the class. For example, if the class is for beginners, you should have at least an intermediate level of knowledge on the content. If the class is intermediate, you should have advanced knowledge. While no one knows everything or can answer every question right away, you should always strive to be prepared enough to do just that, whatever the learners throw at you. Also, become thoroughly comfortable using whatever webinar tool you are using for the session (WebEx, Adobe Connect, etc.)—make sure you know what you can do and how to do it, and plan ahead for how you might use the tools that are provided.
During the Webinar
The Learner Should: Not pay attention to anything but the instructor and content. Close your email program, so that you won’t be distracted by incoming emails—you can survive for an hour without checking email, and if not, postpone taking the class until you can give your full attention to it. If your own workspace is in a high-traffic area, try to find a conference room or other location where you won’t be distracted or exposed to too much background noise.
If you do not understand something, or fall behind, speak up! If your audio is muted, there will still be a Chat or Q&A function in the webinar that you can use to ask questions. The instructor generally cannot see you or your computer screen, and so will have no clue that you’re having trouble unless you speak up. In a live classroom, the instructor might pick up on your non-verbal cues, but not online—you will need to be far more self-directed in your approach to learning over the web, if you want to actually learn the content and be able to apply it later.
Participate in any class activities, even though the instructor probably cannot really tell if you are doing so or not. These activities are designed to strengthen your learning, and it’s you who needs to learn this material, not the instructor. So if the instructor asks you to take a few moments to practice a skill, jot down some notes, or just think about what was just discussed—well, actually do that.
The Instructor Should: Not pay attention to anything but teaching the class. You may need to keep your email running to view messages from learners who are having trouble, or to send out files, etc. to learners who did not come prepared. In general, however, make sure that you close all other programs but the ones you need to run the session, and focus exclusively on that and the learners.
Pay attention to the Chat, Q&A, or whatever other text-based methods of asking questions your webinar tool provides. It’s nice if you have another person as a producer or co-teacher, who can help with learner questions and technical issues, but in many cases it’s just you and the learners. Therefore, you have to pay attention to the text-based communication tools as you teach the class, and respond promptly when learners post questions there.
Allow the learners some time to practice what they are learning. If teaching a computer skill, have them try it in a practice file. If teaching soft skills, give them time to think about and perhaps write down their own personal thoughts on how they can apply the learning. If the webinar software allows it (and most do), you could offer break-out sessions for small-group discussion amongst the learners. Even if you know or suspect that most of the learners are not participating in this practice time, offer it. Some will recognize the value and take advantage of it, and practice is the only way to really solidify learning.
After the Webinar
The Learner Should: Fill out any class evaluation form provided. The instructor (and anyone else involved with designing and managing the class) cannot improve what they don’t know needs improvement!
For your own sake, try to put what you learned into practice right away. It’s a well-known fact that any new knowledge or skills that aren’t used within a week of being learned will be forgotten (I think that’s even a high estimate; I’d say it takes a few days at most); hence the reason that most webinars will have some sort of manual, quick reference guide, PowerPoint deck, etc. for you to refer back to. Use these tools, and do your best to use your new knowledge and skills as soon as possible. Make up an excuse to do so, if none present themselves naturally!
The Instructor Should: Send out evaluation forms and any other post-class files and communications as soon as possible after the class is over. If you wait even a day, many learners will not remember enough about the experience to write a meaningful evaluation. If your class includes a post-class assessment, like a quiz, also be sure to send that out right away, and get the results back to the students quickly. (Most webinars of short duration do not have a post-class assessment piece, but perhaps more should!)
Read the evaluations, and take action on any items for improvement that seem necessary or beneficial. Reflect on how the class went, your performance, your impressions of the learners’ experiences, etc. and use those reflections to do an even better job next time. Even after teaching the same session 100 times, you can most likely improve it somehow—in fact, after that many times you run the risk of becoming complacent, and that’s when improvements and updates are probably most necessary!
Do most of these things strike you as no-brainers? Well, they should be, but believe, they aren’t! Most of this comes from my experience as an instructor of short webinars, but I’ve been a learner in them, too, and also draw on that experience. As you can imagine, I’ve been (and will no doubt continue to be) a participant in sessions where one or more of these suggestions was ignored by either or both partners, and those experiences are always frustrating for everyone in the class, instructor and learners alike. Do your part to make the most out of every webinar you take or teach—the point is to learn something new and useful, and I believe these suggestions go a long way toward ensuring that this is exactly what happens.
Author Danielle Strom-Virtual/Classroom Instructor and Curriculum Developer at Elert & Associates