So what exactly is a webinar?

Examines the meaning of the term ‘webinar’ and contrasts this with a virtual classroom.

You might think it’s obvious – a webinar is, of course, a web seminar. But what is a seminar? I typed ‘define:seminar’ into Google hoping to get some clarification:

  • Any meeting for an exchange of ideas.
  • A course offered for a small group of advanced students.
  • A form of academic instruction.
  • A class that has a group discussion format rather than a lecture format.
  • Lecture and dialogue allowing participants to share experiences in a particular field under the guidance of an expert discussion leader.
  • Informal discussion and analysis of intellectual material in small groups.
How about the Oxford Concise Dictionary?
  • A small class at a university, etc. for discussion and research.
  • A short intensive course of study.
  • A conference of specialists.
Some characteristics come through clearly from these definitions:
  • That a seminar is a learning event.
  • That, although a seminar may well include an element of lecture/presentation, interactivity, typically in the form of discussion, is also important (see the words I have italicised).
  • That a seminar is likely to be pitched at an advanced/specialised audience.
So, that’s a seminar. But to what extent are these characteristics carried through into the typical webinar? Well, in many cases, very well – a web seminar is exactly what you get. But of course, sometimes the objective is only superficially a learning one – the real purpose is to familiarise you with a product or service, or to enhance the reputation of a consultant or supplier. It’s marketing dressed as education. I’m not  implying that this makes the session any less ‘pure’ or ‘ethical’, just that it only partially meets the definition of a seminar.
It’s also possible that a webinar will include little or no discussion, or any other form of interaction for that matter. Essentially, it’s a lecture/presentation, just like you’ll see at a conference. There may well be a learning objective for the presentation, but the event is certainly not instructional. If learning does takes place, it is because the participant is grabbed by the content of the presentation and is prepared to take it forward in some way – just as this can happen when you read a book, listen to a radio broadcast or watch a TV documentary.
Although a webinar clearly can have a learning purpose, I still believe it is useful to distinguish this from a full-on, virtual classroom session. Just as there’s a clear distinction between a conference and a training course in the bricks and mortar world, there’s the same difference when you move online. It is almost impossible to conceive of a virtual classroom session that is not interactive and that doesn’t have a clear educational/training purpose. It’s the world of the teacher/trainer rather than the lecturer/presenter. And whereas a webinar can have any number of participants, a virtual classroom will only work with small numbers.
For that reason, at onlignment, we make a clear separation between the webinar and the virtual classroom. They require different skills and obey different rules.