Top ten webinar best practices

Osterman Research has recently released the results of their research, sponsored by Citrix Online, into best practices for webinars. They make ten recommendations:

  1. Use guest speakers
  2. Hold rehearsals
  3. Promote well in advance
  4. Find out about your audience and adapt to their needs
  5. Send invitations 1 to 2 weeks in advance
  6. Limit to one hour
  7. Leave time for Q&A
  8. Use polls
  9. Conduct product demonstrations (presumably where relevant)
  10. Conduct post-event surveys

You can download the report from Citrix here.
The report makes some simple but important points and provides useful initial guidance. We’ll be building on these ideas and putting our own unique perpsective forward on the topic over the coming months.

Brain rules for the virtual classroom

A look at the implications for virtual classroom facilitators of the neuroscience findings summarised in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

Recently I conducted an in-depth review of John Medina’s book Brain Rules for my personal blog, Clive on Learning. I took my time over this because John’s analysis of the applications of neuroscience to education and training was so far-reaching. I looked at each of John’s rules in turn, assessing the implications for workplace learning in general. The purpose of this post is to explore the ideas in a more restricted context, the facilitation of virtual classrooms.

For each rule, click on the link to see the original posting.
So we learn much more effectively when we’re on the move. Implications for the virtual classroom? I would imagine it’s impractical for participants to use a mouse and headset when exercising, so I’d probably keep sessions short and encourage participants to exercise in the breaks. Some chance.
Without good facilitation, there is a risk of relationships breaking down, perhaps because one person tends to dominate or behave aggressively.The implication for the virtual classroom is to choose facilitators carefully for their empathetic ability and then provide them with the training they need to handle problems diplomatically and sensitively. Given you can’t see your learners, how do you pick up on potential problems? How do you deal with a difficult participant without embarassing them in front of their peers?
All learners are different and that makes it hard for the facilitator of any live session to ensure every participant achieves their objectives. In the virtual classroom that means keeping class sizes small, so facilitators stand a better chance of understanding and reacting to the differences inherent in every learner. It could mean running special sessions forlearners that are behind the pack. It also places a premium on the use of polls and other survey tools that provide you with more information about the group you’re working with.
You’ll achieve nothing if you haven’t captured the attention of your audience. The best way to capture attention is with an emotionally-arousing experience of some sort – perhaps an anecdote, a surprising fact, a scenario, an activity – that is relevant to the point you will be making.
Even if you do manage to capture the audience’s attention, you’ll have lost it within 10 minutes if you don’t stimulate a fresh emotional arousal. In the virtual classroom it will make sense to start with an overview and provide regular progress updates. And in each 10 minute block, concentrate on a single key point.
If you want people to remember something, make sure they understand it. Facilitators should make liberal use of relevant, real-world examples.
Retrieval works best when the environmental conditions at retrieval mimic the environmental conditions at encoding. If this is true, then the most effective environment in which to learn would be on-the-job, which for many virtual classroom participants will be where they will be!
A key lesson here is to present important information repeatedly over time, elaborating on it as you do so. Where possible, build on the learner’s prior knowledge, rather than presenting new information in isolation. Provide opportunities for reflection and/or discussion immediately following the session, perhaps using an asynchronous medium, such as a forum.
So, getting the right amount of sleep is critical to the brain’s functioning, including learning; we differ in how much sleep we need and this varies at different times in our lives; we could all do with a nap in the afternoon. The implications for the virtual classroom? Well, perhaps you should avoid sessions mid-afternoon. You might also find that some participants take advantage of the fact that you can’t seethem to catch up on their sleep during particularly boring sessions!
There’s no real harm in a a learning intervention causing a little stress in learners, so long as this is very moderate and short-lived. A small degree of peer pressure would be a good example. What we don’t want is to stress our learners out. I reckon that a great many classroom events, particularly those that are highly interactive, stress out learners too much because the degree of peer pressure is too high – the learner may be terrified of embarrassing themselves. Live events may also be stressful because they attempt to cover too much information too quickly and the learner simply cannot keep up.
Medina draws heavily on the work conducted by Richard Mayer on the link between multimedia and learning. At the most simple level, Mayer concluded that “students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.” Facilitators of virtual classroom events should try to avoid the most common sins, i.e. delivering two sources of verbal information simulataneously (typically voice and a lot of text on the screen) or two visual sources (say graphics and video). The brain can only comfortably pay attention to one visual and one verbal channel at a time.
Visual aids are not an optional extra; they are usally helpful and sometimes essential. It does matter what pictures you use – different types of information require different types of visuals to convey meaning most clearly. While more abstract information is harder to convey pictorially, it is worth the effort. However, better no picture than one that just fills a space and conveys an inappropriate meaning.
This may be the case, but I struggle to find any implications for the virtual classroom facilitator. In many cases, you can only tell who’s male and who’s female by the name on the participant list.
When it comes to more formal learning interventions, we sometimes seem to conspire to minimise the possibilities for exploration and reflection – the dominant strategy continues to be structured instruction, regardless of the suitability to the requirement. Guided discovery is more engaging and more rewarding, particularly when the participants have plenty of experience to draw upon and share. Probably learners would like a balance between the two. They appreciate the opportunities to reflect and explore, particularly collaboratively, but they also quite like to be able to draw upon expert experience from time to time. This is entirely an issue of pedagogy – virtual classrooms are neutral on this issue and can support each approach equally.

So are webinars effective?

A summary of research on webinar effectiveness from The Webinar Blog.

The Webinar Blog recently completed a small survey of 50 organisations, mostly from the USA, on the effectiveness of webinars. Asked whether they formally measure webinar effectiveness, 32% of respondents answered ‘always’, 16% ‘frequently’ and 26% ‘occasionally’. So whay isn’t effectiveness measured in every case? Of those who do not measure, 46% said it was too hard to establish measurable criteria, 36% said the results cannot be clearly linked to the webinar and 30% said that nobody has asked for it!
Of those who do measure, 40% found that webinar benefits definitely outweigh the costs and 30% felt they probably did. The remaining 30% did not know, which is strange given that they do the measuring. Those who did no formal measurement were asked for their gut feel about whether benefits outweighted costs. Of these 43% said ‘definitely’ and 45% said ‘probably’.

Slide:ology – first impressions

I’ve just started reading this book celebrating the art and science of creating great presentations, and of course it’s highly relevant to anyone who has the responsibility for delivering webinars. The book is one of the most beautifully presented that I’ve ever encountered and must have taken an enormous amount of designing. Here are a few extracts from the introduction:

“Unfortunately, most people never make the jump from verbal expression – which is what we were all taught in school – to effective visual expression, which is neither easy nor natural. Slides are thus stranded in a no man’s land where the general population doesn’t know how to effectively produce or deliver them. Yet when a presentation is developed and delivered well, it is one of the most powerful communication tools in the world.”

“We can keep blaming the software for the putrid output, but in reality we need to take responsibility. As communicators, learning to create visual stories that connect with our audience is becoming imperative.”
“Every presenter has the potential to be great; every presentation is high stakes; and every audience deserves the absolute best.”

So, no pressure then.

Functionality or fidelity – choose your weapon

This post explores the different characteristics of real-time, online communications tools from the perspectives of fidelity and functionality.

There’s a plethora of different real-time, online communication tools out there, with widely varying characteristics. In searching for the right tool for the job, it seems to me that there are two main criteria that are most likely to affect your decision – fidelity and functionality.
By fidelity I mean the richness of the person-to-person communication. At the most basic level, you are limited to simple text messaging, as with chat rooms or the original instant messaging programs. Text comes first because it requires practically no bandwidth and no investment in special hardware (sound cards, headsets, cameras).
It’s a big step up from this is to add voice (VOIP), because now you really need a broadband connection as well as a sound card and a headset. On the other hand, the communication is much more fluid and carries more information in the tone of voice.
The natural extension to this is to add webcams to the mix and allow visual communication. Again, you’re adding a great deal of information, this time through body language. The price is even more bandwidth and yet more equipment. You can go further and add the sort of top-end cameras and high-definition displays that you’ll find with telepresence. The result is that you might as well be in the same room as the other participants; the price comes in bandwidth, custom-build video conferencing facilities and, of course, hard cash.
Clearly fidelity will be important in certain situations, but so too will be functionality. By functionality I mean the richness of the interactive experience. At the lowest level, though still of huge importance, is simple chat – two-way communication using text or voice. Any real-time online communication tool will allow you to chat.
Moving up comes the ability to present information using visual aids such as slides, animations, movies and – should you be working in a virtual world such as SecondLife – 3D graphics. It’s easy to see how this capability adds a great deal to more structured events such as webinars or virtual classroom sessions, but you’re going beyond the capability of simple chat rooms and instant messaging.
At a higher level still comes the ability to interact in more structured ways, through application sharing, virtual whiteboards, polls and break-out rooms. Now you have all the components you need to deliver richly interactive sessions.
Any model worth its salt has to be expressable as a two-dimensional grid and this one’s no exception.
Different types of communication tools support different levels of fidelity and functionality. First chat rooms:
Instant messaging, including tools such as Skype, go further in terms of fidelity, but not functionality:
A virtual world, such as SecondLife, can be made made to support higher levels of functionality, although this is very much the exception:
Web conferencing incorporates all the functionality you could need, and also has the potential for high fidelity (although, to be fair, most users do not take advantage of the facility to use webcams and purists would not anyway use the term hi-fi to describe the picture quality):
Telepresence, and similar forms of high-end video conferencing, offer a truly hi-fi experience and integrate with web conferencing to provide all the interactive functionality:
So, choosing the right tool is all about assessing the level of fidelity and functionality that’s needed for the sessions you’ll be running. Pitch too low on either scale and your online sessions may not achieve their objectives. Pitch too high and you’ll be consuming lots of unnecessary resources.

How being online can trump face-to-face

Explores the possibility that online meetings might actually be better than their face-to-face equivalents.

We wouldn’t have come up with the term onlignment for this blog if we didn’t believe in the value of online communication. Of course we all know the practical arguments in favour of meeting online:
  • You save time by avoiding the need for travel to a central location.
  • You save money for the same reason, bucket loads of it.
  • Oh and you also happen to save the planet.
These are powerful arguments but they’re all about saving resources, about efficiency. What they don’t tell us is what we might gain or lose by switching medium so dramatically. At first glance, it looks like we’re going to be net losers:
  • We lose visual contact with our fellow participants (unless of course we have the hardware and the bandwidth to support webcams all round, which might be normal in years to come, but is still a rarity in a work environment).
  • We haven’t got those body language clues which tell us who’s paying attention and who’s slipped out of consciousness.
  • We can’t interact physically so group hugs are out of the question (some of us won’t be too bothered about that).
  • We can’t share a drink in the bar afterwards.
I must admit that, in the past, I have found it quite hard to come up with the counter arguments; the ways in which being online adds to the effectiveness of the experience. But I do have a few suggestions:
  • It’s much easier to get an expert who’s based in some remote location to present to your group by web conferencing than it is face-to-face. The time commitment for the expert is reduced from days to a few hours; the cost argument is just as strong.
  • Most web conferencing systems allow you to record the session so participants can refer back to the content at any point in the future, and so those who missed the session when it was live can still gain some benefit.
  • Text chat serves as a back channel that allows participants to interact with each other to discuss the content, share resources, exchange contact details, etc. without bothering the facilitator. This is really difficult to achieve face-to-face, yet adds a huge amount of value.
  • Participants who are not interested in what’s currently being presented or discussed can drop out to do something more useful. Again, this is really difficult to achieve face-to-face without being rude.
Actually that’s quite a reasonable list. Can you think of any other ways in which being online trumps being face-to-face? If so, why not share your ideas by replying to this post?

The importance of being synchronous

This posting examines the ‘real-time’ element of the onlignment definition to see why this is so important to business communications.

We have defined ‘onlignment’ as the art of real-time, online communication. There is a reason why we’ve narrowed our scope down to real-time communication and the purpose of this posting is to clarify what this is.
First of all, let’s be clear on the terminology we’re going to be using here. Real-time communication is essentially ‘synchronous’ – the parties to the communication have to be available to communicate at the same time, whatever the medium that is used. Synchronous communication can be contrasted with its asynchronous counterpart, which frees the various parties up to communicate when they want. Synchronous communication is live, like speaking on the telephone; asynchronous communication is self-paced, like writing a letter.
It’s important to understand why human beings need to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously. After all we’ve been using both approaches in parallel for a pretty long time …
Our primitive ancestors communicated synchronously using gestures, grunts, signals and ultimately speech; they soon also developed ways to communicate asynchronously, through signs, drawings, paintings and, eventually, written words.
Moving forward to the 20th century, but before the advent of home computers and mobile phones, humans had enriched their media options enormously. Synchronous options now included the telephone, TV and radio. Asynchronous alternatives included print, letters, faxes, voicemail, telex, as well as a host of ways for recording audio and video.
As we stand move forward to 2009, media options have again multiplied. Taking asynchronous options first, we’ve added email, web pages, forums, SMS messaging, podcasts and blogs. Real-time we now have audio, video and web conferencing, chat rooms and instant messaging, not to mention multi-user virtual worlds like SecondLife.
Clearly, as humans we need to be able to communicate in both modes; and to respond to this need, we seem to be evolving new media options just about equally across the two. There are pretty good arguments for going the asynchronous route:

  • We get to keep a record of our communication.
  • We are not bound by the need to communicate at any particular time.
  • We can reflect carefully on what we communicate.
  • We can read/listen/watch/interact at our own pace.
  • We can go back and re-read/listen/watch as many times as we like.

These are convincing arguments. But asynchronous communication is not the focus of this blog, so we’d better find some equivalent arguments to justify communicating in real-time, when we don’t usually have a record of what is said and done, when all participants have to be available at the same time, when communication has to be spontaneous, when the pacing is inflexible and when there is no rewind button. So what are these arguments? Why do we phone rather than text? Why do we talk to someone in person rather than send an email? Why do we hold a discussion using web conferencing rather than using a discussion forum?
Well, I’m going to throw that one open to see what suggestions you have. When we’ve gathered a reasonable collection of responses, I’ll summarise them in a future posting.
So, what are you waiting for?

Welcome to the onlignment blog

An introduction to the onlignment blog, its purpose and positioning.

Phil, Barry and I have started onlignment because we recognise the increasing importance of real-time online communication, particularly through the use of web conferencing for meetings, webinars and for training. We also recognise that, although some vendors make a valient effort, this is a largely unsupported venture for most organisations.
This blog is not, of course, about onlignment the company. If it was, you wouldn’t be interested, at least not in the long run. We intend this blog to provide a vehicle for us to explore the world of real-time online communication with you, helping us all to make sense of a vital new medium.
As for me, my main interests are in how we communicate online using voice and imagery; also how we use interactivity to help achieve our objectives. In finding a way forward we can borrow a lot from our experiences with other more familiar media. It is fair to say, though, that the best ideas probably remain undiscovered. Let’s go exploring and see if we can find them.