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.

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?