Originally published on Alastair Creelman’s blog, Corridor of Uncertainty (16 Nov 2013)
This week I and three colleagues arranged a webinar with the challenging title Running an effective webinar – experience and opportunities. It was part of a long series of webinars we’ve run over the last two years and the idea behind this one was to share our experience of webinars and invite participants to contribute their experience. We did not intend this webinar to be a masterclass(that would be tempting fate) but as an exchange of ideas and possibly the establishment of a community around the topic. About 160 people took part out of 244 registered and many more will watch the recording. Once again the most striking feature of the webinar is the high level of audience participation. Opening sound and video to such a large number of participants can lead to technical problems so interaction is largely limited to the chat window.
The use of the chat function in webinars intrigues me. A few months ago I wrote a post here about the problem of effective communication in webinars (Effective Communication in a webinar) and especially the issue of multitasking where the chat session competes with the speakers for attention. It’s easy for a webinar to be a simple lecture with little of no interaction and sometimes there is merit in keeping things that simple. However to meet demands for audience involvement there is usually a chat window open for participants to ask questions, make comments or provide relevant links. This chat is almost always highly relevant to the topic being discussed and is mostly inspired by comments from the speakers but opinions differ on whether this type of parallel discussion is a positive contribution to the webinar or an irritating or even rude distraction.
Even if I have become a habitual “multitasker” and admit that it simply means that I can do several things rather badly, I also believe that we need to focus on a speaker to really understand their message. We’ve tried to limit the distraction factor by making the chat window extremely small when all focus should be on the speaker and explaining that after a short input the chat window will be enlarged to show that the focus is now on the participants’ views. I thought that was a nice and tidy solution and that the multitasking could be limited by visual hints. However in our last two webinars this tactic has not worked. The chat is like a fire; once you get it started it just keeps burning and it’s almost impossible to stop. This is precisely the lesson I have learned from this webinar. You simply can’t control the interaction once it gets going and even if we reverted to a small chat window for the next chunk of input the chat just kept burning.
I can see both sides of the coin here. I agree that we are losing the ability to concentrate on what one person is saying and many people have become accustomed to having a buzz of communication about them all the time. This has a negative effect on our ability to really listen and reflect because our distractions are too loud. Howard Rheingold‘s work on attention (Attention, and Other 21st-Century Social Media Literacies, Educause Review 2010) as a key digital skill is relevant here. On the other hand there is already a tradition of chatting in a webinar as a way of creating a sense of community and participation. People expect to be able to chat while the webinar is in progress and once the chat starts it’s hard to stop. Even if you take the chat window away I’m sure people will quickly find another channel to use. We need to make it clear to participants that this parallel communication will take place and that it’s important to decide whether to concentrate on the speakers and ignore the chat or participate in the chat to the detriment of the speakers. Some can cope with both but not many. If you ignore the chat in the live session you can concentrate on it in the recording.
Have a look at the webinar below and see if you agree with the advice and experience that was shared. During the webinar we started a Facebook group in order to extend the discussion beyond the webinar. You’re welcome to join us.