Keeping students awake and engaged was one of my biggest challenges as a college teacher, a task made so much easier because I stood in front of them in a classroom. I could walk around, modulate my voice, facial expressions provided context and it was easy to tell if I was boring students so I could adapt my presentation accordingly. The interaction is what keeps me enthusiastic and involved, even when I teach the solitary subject of writing. I feed off it and students, I hope, feed off my energy, too.
Online teaching has never appealed to me –online learning is inferior, in my opinion. It’s profitable, don’t get me wrong, and I see why colleges are turning to it. But it’s not as good as in-person learning. As much as I love to teach–it’s something I know I do well–I’ve resisted online college teaching gigs simply because I think they’d bore both me and the student. In the same way, I resist giving webinars on writing or other topics. Seeing students and exchanging energy in person is what my teaching style is all about. Oh, and did I mention laughter? And what is laughter without facial expression? Body language?
But students today can join a class from anywhere in the world, thanks to our electronic connection, and we can learn from some of the most knowledgeable professionals in our fields without leaving our desks. That was my thought when I signed on for a several-session webinar to help me learn more about marketing a new venture I am planning.
Most of us have taken at least one webinar to expand our skills, I would bet, and I’d also bet that we’ve experienced massive fails as well as great experiences. If you’re thinking of giving a webinar or even attending one, these tips are for you.
Publish the agenda well in advance. Any professional meeting planner will tell you that an agenda should be issued at the same time you ask for sign-ups. Any good marketer will tell you the same thing. If you want people to pay money for your webinar, they need to know what they are buying. The same goes for any meeting, workshop or event. Tell them in advance and then make your agenda the very first thing you review with participants when you begin. If you surprise them after they sign up, well, they just may be disappointed.
Make session start and stop times clear and keep to them.
This is a matter of respect for your student’s time.
I had to search high and low for the stop time for a recent webinar I took–and finally saw that the sessions were three hours each. I thought that was manageable, but just barely. Since the first session took place on a holiday weekend, which is a terrible idea, I had to rearrange my plans, but I was excited about the topic. At the appointed time I was at my desk with a bottle of water, the webinar was up on my desktop and my laptop was at the ready for note-taking. The presenters then spent the better part of the first half hour explaining to us in detail about the charities that would benefit from this online workshop. There were three worthy organizations, and each was explained in great detail. And while I was happy that my small tuition fee would go to a good cause this holiday, I did not want to spend half an hour hearing about the charities. The details were just not important to me. I would rather have been with family and friends for that half hour. Or learning the content that was promised.
Because there was no specific agenda as to topics to be covered and length, I had no idea what to expect. BAD IDEA. I’ll be unlikely to take another webinar from this source.
Each session should be three hours –and less than that is even better.
I once taught a college class that ran four consecutive hours. It was horrific. So was this webinar. At the three hour mark, it was still going strong, at least from the presenter’s point of view.
Me? I was exhausted. Three hours turned into three hours and 22 minutes and there was no acknowledgment that the presenters were going over and no new stop time mentioned. It was well past midnight on the East coast. I bailed.
My experience is that three hours is the maximum a student can focus their attention in class–and that’s in person, where an instructor can keep energy high. But think about the online student, sitting in front of a computer, only moving their fingers and eyes. After two hours, legs get stiff, attention begins to wander. At three hours their eyes have glazed over and the instructor is losing them.
Three speakers were featured in my recent webinar. The primary speaker had the first three hours. She was engaging. The leader was also engaging when he popped on from time to time. But the speaker who took over at the three hour mark was ponderous and over-taught his topic, grinding on long past the time when we’d gotten his point. But I was done. Maxed out. My legs were stiff. I wanted to take my eyes off the screen. Do something else. And so I did. Three hours is the absolute maximum a student can tolerate an online lecture, even with the most engaging speaker.
Breaks are a necessity.
Call them bio breaks, bathroom breaks, stretch breaks, water breaks, whatever. You simply can not expect students to sit for hours without a break. Maybe they want to get some water, visit the rest room, stretch their legs. I was expecting a break at what I thought was the halfway point: 90 minutes. Our bio break came at two hours and was two minutes long. Two. Minutes. An onscreen timer ran. What’s worse is that the leader kept talking through the break. Would I miss something if I left? I wondered? A break is just that, a break. They should come hourly. Five minutes is enough time and the speaker should stop and let the break be a real break.
Engaging visuals are a must and it’s even better if they are interactive.
The webinar I took was very interactive, in that the speaker was working with a computer screen as she demonstrated what she was teaching, clicking and adding info. Since she was doing what we’d have to do when we marketed our own venture, it was great to see the screen and how to use it. But not every subject lends itself to this kind of visual. At all costs, avoid a static power point presentation. There’s nothing more boring than bullets on a screen. Audiences stay engaged with interesting and colorful visuals, including video. Use as much of this as you can, broken up into small snippets because too much of anything can get boring.
Multiple presenter interaction should be focused on the topic.
Multiple presenters change up the energy–assuming they’re all good interactions. Sometimes the presenters know each other and work together and will use little inside jokes and referrals in their presentation, oblivious to the fact that the audience is not in on the joke. Keep these to a minimum. The class is there to hear your pearls of wisdom, not hear you laughing and joking with colleagues. It’s just not relevant. I’m always surprised when professional speakers don’t get that inside jokes are only important to insiders.
Solve technical issues in advance.
Nothing significant got in the way of the transmission of our webinar, but if you don’t know your technology, this could stop a session in its tracks. Go-to-Meeting is fairly easy to use, but make sure you dry run it and have a tech support option should problems arise.
Don’t be defensive about feedback.
If this is your business and you want to make money, all feedback is your friend, including negative feedback. How silly is it to discount information that could help you sell more in the future? Any feedback will help you refine your offering so that one day you’ll be completely oversubscribed. And wouldn’t that be great?
Born of brutal experience, those are my webinar tips. Got any you think should be added?
I was born to be a student and to teach so it’s a subject I think about.
There’s so much lost on the Internet
I have been trying to understand how a woman I know can get a PHD in psychology with two Masters–one in clinical—without ever doing an internship. Clinical means treating patients. It makes no sense.
Online learning for clinical psych is problematic for me, too. In fact, I would hate to teach that way. But sometimes a several hour webinar is useful. But this latest one was exhausting. I’m not so sure people who give meetings of this kind or any kind are always equipped to do so in a useful way.
Your tips are spot on and needed! In attending many many webinars, I’ve only experienced one with a teacher who totally captivated me. And she is now sponsored by Target and Lynda.com. So she made a name for herself by doing one thing well in a niche where not many do very well. Webinars!
It’s crazy that more people don’t understand how simple it is to do it well. A few drops of respect for the audience is all it takes!
I’ve only done one of these and it was for 2 hours. After an hour of the same monotone voice and yes, those stupid bullets I thought my eyes and ears were going to start bleeding! If it had been more interesting two hours would have been acceptable. I also don’t thing it is professional to spend the first hour telling all of your credentials. People should know this beforehand or why would they sign up in the first place and not be subjected to a never-ending saga of every accomplishment you’ve had since the 7th grade.
I agree about credentialling.100 percent.
Thank you Carol for these tips (warnings)! I can implement them in two formats. A couple applied to my radio show and the others when I teach off line. One of the subjects I teach is public speaking so I will pass on your thoughts to my students. I think some of the people that do the webinars would benefit by reading this. I HATE to schedule the time and then have to listen to one or more people share their credentials for a half hour. I booked the session because of their credentials, I don’t need to hear them again. Often I have disconnected before they even get to the meat of the program. It would be great to have them follow your rules….sigh.
I am glad you’ll share them. It’s all about the audience, so simple!
I attend continuing education webinars to meet the ceu requirements for my nursing license in North Carolina. It makes a huge difference if the topic is interesting and the instructor is engaging. I can feel the excitement when the instructor is passionate about their topic and the boredom when they are reading a script. my turn comes to present a webinar I will use this excellent information as a guide. Thank you!
Glad it helped!
Great hints from an experienced teacher.
So many wonderful tips here! I have never agreed to participate in a webinar, but I have listened to some that were painfully long and boring!! Very helpful, indeed!
Yikes! I teach an early (very early) morning class of teenagers. I can’t imagine trying to reach them through a screen. I have enough of a challenge keeping them awake and alert with me in the room!
Excellent post, Carol. I’ll pipe in with one idea. I taught a once-a-week, 3-hour class through UC Berkeley Extension for many years. Most Extension students work fulltime so they’re tired before they even get to class. New teachers are required to take a teaching class to learn how to keep their students awake and interested. We learned that students generally hang on for at most 20 minutes at a time, and that teachers need to “change it up” in 20-minute intervals, i.e., lecture, small groups, stream-of-conscious writing, Q&A, Power Point, chalkboard, handouts to fill in, break, surveys, stretching/exercise, guided visualizations, review homework, etc. Like beats in a book, make the intervals obvious and have them build to a satisfying finish. Take a breath between beats. The time flew, most students stayed engaged and their work was generally at a high level. (This 20-minute rule also helped me in my business.) I realize that some of these activities are impossible to do in a webinar. But there must be many creative ways to change up the tempo and activities in short, regular intervals in the virtual classroom, too.
Wow! Great advice. This webinar sounds like a huge undertaking but would be fun to attend.
I can’t even imagine putting on a webinar — it sounds overwhelming. I do like to attend them, though!
My experience teaching in the college classroom sounds similar to yours, Carol, and it got me thinking what parts of it might translate to on-line learning. For a start–nix the 3 hour webinar. Just reading those words made me want to run away. I don’t have that kind of attention span–or ability to sit still–no matter how interesting or valuable the information may be. I think there’s research that says the average person can only pay attention for 15-20 minutes at a time. I was taught to always split my lesson plans into three discrete parts and to tell students at the beginning of class what the program was going to be. When I teach online, I do the same thing.
Even more, I think, is acknowledging that teaching is performance. If you look at the words you’ve used to describe your teaching, they are actually the words of an actor performing. While everyone can’t be a star player, it would make a world of difference if the leaders of webinars at least acknowledged that they are performing before an audience.
Absolutely agree about publishing a detailed agenda in advance. My best webinars have been those where folks had a chance to prepare q’s in advance.
Great tips! I also taught at the college level, and always had a great time doing it!
This is such good advice Carol!
All of your points are excellent! I agree with just about everything you said, especially the three-hour limit. I prefer in person classes too. What was the webinar you took? (Curiously she asked not nosey lol)