Webinars – the Future of Online Learning?

  • 03/03/2020
  • 9+

Introduction

At Bodhiroom, our vision has been to encourage continuous learning and self-improvement which we feel is the true joy of life. We’re also quite convinced that face-to-face learning can never fully be replaced by technology. Think about when you go for business meetings or networking events, one could conduct such meeting over the phone as well but something about being seated in front of another human being brings comfort and the feeling that you’ve gotten a true sense of the other person.

As such, our aim has been to build a one-stop shop for your workshop needs whether they are hobby workshops like watercolour painting, sketching, calligraphy, dance or personal improvement workshops on topics such as exploring creativity, developing emotional intelligence, improving writing skills or adulting workshops like income tax for beginners.

However, the sudden onset of COVID-19 aka the novel Coronavirus has been a black swan event like no other in human history. In the years to come, once the greatest threat has passed, the virus’ global impact will undoubtedly change the way society and the economy operates.

As unheralded measures are taken by nations worldwide to isolate people so as to prevent the spread of the virus, talk of the deep impact that these measures will have on economic activity has already begun. Bodhiroom’s operations have been impacted as well – it would have been far too cavalier to continue with face-to-face workshops in light of the rapid spread of the virus and the subsequent lockdown has taken that decision out of our hands.

Webinars

· Great for scale
· But we have our misgivings

In this scenario, a lot of retail businesses have been falling back on webinars and webcasts to continue their engagement with customers. At Bodhiroom, we’ve had our misgivings about the effectiveness of such platforms to deliver learning that is interactive and sticky in the participants’ minds. But we can’t fail to acknowledge the power of the internet in achieving scale quickly. Also as entrepreneurs it should be our objective to find solutions for obstacles that come in our way and in this case we’ve decided to try and see if we can use webinars more effectively.

Webinar, Webcast or Video Conference

· A video conference allows a closed group to interact using audio and video
· Webinars are video conferences with additional features
· In a webcast only the host is visible and audible

Like many things in this era, terminology in the online meeting space is fluid. The most common names you’ll encounter for online meetings are video conference (or ‘VC’), webinar and webcast. Despite the similarity in names of the latter two, it is actually VCs and webinars which are more similar to each other. In both there is a closed group of participants, with the ability to talk to each other in real-time using both audio and video. The main difference is that in a VC the objective is not necessarily to convey knowledge from the host to the participants but rather just to have a meeting. So a webinar is essentially a VC in which the intent is for the host to deliberately convey some pre-decided knowledge to participants. As one can imagine, conveying a lesson-plan to multiple participants using only audio and video of your face is not easy. So, most webinar platforms also offer various additional features that are designed to make it easier to convey knowledge.

Lastly, a webcast or live-stream is essentially a product of the social media generation. In a webcast, only a single person – the host is visible and audible and the audience can usually only interact with the host using a real-time text chat feature. Clearly, a webcast would not do justice to a Bodhiroom workshop which entails informality, jokes, interactivity and networking.

Platform

· Webinar platforms are numerous
· The entire industry has moved to a cloud-based, SaaS model
· Free may not be truly free

The first obstacle that anyone looking to do a webinar runs into is which platform to use. Over the last few years, the proliferation of the Cloud has allowed numerous webinar platforms operating as Software-As-A-Service or “SaaS’ to come up. Gone are the days when you needed to download a local Skype application for a video conference, modern VC/webinar platforms usually operate within your web browser itself.

The problem of plenty implies the difficulty in making a comparison and then a choice from many good options. This is the state of affairs with webinar platforms today. Some of the more popular platforms are Zoom, BlueJeans, Webinar Ninja, Livestorm, Cisco’s WebEx. The website Techradar gives a great overview of the different webinar platforms in 2020.

Compounding the problem of plenty is that SaaS has changed the dynamic of free and paid software. Even until a few years ago there was a clear demarcation between freeware and paid software. Free more often than not was truly free. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the move to SaaS means that so-called ‘free’ software now only offers certain features free with their basic plans and you would need to unlock the best features by opting for a paid plan. If you’re testing out webinar tools (as we are), you might want to try 8×8 VC.

Hardware

· Broadband penetration and speeds in India are very low
· 4G penetration in India is decent but speeds are amongst the lowest in the world
· Webinars consume a lot of bandwidth
· Telephone dial-ins are one workaround but many platforms don’t provide this option for India

One of the major issues we’ve encountered in attempting a Bodhiroom workshop via the internet is the issue of hardware. In India, broadband penetration is very low moreover, Indian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have been guilty of labelling some services as broadband which fall quite short of actual broadband speeds. On the other hand, while mobile internet penetration in India is fairly encouraging, the actual speed available over 4G networks in India is amongst the worst in the world lagging even Pakistan. The poor speed of internet coupled with unstable networks is a big hindrance to the adoption of webinars in the private context. This is an important consideration as transmission of real-time video and audio over the internet is extremely bandwidth hungry and even the best networks lag frequently.

There are some workarounds to this problem for example some webinar platforms offer optional landline teleconference numbers for the audio component. This reduces the data being transmitted over the internet as it transfers the audio load to traditional telephone lines. However, not all platforms mentioned earlier offer the dial-in option and very few of those that do offer it for India (one more reason we recommend 8×8 VC).

Interactivity

· Interactivity can be lost in a big way in a webinar – the obstacles are numerous
· There are ways to solve these issues – a fun tone, asking a lot of questions, webinar-oriented activities and icebreakers

The second big issue we have with learning-over-internet is the lack of interactivity. Until virtual reality technology is perfected and merged with video-conferencing technology seamlessly, it’s difficult to forget that you are still seated in the comfort of your own home and are not physically near the other members of the VC or webinar.

Bodhiroom workshops on the other hand are deliberately informal and highly interactive. Without the human touch and without the opportunities to engage with the instructor and other participants through activities, interactivity can go flying out the window.

So some of the obstacles to interactivity that we anticipate in webinars versus in-person workshops are:

1. Due to hardware restrictions, you can’t have people talking over each other
2. It’s easy for participants to fall into classroom mode and keep quiet while the host drones on
3. Participants may feel more shy in opening up to people over the internet rather than people they’re sitting in front of
4. Even if participants are talking and asking questions, it’s likely that the conversation will be directed to the instructor rather than the other participants. For example in an in-person session, if you want to address a fellow participant’s point but you don’t remember their name, you can physically turn to look at them and address them directly.
5. Informality – jokes and self deprecation works wonders to try and create an atmosphere of informality but jokes often don’t translate well over the internet.
6. Many activities that are possible in-person just aren’t possible in a webinar format.

Having pointed out these obstacles, some important commonalities between in-person workshops and webinars remain. The tone in which the instructor talks is a hugely important factor in setting the tone of the workshop (wordplay intended). A dull monotone can make even an in-person workshop unbearably boring whereas a ‘fun’ way of talking including changes in pitch and volume can enliven any session. Icebreakers also translate well across format although obviously some icebreakers can only happen in-person. Icebreakers are great in making participants feel comfortable with each other right at the offset. Additionally, while activities are certainly much easier to arrange in-person, some activities are also feasible in a webinar albeit with some planning. Lastly, asking questions is the ultimate method of making any learning session interactive. We always encourage our Bodhi Gurus to review their own workshop structures and think about which parts of the learning can be posed as a question to the participants.

Here at Bodhiroom, we love the Socratic method!

Conclusion

Having identified the issues and possible solutions mentioned above, it is appropriate to point out that Bodhiroom will be hosting its inaugural webinar session on Sunday, 29th March 2020. The session will be the online version of our Bodhi Gurus Training Module which seeks to have an interactive discussion on the question ‘What Makes A Workshop Good?’ Hopefully our little experiment leads to a unique Bodhiroom webinar experience!

All of us have skills and life experiences that we can share. Bodhiroom is a platform where curious people, from all walks of life, can come together to learn for learning’s sake.

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