Webinars – sharing your findings in online seminars

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One way to build your online presence and credibility as a serious researcher (or research team), and to present findings from your research is to organise webinars around issues you are working on.

A webinar (the name combines web and seminar) is a real time seminar delivered online using one of the many available webinar online services. While organising a webinar takes quite some work, it can pay off because webinars are increasingly establishing themselves as respectable and cost effective alternatives to conventional capacity-building events. They are suited for dissemination of policy-based research outcomes, because the researchers can build the agenda of the webinar with a particular audience in mind, the same way s/he does with a face-to-face seminar or presentation. Equally, invitations to webinars can be personalised and targeted at policy-makers and other stakeholders in the same way as invitations to non-virtual events.

Many established educational and research institutions incorporated webinars among their teaching methodologies.

What is a webinar?

Example of webinar interface
A webinar is a seminar-type online event that takes place at a time determined by the organiser. Webinars usually last between 30 minutes and 2 hours. Longer events are also possible, but it is generally difficult to keep people's attention for longer, unless they have a particular commitment (e.g. they are your team members). Webinars are held on a specific type of online conferencing tool which is normally accessed through participants' web browsers. Participation can be open or by invitation only. Webinar platforms commonly include:
  • A screen (whiteboard) where the presenter shows slides, images, videos, or shares other content. The same space can be used to draw or write in real time. Content for the board is usually prepared prior to the webinar and the presenters only 'puts it up' as the event progresses (the way powerpoint presentations are used in a face-to-face setting)
  • Document repository where the audience can access documents prepared for the event
  • Audio (optionally also video) enabling the presenter to speak to the audience
  • Polling window for collecting feedback from the audience. This feature can have several different formats, most commonly it enables the attendees to click on chosen response to a given question.

Depending on the particular webinar service, the tool can include other features, such as chat window (where attendees can chat with the presenter), desktop sharing, and others.

Since most webinar tools rely heavily on board presentations (slides, videos) and accompanying voice lecture, there is often a possibility to prepare content beforehand as a visual presentation, and then replay it during the live event.

Advantages and disadvantages over a conventional seminar

Think of your future webinar the way you think of a real-life seminar organised to inform policy makers about your findings. The main difference is that you will have a full control over how much space you give to your attendees to ask questions or contribute to your event. And you will probably also find it difficult to get used to the fact that the audience is there although you don't see them. In terms of dynamics of the event, you will find it surprisingly similar to a real life seminar and you will even be able to show similar type of content that you would present in a face-to-face setting.
Example webinar recording: Planning for the Future of Genomics .


Using webinar platforms you can organise a whole series of events, which is something one can rarely afford with face-to-face seminars.

Other advantages over a face-to-face event are:

  • Organising a webinar is generally more cost effective
  • Limits on the number of participants are determined only by your webinar service license, not available room size
  • People can attend from anywhere, provided that they have access to a computer connected to the internet
  • You are spared of common distractions accompanying non-virtual events
  • People who are nervous when presenting to a real audience might find presenting online easier

Disadvantages are:

  • You lose on networking opportunities that emerge from any non-virtual event
  • Although you have details about who is attending your webinar, you don't have any (visual) control over how many people are really paying attention
  • It is generally more difficult to keep your audiences' attention for longer periods, then it is in a face-to-face event
  • Unless you chose an adequate webinar tool, some participants might have technical problems to attend because of their hardware/software equipment or connectivity issues
  • The quality of available connectivity can be a barrier to participation.
Although most webinars include time for Q&A, the default format is based on one-to-many communication with only limited possibilities for attendees to interact among themselves or with the presenter. That makes it easier in terms of facilitation, particularly because multi-directional communication online in large group is very difficult to manage. However, not having the collective brainstorming and conversations that occur during non-virtual events is the price we pay for limiting participants' access to interactive features (such as using a microphone). If you need to organise more participatory meetings which focus on exchange rather then presentations, webinar services might not be the right tool to look at. You will need one of the online teleconferencing tools instead[1].
Ocg.jpg
Should you need help in finding the right teleconferencing tool, check out the guide Online conferencing tools for development practitioners.

Equipment and setup

You need a good performance computer to run webinar applications, particularly its audio/video, and application sharing features. The website of each particular webinar service provides specifications for its hardware and software requirements. Proper testing prior to your first webinar is a must. Another important requirement is good and stable connectivity, including at least as good upload bandwidth as is specified by your webinar service provider as minimum requirement. If you are based in a region with only low bandwidth access, you should do a proper research on existing webinar services because their bandwidth requirements can differ significantly[2].

You must have a good microphone to run a webinar. Not only is it unprofessional if a webinar presenter can not be properly heard or understood, but even the most enthusiastic participant will give up after 10 minutes of struggling with muffled audio or sound levels that range from a whisper to a shout. Your laptop's built-in microphone is insufficient and you will need to get a good headset or a stand-alone quality directional microphone. If you have more than one presenter, make sure the sound level of each is similar. It is absolutely essential that you lead your webinar from a quiet room with no distractions, so no dog barking, phone ringing, etcetera can be heard by participants. Isolate yourself from outside world and focus entirely on your webinar!

If you are planning to transmit a video of yourself, make sure to get a good quality external camera, such as a camcorder or a really high-end webcam which allows proper zooming, color adjustment, etc. Again, although built-in webcams can have in some cases a very decent picture, you will never achieve the angle you need, full focus, etc. Also make sure your lighting conditions are satisfactory and there is no disturbing background around you. When preparing your video setup, take inspiration from moderators of specialised TV programs. Film yourself and check out the video to see if it really works. Keep in mind that in general, video drives participants' attention away from other displayed content as well as from the audio messge.

Organising your first webinar

You should consider attending couple of webinars yourself before organising your first event. Leading a webinar requires a good preparation of the content that you will present, but also some training in talking to an invisible audience. Without such training, one gets quickly discouraged by lack of visible (and audible) reactions. The webinar requires certain fluency and speed in delivering your message, otherwise you will quickly lose your audience's attention and they will either leave the event altogether or start reading their Facebook updates. There are number of resources available on preparing and leading your own webinar.[3]

Another good strategy for beginners is not to start with leading webinars alone, but to do it with a colleague. You can divide the presenting into parts and take turns the way TV announcers do.

The invitation and participation/access management differs for every service. In order to invite your attendees you usually need only their names and email addresses which you enter into the webinar system and it takes care of the invitations, informing attendees about where, when, how.... You might be able to request people to confirm their attendance, which makes it easier for you to track who and how many will attend. If you are organising an event open to the public, then you can freely distribute a link with details on how to join the webinar. The access configuration for your webinar can usually be configured from within the webinar tool.

How to choose a webinar service

Every webinar service is different and they all try to beat their competition by providing some extra functionality. When choosing your webinar tool, don't go for the most complex one, but rather for the one that best matches your needs. Remember, more complex usually translates in more complication and more need for support. The table below should help you to decide which functionality you are looking for:


Feature Pros Cons
Standard features
Whiteboard Possibility to write and draw in a real time. Allows for improvisation and engagement of attendees (they can write their ideas on the board) N/A
Slide presenter Possibility to present content prepared beforehand (PowerPoint presentations, Pdf files...) N/A
Audio Indispensable to lead a webinar N/A
Shared web browser Indispensable to show online content N/A
Polling Possibility to collect structured feedback from attendees. Increases engagement, particularly if combined with quizzes. N/A
File sharing (presenter → attendees) Allows quick distribution of documents on the fly (particularly useful when one needs to improvise) N/A
Document repository Important where attendees are expected to work with documents that can't be displayed on slide presenter. N/A
Session recording The impact of your webinar can be amplified when you make recording of it (or part of it) available online for viewing by those who couldn't attend the event when it took place. You might face privacy issues when publishing recordings from webinars that had extensive inputs from other participants.

Recording sessions can be made difficult when using some of the webinar services that allow only recording to its native formats[4].

Extra features
Chat Increases interactivity and allows for quick collecting of feedback In an event with multiple participants (10+), following a chat can be very distracting or virtually impossible for the presenter.
Screen sharing Allows the presenter to show any content on his/her computer (great to share content that can not be “pre-packaged” for presentations) Display of presenter's desktop can be confusing for unexperienced attendees

Screen sharing is usually demanding on bandwidth and performance of participants' machines

Video Seeing presenter on video makes the event feel much more “real” Video can be distracting participants from other content and audio message.

You need a decent video equipment & light conditions in order to use this feature, otherwise the resulting impression can be rather poor.

Audio feedback from attendees Increases participation In a large meeting multiple audio can be difficult to handle.

Another standard feature available in most webinar software is an attendance manager – a system enabling you to send invitations and manage access to your webinars.

An overview of most common webinar services and links to respective websites can be found on the list compiled by Socialsourcecommons.org (see below). No totally comprehensive matrices exist which would show feature comparisons of existing webinar tools. The most "complete" one is being maintained on Wikipedia[5]. However, this matrix is not webinar-specific and it covers all types of online conferencing tools. The landscape of webinar services is changing so quickly that a proper assessment of the most appropriate solution must be done with your specific requirements in mind.

Selection of common webinar platforms

(Following list is being maintained by independent editors of socialsourcecommons.org)

Costs

The cost can be anything from free in case of advertisment-supported platforms (e.g. AnyMeeting[6]) to hundreds of dollars per month. More expensive solutions are usually also robust online teleconferencing platforms that can be used in other ways than just for organising webinars. However, sessions can be customized in such way that they fit the dynamics required by a webinar. These include for example AdobeConnect[7], Blackboard Collaborate[8], WebEx[9], and others.

Using Web2.0 tools to stream from your face-to-face event

You might run into situation when you are organizing a face-to-face workshop which you would like to make available over the internet to those who can't attend it in person. There are Web2.0 services that make online video streaming available to a common user without deep technical knowledge and without costly video setup.

Bambuser[10] is a service through which you can easily stream (broadcast) video from your event. What you need in order to use it is:

  • Good upload internet connectivity at your venue
  • Account at Bambuser.com service.
  • Computer with an external camera (high-end quality zoomable webcam or plugged-in camcorder) and an external microphone.

You will need to install Bambuser application on your computer to enable it to stream the video. The video streams can be watched on Bambuser.com or embedded to any other website, for example your blog. More instructions are available at Bambuser.com.

Although audio/video streaming is generally intended for anonymous audience, that doesn't mean that it can not involve interaction with them. It is common at conferences and other events streamed online that in addition to watching the video, the audience has an opportunity to send in questions or contributions, usually through a chat or through one of internet telephony systems. Services such as above mentioned Bambuser commonly include a chat channel (room) where listeners and event organizer can interact. If your video/audio streaming system doesn't allow for some reason collecting feedback from audience, you can set up easily a chat channel at IRC[11] and embed it in the page where the event is being streamed.

Organising an interactive online event

When planning to run a highly interactive event, forget about doing it by yourself. That applies both to webinars as well as public live streaming where you collect feedback from remote audience (see above). It is virtually impossible to follow the thread of your thought and read participants' chat at the same time. Presenter who is making pauses to read through chats makes it difficult for participants to follow.

For an interactive event you will need a team of at least two people - presenter and an assistant who follows participants' feedback. Although webinar platforms allow pre-production of different types of content (eg. slides, quizzes...) so they can be managed by presenters themselves, it is much better for the fluency of a webinar if the team can include also someone who manages all visual features (slides, quizzes, applications...). That way the presenter can focus entirely on delivering the main message and eventually responding to feedback.

In case of online streaming from face-to-face events, the role of moderator of feedback from remote audience is completely indispensable. Such person needs to follow the feedback (usually chat or calls) and pass the relevant contributions and questions on to event moderators.


  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Web_conferencing
  2. At the time this document was developed, one of the least bandwidth demanding webinar/online meeting systems was Blackboard Collaborate <http://blackboardcollaborate.com/>
  3. E.g. 10 Steps for Planning a Successful Webinar @ http://www.techsoup.org/learningcenter/training/page11252.cfm or A Webinar Organizer’s Checklist @ http://img.en25.com/Web/CitrixOnline/WebinarOrganizerChecklist.pdf
  4. Recording to native formats means that while you can record session easily, it is stored on service provider's server and is accessible only through your webinar tool. Converting such recording to a standard video can be technically challenging and might require screencasting software such as CamStudio. If you are interested in recording your Webinar sessions, make sure that your webinar software permits recording sessions locally (not on service provider's servers).
  5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comparison_of_web_conferencing_software
  6. http://www.anymeeting.com/
  7. http://tryit.adobe.com/us/connectpro/universalvoice/?sdid=DNOSU
  8. Http://blackboardcollaborate.com/
  9. Http://webex.com
  10. Http://www.bambuser.com
  11. eg. at http://webchat.freenode.net/

Table of Contents of the iGuide

1. Introduction

2. Basic Communication Strategy and use of Web 2.0 Tools for Evidence Based Policy

3. Section 1: Political Context

4. Section 2: Evidence

5. Section 3: Links

This iGuide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

Impact 2.0 is a project of the Fundación Comunica with funding provided by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada. IDRC.jpg




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