Wednesday, March 24, 2010



Why do webinars always suck?

I've endured my fair share of webinars over the last few years, and anticipate enduring far more in the years to come. They're the poor man's version of travel, and in these budgetary times, there's something to be said for that. Given the ratio of filler-to-content in the average conference presentation, webinars seem like a reasonable bargain. And given both ever-improving technology and the increasing tech-savviness of the academic population, you'd expect webinars to be pretty good by now.

Yet they're always, without exception, horrible. They seem to want to be 'interactive,' but they somehow combine the worst of PowerPoint with bad audio, time delays, and a complete indifference to audience. After all the technical advances of the last thirty years, they remind me of nothing as much as those awful 16mm movies we used to watch in school -- the ones where the sprockets melted, the music got all stretchy, and kaleidoscopes stood in for drugs. If you're my age, you know the ones. Yes, you do.

Back in the 90's, there was a short-lived cartoon show called The Critic, in which Jon Lovitz voiced a movie critic who was a sort of dyspeptic Roger Ebert. In my favorite moment of the entire series, The Critic reviewed a movie he hated simply by listing diseases he'd rather have than sit through that movie again. I've replayed that monologue in my head many times while waiting for a webinar to lurch into its tar pit to die.

I don't think it's impatience on my part. I'm an academic administrator; if I hadn't built impressive boredom calluses by now, I would never have made it. I've listened to faculty emeriti tell war stories from nineteen-ought-six; I've stood in subfreezing weather for a solid hour listening to multiple politicians declare that they'd be remiss if they didn't thank still more people; I've parsed mission statements and outcomes assessment reports. I listen to NPR economics podcasts while working out. Last weekend I took The Boy and his friend to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and I stayed awake the entire time. Mere mortals tremble at the levels of boredom I tolerate on a daily basis. And yet webinars break me on a regular basis.

Every time I sit through a webinar, I feel my will to live start to flag. What little life force I have left is briefly channeled into worryingly baroque revenge fantasies.

My wise and worldly readers, I have no answers, so I look to you to solve the mystery. Why do webinars always suck?

Lectures suck when they are live. Why would they be any better piped through our computers? It's the underlying strategy for "teaching" (if that's what these webinars purport to do) that needs to change, not the delivery format.
Plus, they combine the weaknesses of the lecture format with a complete loss of speaker-audience interaction. Furthermore, the people who give them almost never have training in radio or in any other performance skill. It would be a miracle if they did not suck.
That's a really good question. Having endured many of them, I have no idea why they are so consistently unengaging. Even when they're a broadcast of an otherwise fascinating speaker who understands the tools and uses them properly, all the charm and interaction gets stripped out in the mediation.

Especially ironic when you consider how many people we meet online who seem so compelling who turn out to be rather pedestrian in real life. Maybe something about the mediation inverses the personal magnetism quotient?
I sat through one that was supposedly about using interactive and active learning strategies in a classroom.

It couldn't have been less interactive or active.

I'd add to the suckage that I read WAY faster than most people speak, and I don't need pauses for incidental music, so I'd MUCH rather read someone's well-crafted article than listen to their ums and uhs.
It doesn't help that I'm usually attending the webinar by myself, at my computer. So new email is popping up (I can't turn it off), the papers I'm working on are all around me, and minesweeper is just a mouse click away....
Webinars only seem to work for me when they're about using computers or other practical instructions. Certainly not when its about concepts or philosophical ideas.
Only "attended" a couple, and they were focused on teaching...I was pretty happy with them. Having read this, it looks like I was really lucky.
"I don't think it's impatience on my part. I'm an academic administrator . . .And yet webinars break me on a regular basis."

I almost never comment, but I am compelled. Dean Dad, that is one of the best paragraphs you have ever written. I laughed out loud, and now have to figure out a way to explain myself to my co-workers. Well done.

The worst one in my recent memory was one in which the audio was staticky, the content was puerile, and the speaker was a dead ringer for *Sarah Palin*!!!

At some point I offered to lead a discussion myself in the next room, and about half the people in the room followed me out the door.
I think Anonymous 6:14 nailed it.

The problem is that you aren't playing minesweeper like everyone else in the webinar.

But more seriously, I think people who IM chat with the instructor during webinars do better so I’d ask questions when and if you can. In my on-line classes I throw out a case or a question that people HAVE to respond to every 10 minutes or so, just to do a coma check on the audience. This is not always possible with some technologies.
Because it's generally the worst sort of passive learning. You sit, watch, listen, might post a note or two, and then you're done.

I far prefer gum surgery. I have to sit still and largely silent for that as well, but at I KNOW I'm the better for it.

Webinars tend to forget the limitations of their medium. It's not a live speech, radio, or television. For best effect, you have to make a few concessions to technical realities.

If you're presenting a speech or lecture, and you know that the audience will be watching on small screens with tinny speakers, and bandwidth restrictions may require that you use "lossy" (i.e., "crappy") video quality, how do you make it work?

--Closeups, so the speaker's face can be fully seen, with nuances of expression thereby made clear. Less-than-stellar video strips speakers of their humanity once you get to medium-long shots. Get as close as you can without it being ostentatious.

--At least four seconds' thought to visual composition. Make sure the speaker stands out against the background. Make sure the speaker is wearing something suitable. Plaid? Herringbone? Oh my stars, no.

--CHECK YOUR SOUND, YOU BASTARDS. Sound quality matters a hell of a lot more than you'd think. Like with video, the more small human touches you can transmit from sound -- the small changes in vocal intonations, the subtleties of speech -- the more involving it is. Computer speakers are often terrible, so make sure that the sound is as good as possible when transmitted.

--Movement. Yes, seriously. Create some visual variation. Nothing huge, but a little something. Staring at a seldom-changing image for long periods of time is dreary. (And no, cutting to PowerPoint slides DOES NOT COUNT. Nor do moving PowerPoint slides. PowerPoint is the Devil, and reeks of brimstone.) Movement can be as involved as setting up multiple cameras and cutting between them, or as simple as having the lecturer move a little bit and have the camera track her. You don't have to go all Michael Bay Shakey-Cam with Explosions, but come the hell on. Staring at an index-card sized window for long stretches is hard on the brain. Give the audience a smidge of a break.

If you're feeling really adventurous, ensure that the speaker speaks "dynamically." Exaggerate inflections a bit, like a deejay. It'll sound dumb and a little forced live, but transmits through bad sound systems well. That's why deejays talk like that. (It's undignified to speak like that, but it is a lot of fun.)

The webinars I've been subjected to are either "stationary camera pointed at monotone speaker droning" or "animated PowerPoint presentation with voiceover" types. Both are painful. Both are the result of not giving the audience a moment's thought. Feh. Feh, I say! Considering the audience is merely good friggin' manners. Embrace good friggin' manners, ya bastards!

I'm just sayin'.
What's really interesting to me about this post (and I agree that webinars DO suck) is that your complaints sound very similar to my *students'* complaints about web-based courses. They take them because they fit their scheduling needs or because they are only offered on the web (as is true of some courses within some majors at my institution, one of which I teach), and yet, their experiences are, from their reports, sucky in comparison with their experiences in F2F classes. And yet, many institutions push online teaching as the solution to a great many things - space problems and budget crunches primary among them - without offering instructors the support they need to make sure these classes DON'T suck, and without ever asking students what their experiences in these courses actually are.

I suppose what I'm wondering is whether we can use a critique of webinars to help shed some light on some of the problems with taking classes in an online environment for students?

(Sorry that this is a bit off-topic, but I've been thinking about it all day since I read your post this morning.)
A poor presenter will do a poor presentation. It does not matter if it is a webinar, a telivsed session, or even live one.

I would like to add another item to brother's list of "suggestions". Have a second person to facilitate the chat session. You cannot present and read a text box on your PC at the same time.
This may be of interest to Dr. Crazy : 5:44 PM, last time I heard about it, the nation-wide success rate in college-level online math courses is 20%, and yes, that's even before we consider the issue of whether the same standards are held in online classes.

Will better technology, fantastic speakers, and professional production save the webinars?

There is an interesting book titled " Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology ", written by Todd Oppenheimer. The title says it all. DD, would you consider starting a thread on this?
I approximately never comment, but I am obliged. Dean Dad that is one of the best paragraphs you have ever written. I laughed out earsplitting, and now have to stature out a way to give explanation myself to my co-worker. Well done.
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