Wednesday, March 24, 2010
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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.)
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.
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?