I’ve had the honor of facilitating an online peer learning exchange of Knight Grantees that are hosting Giving Days, applying and iterating on the Giving Day Playbook since 2013. Yesterday, I facilitated the first webinar in a series hosted by the Knight Foundation on taking the practice of Giving Days to the next level.
It has been over 10 years since I designed and delivered my first workshop/webinar on, “Designing Effective Technology Training Workshops for Nonprofits” with NTEN. Because webinars were a new medium to trainers back then, I used Richard Mayer’s research on multi-media learning based on understanding how the brain works and the ability to pay attention to guide the instructional design. His research shows that professional development learning experiences need to be as interactive as possible to boost retention and application.
I thought I’d take this opportunity to reflect again on a decade of experience of designing and delivering interactive webinars. I think the most important point is that we have to think differently about webinars less as a push and more a pull. It is less about disseminating content and best practices and more about pulling ideas and knowledge in through many-to-many interaction. In order to do that, you have to think like an instructional designer!
1. Three Ways to Think About Content
The webinar content is important, but it is only part of the instructional design task. Once you’ve identified what people will learn from the webinar, think about your content in these three different categories:
Self-Directed Reading: Materials and Information that participants can read and review on their own. If there is a report, blog post, articles, or resource site that is important to the learning, make sure you offer an overview. You can also sprinkle in specific links into the chat or include as pre-reading or post webinar summary and resource list. Don’t spend too much on the webinar telling people about the content in detail when they can read it when they are ready after the webinar.
Expert: This is content and information that is delivered by listening and questioning a subject matter expert. Try to avoid the content-driven model of an expert presenting for 50 minutes with a rushed Q/Q at the end.
Peer: Shared knowledge and experiential learning that benefits from interaction between participants. This can be a mix of presentations by peers, with lots of facilitated discussion and interaction.
You should have a mix of approaches in your webinar.
2. Incorporate Different Delivery Options
Recent research and teaching practice shows that the lecture is a less effective teaching tool. It can be deadly on a webinar, when participants can easily be distracted and start doing other work like answering their email online.
It is important to think about different delivery options – individual, small group, and large group activities. And, while there are some limitations because of the webinar platform features, good design will consider these options:
Individual learning activity: Reading, listening to a podcast or watching video, on the job application, researching, practicing, and journaling.
Small group or partnering learning activity: Reflection on reading materials, debriefing on exercises or practice activities, identifying issues and concerns, brainstorming ideas and solutions to bring to the whole group, action research.
Full group activity: Provide feedback and ideas to a shared virtual chat space both before, during, and after live webinar. Breakout groups are also a possibility with webinar and online meeting platforms that allows for separate meeting rooms and creative use of multiple phone lines features. (This requires a lot of more thinking through the design and technical practice to run smoothly.)
3. Think Beyond Presenters
Sharon Bowman, in her Five Tips for Interactive Webinars, suggests that you chunk your content into ten minute sections and allow for interaction between. The point is to keep the lecturing or “push” content to the limits of the human attention span and look for opportunities for sharing and interaction.
Sharon also gives a tip about how to adapt an “icebreaker” – a warm up activity that gets people thinking about the topic and is easy and playful and low risk – to the online format. This can be as simple as a poll or having participants type a reflective question in the chat at the beginning.
Depending on the learning objectives, you could even skip the slides altogether, or adapt them for a pre-work activity. As part of the planning, it might be a good idea to have the slides so participants can organize their thoughts and prepare, but then transform it into an conversation by ditching the slides for the actual webinar..
There are different formats that you can use to make it more interactive: panel discussion, or interview experts. With a large audience, it is important to have a facilitator who will verbalize the questions, as well as a “backchannel” moderator who can answer questions in the chat. This makes for a lively and highly interactive session – and it is also very efficient.
You might need a little bit of presentation and overview to get a conversation started, then open up to all the participants having them type their ideas and comments for everyone to see and then prioritize questions to ask the subject matter expert.
4. Tailor the Interaction to the Size of the Group
A basic rule, the smaller number of participants, the greater the opportunity for live interaction and sharing among the participants, while the larger the group, the less personal the experience. Creative use of technology and facilitation techniques, however, can maximize the opportunities for interactivity even in larger groups.
I have designed and facilitated session of different groups sizes – and each has a particular approach to interaction:
Mini webinars: 10 or less people – These are characterized by a conversational tone, feeling of sitting around a table with everyone having air time. There is the opportunity to get to know each other and build social capital that can lead to sharing of personal stories and experiences in a trustworthy environment. Many face-to-face activities are adaptable to this size group. Here is where you can encourage people to ask their questions live – via the phone versus the chat. But remember, you need good facilitation who help the group avoid talking over each other.
Small: Up to 25 people. There is limited air time for everyone to speak, but you can get input from everyone quickly using a chat or polling feature to stimulate and focus the discussion. If materials are shared ahead of time, with reading assignments or brief exercises, there is more interaction.
Medium: Up to 50 people. The connection between participants is less intimate. Back channel facilitation, chat, polls, and other tools are critical for a high level of interaction and to keep people engaged. When the size of the group is over 25, it requires more focused Q&A. It is best to avoid live (where people unmute and ask their questions), but make use of the chat or Q&A panel, prioritize questions to they align with content, and design content in 10 minute chunks with breaks for Q/A.
Large: Over 50 people. You need to use all the techniques for a medium webinar, but with more deliberative audience polls sprinkled through the session that helps focuses attention on the key content ideas. Be sure to capture and edit the group chat comments online as part of the takeaways.
As a webinar participant, what types of interaction makes the learning experience better for you? As a webinar designer, what tricks and tips have worked for you?