Webinars: Designing Effective Learning Experiences | Beth's Blog

Webinars: Designing Effective Learning Experiences

Instructional Design

If you deliver training on webinar platforms, you  need to understand how people learn.  The content is important, but it is only half of the instructional design task.   This post summarizes some learning research and offers some tips for delivering effective webinars.

It has been over six years since I designed and delivered my first webinar/conference call, “Designing Effective Technology Training Workshops for Nonprofits” with NTEN.    Because webinars were a new medium to trainers, 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.

The research indicates that the human brain, on average, has  the capacity to pay attention for about 10-12 minutes within an hour.   Human attention peaks at about about 12 minutes, particularly if it is a lecture.    The learners will space out and come back to attention but not as at the high level at they did at the beginning of the presentation.

Mayer’s research is from the 1990s, but the finders were recently validated again in  a study from Carl Wieman that  college students learn more, attend class at higher rates and are more engaged in their education when teachers take a more interactive approach in the classroom.

Last week,  I was an instructor for NTEN’s Technology Leadership Academy for a session on Nonprofit Technology ROI Methods.   It was delivered in two sessions.  The first 90-minute webinar to introduced the content.   Effective webinars need to have “processing” or “interactivity” breaks for participants to digest the material or else they not pay attention to the content.    An easy way to do this is to pause or take a breath after ten minutes to answer questions or give participants something active to do rather than passively listen.

Since the NTEN Academy is a peer exchange program,  I did more than simply chunk content and encourage interaction through polls, the backchannel chat, and people talking on the phone line every 12 minutes.     I set up opportunities for people to apply what they just heard through reflective questions.  I  also used composite scenarios based on real-life nonprofits needing to apply ROI techniques to technology purchase decisions.  This approach means the instructor takes a “guide on the side” approach versus “expert on the stage.”   And, of course, it takes more preparation time than slapping together a powerpoint.

The second session used a conferencing software that allowed the whole group to break into small group discussions on the phone line.   This mirrors what you might do in a face-to-face workshop.  Present a concept for 15 minutes,  break people into small groups with a particular exercise to apply the material, and then come back as a full group for a report out.   The software let the instructor to “listen” in on the peer group discussions and be “on call” if a small group has a question.    This is similar to what you may do in a face-to-face small group design, but not having eye contact or being able to read body language requires rethinking how you design a small group exercise using this software.

Here’s some reflections:

1.)   Small Group Composition: How you select people to put into small groups may or may not be important to a small group exercise.   With icebreakers, for example, you can use counting off or alphabetical order.   But in other instances, you need to do a little social engineering.   The software allows you to do this in real-time by asking participates to self-select.    For the technology purchase decision ROI exercise, we had a list of different types of technology purchases.     What happened is that we had an uneven number of people across the small groups.      While it might be more work, it is better to pre-assign the participants to a specific group based on a survey.

If you use a survey ahead time, you can do more fine-tuning.   For this exercise, it would have been helpful to have people in each group with some prior real life experience designing an ROI study.

2.)   Exercise Task: Having the ability to break into small groups, provides an opportunity to use Peer Assist or After Action Review models.   Peer Assist brings together a group of peers to elicit feedback on a problem, project, or activity, and uses insights from the participants’ knowledge and experience.   This would have required identifying a handful of participants who were considering an actual technology purchase to be “peer assisted” in each group.     Each person who was seeking peer help, would introduce their problem and participants could self-select which group they would join.   With a small amount of time, focusing on one person’s actual problem takes less time.   This would require clear instructions on the outcome of the peer coaching and to provide some instructions on the right balance between listening and telling.

3.)  Facilitating Virtual Small Groups: The webinar software has the ability for participants to ask the instructor to come to their group if they have question.   The webinar dash board shows which groups have “raised their hand” signaling the need for the facilitator.    Good practice is to separate technical support questions from content questions and NTEN staff did a great job of this.     When I use this technique in a face-to-face workshop,  I “bumble bee” around and listen to the discussion.  I’m mainly listening for where groups get stuck or derailed from doing the exercise and occasionally step into the “expert” role of providing advice, if needed.    The problem with using this technique with the software is that participants don’t know the instructor is present and when you make your presence known, it can be awkward.   This can be handled by telling participants the facilitator will be checking in the group.

4.)  Time Keeping: As I have learned from many years of facilitating the social media game workshop,  a longer exercise needs to have the steps broken downand the facilitator needs to time each one to keep the group moving forward.  The software has a countdown feature that was helpful – so it is mportant to make sure that the time you allot for each chunk of the exercise is the right amount – not too much and not too little.     This can be tricky, but better to err on the side of simplicity.

A bonus delivery tip

Presenting a webinar doesn’t allow you to get real-time energy from people in the room as you would if you were presenting in person.    Without this, your presenting style can get flat.     To keep the energy, have a stuffed animal and pretend you are presenting to it.   It will not only keep your energy up, but your audience engaged.

What are your tips and tricks for designing and delivering effective webinars?

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21 Responses

  1. Beth – Great post & great learnings! It’s interesting to me how webinars really force you to focus on instructional design in perhaps a more focused way than face to face sessions(where things just seem to “work” more naturally so you can maybe “get away with” less design?) I have not yet used webinar software w/ breakout rooms, but would love to try – what tool did you use? Have also been trying to use my web cam & streaming video more (when bandwidth isn’t a barrier) so participants can see me, which I find helps them listen and engage more when I’m not just “The Voice from Afar.” Definitely agree on interaction throughout – lately, I’ve started engaging early and often with reflective questions, polls, or activities so participants see right away that they will be engaged, and therefore don’t go into “sit back & passively observe” mode. Thanks for this post!

  2. Beth says:

    Lindsay: I pay attention to instructional design whether I’m face-to-face or webinar or online. Dare I say this – it is more than the content.

    With face-to-face though, you can easily gauge whether something is working and tweak it in real-time so if your design is a little off – than you salvage a learning experience.

    I looked back at my first webinar in 2005 – and I used polls, reflective questions, and had people take a five minute break to take an online quiz and discuss how they scored in the chat.

    People who have strong auditory channels – can learn from a 60 minute, non-stop monologue on a webinar – but I don’t think that is representative a large part of audiences – do you?

    Thanks for your thoughts

  3. Yes, not that instructional design isn’t relevant in face to face, but it’s hard to do “on the fly” adjustments in webinar format like you can in face to face – like when you look out, see everyone is sleepy, and you know you have to add in an ad-hoc pair-share or something like that. Can maybe do some of that in online training, but – like you said – harder to read the audience and improvise.

    I agree that many are not strong on auditory-alone learning. Seems like many have gotten accustomed to multi-tasking while on conference calls at our computers, and if that’s the only method of engagement, only a few will really follow along carefully. Sometimes I use a whiteboard slide too, which allows me to see how folks are reflecting on what they are learning (helpful to me) and lets them see more of their peers’ ideas too. And one way to add engagement easily in a pinch if needed. 🙂

  4. Dave LeBlanc says:

    Hi Beth,

    Great information we are thinking of giving sessions with webinar. Could you please put me on your mailling list.


  5. Kami Huyse says:

    I really appreciate this post. It lays out a lot of what you have told me in one bite. I really like the content to learning spectrum graphic. I am working to move toward the learning side – baby steps.

  6. Annaliese says:

    Wow — what a great resource, Beth! Thank you for not only presenting in the Tech Academy sessions last week, but for using it as an opportunity to analyze effective educational strategies.

    We’re already taking some of your advice for the next week of the learning forum (with the small group breakouts on the conference line) by sending a short survey to participants in advance to help us do some pre-assignment of the breakout groups.

    And, I just wanted to add that I think the tip about having a stuffed animal in front of you while presenting content via phone or webinar is not only adorable, but probably genius. I can imagine that it actually helps you make those facial expressions you would normally use in an in-person setting to convey energy and tone — and that energy and tone will translate over the phone/voice component.

    Thank you!

  7. Kimberly says:

    These are all excellent ideas and guidelines for people to learn better. I have to agree, It is definitely harder to gauge audience interest when you have a webinar online and cannot see your audience in person. That can be a huge challenge! I’m with a company called Social Media Magic and we have our Social Media Magic University and free webinars. I am forwarding this blog post to our team as well as sharing this on twitter, so that we can improve from here as well – great stuff – Thank you! I look forward to visiting your blog again and reading more great information from a trendsetter in the industry such as you.

  8. Beth says:

    Annaliese: Let me know what you discover!

    I’m adding the link from FB thread/discussion to remind myself when I forget next week .. social media alzheimers … or as Eugene Kim would say leaving antrails

  9. Tierney says:

    Thanks for this great post. I have just started running webinars and learned VERY quickly that me talking for 45 minutes straight is really boring. At the very least one of my coworkers pointed out that my presentation should have more demos and less of the presentation slides that you spend 5 minutes talking to. I’m looking forward to trying some of your ideas in my next webinar to make it more engaging (baby steps!).

    I think someone mentioned this earlier but I didn’t see an answer – I am curious to know what tool you were using to support this more interactive webinar. The tools I’ve used seem mostly designed with the Expert Presenter style in mind.

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  11. Anne Cauley says:

    Hi Beth, Thank you for this post… I chuckled when I read it because I had just written a post about using questioning as a training technique. You inspired me to organize a lot of the material on my blog. (My blog is aimed at those who are new to teaching/training or people who are occasional instructors AND who don’t have a background in instructional design or delivery.)

    As far as your question, what are my tips & tricks to designing effective webinars… It depends. Here are just a few of my ‘design points’:
    –I always start with understanding the audience.
    –I like to design performance support (cheat sheets) in parallel to preping as they serve as a checklist and design point.
    –I keep in mind that Harvard (and others) are emphasizing “PRACTICALS”
    –I consider culture change (and whether I have to deal with that) although I always try to ‘insert’ motivation.

    FOR AN EXPLANATION & MORE TIPS please click on this link: http://annecauley.wordpress.com/design-prep-and-delivery-tips/

    By the way I LOVE YOUR BLOG! Consistently you have the best material, advice and interaction. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

  12. I’m doing a series of webinars and it’s amazing how people appreciate webinars where they do part of the presentation/sharing their screens.. With the sit back and listen webinars I always feel I’d rather read the story.

    What software did you use for the breakout groups? Webex training suite?

  13. Nadya says:

    Thank you very much, Beth! It was very helpful.
    Instead of webinars we have recently started using vAcademia virtual world. It allows making 3Drecords of classes. It is convenient for rapid creation of learning content.

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  15. Sock monkeys rule! Now I know how to put ours to work.

    More seriously, your articulation of your various approaches is so useful. I’ve done so on a gut level but reviewing your strategies – so clearly put – is useful. Thanks.

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  17. Marina says:

    Hi Beth
    What is the software you used for the breakouts?


  18. Dave Buck says:

    Hi Beth,

    In this great post, you mention “conferencing software that allowed the whole group to break into small group discussions on the phone line”.

    First, I’d appreciate knowing which specific conferencing software you used. Second, was the conferencing software part of, or interfaced with the webinar software, or were the two completely separate. Third, is there recommended webinar software that also does small groups?

    Thanks very much.

  19. Beth says:

    Dave – they used two different platforms … Ready/Talk and Maestro.

  20. Kenny says:

    I read with interest what you have shared. I am looking for someone to help me to design and set up the webinar for me. Could you help me?

  21. […] If you deliver training on webinar platforms, you need to understand how people learn. The content is important, but it is only half of the instructional design task. This post summarizes some learning research and offers some tips for delivering effective webinars. It has been over s  […]

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