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Webinar Tech: The Talking Head Is Dead

Proponents of webinars urge colleges to move beyond the talking head and utilize the tools' collaborative features to their full extent.

Jim Wolfgang, director of digital initiatives at Georgia College and State University, gets frustrated with campus customers who barely tap the capabilities of the powerful webinar tools at their disposal.

"When you've got a Lamborghini and use it just to drive to the corner store for milk, you've got it all wrong," asserts Wolfgang. "It's crucial that people learn how to do more and reach more people with what they've got."

Conventional webinars bring together small groups of people over the web, typically with a talking head presenter using a voice feed and PowerPoint slides. To Wolfgang, this is the equivalent of the milk run--and he's on a mission to change that. He wants to see more webinars reach their full potential, fostering collaboration and reaching previously inaccessible audiences.

And it appears that he's making headway. For 37 years, the University System of Georgia held a popular annual computing conference at a rural retreat. With budget chopping in full swing, however, the only way to save it was to take the entire conference online. To win over more than 700 technology professionals from 35 institutions, Wolfgang's team promoted the gathering--previously held at the Rock Eagle 4-H Center, amid the pines of the Oconee National Forest--as an event that happened to be online, not as an online event. "The difference is not just a change in semantics," notes Wolfgang. "It's a philosophy of thinking about technology."

After accepting a Wimba (now Blackboard Collaborate) invite, participants entered the virtual lobby and chose one of four presentations taking place in virtual rooms named after those at the actual conference center. Chat text reminders and countdown timers notified attendees when presentations were about to begin.

Speakers chimed in from all over the country and used an array of collaborative solutions, including:

  • Breakout rooms, in which participants splintered into groups to address subtopics
  • Chat text, to facilitate conversations with participants
  • Whiteboards, for jotting notes and graphics
  • Questionnaires, a flip-chartlike approach for brainstorming and recording ideas
  • Web tours, for introducing sites and encouraging exploration
  • Screen sharing, allowing audiences to see the presenter's desktop

Some favorite activities from the traditional live event also graced the virtual lineup. Between sessions, for example, guests could take part in a trivia contest made possible with polling technology. And afterward, they could sit around a campfire and view fireworks in the night sky, pushed to their desktops using file sharing.

"Without collaborative tools, we wouldn't have even tried to pull off Rock Eagle online," insists Wolfgang. "We had as many people participate online as we did at the face-to-face conference, because they knew it wasn't going to be just a talking head event."

Venturing Abroad
GCSU's language departments are taking webinars to the next level, too. Language Café is an international collaborative effort that was the 2010 brainchild of Assistant Professor Aurora Castillo in collaboration with Ana Botero from EAFIT University in Medellín, Colombia. Language Café allows Castillo's Spanish-grammar students to meet online with Botero's English-conversation students, using microphones and breakout rooms in Blackboard Collaborate to practice their skills.

At the start of the semester, Castillo and Botero paired off their students and had them log into language lab computers, standing by to guide conversations and calm nerves. The student partners then used chat text to set up a meeting time that would take place outside class hours on their personal computers.

For these meetings, students logged into the Language Café room and dragged their onscreen icon to a virtual café table. There, they talked for about an hour about an assigned topic, including cultural differences, food, religion, music, and lifestyles. Every other week, a written essay about the discussion gauged their comprehension.

Web cameras will be the next step in bringing these distant learners closer together. Castillo also plans for pairs to listen to music or watch a movie synchronously to spark discussion. Although students are separated by thousands of miles, buffering speeds are expected to vary only by about 90 seconds.

Owing to the effectiveness of live voice conversation, students who've taken years of Spanish say they have learned more at the online café than anywhere else. Being able to collaborate with native speakers half a world away is enabling students to learn at a level offered only, perhaps, by a semester abroad--without the need for a plane ticket.

Getting the Word Out
The University of Illinois at Chicago is the largest university in the Chicago area and one of the most racially diverse in the country. Financial aid is an imperative for many students, yet disseminating information about the aid program has been challenging for the university.

In January, UIC used Citrix Online GoToWebinar to host its first community webinar in an attempt to reach a wider audience of prospective students and parents. The event surpassed the organizers' modest goals, reaching several times the number of people who usually connect with the university through campus visits and college fairs, which are limited largely to northern Illinois.

To get the word out--a key challenge--UIC enlisted the help of numerous local agencies, including Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Public Library, which promoted the event and allowed participants to use their internet-enabled computers. With this approach, the university signed up more than 200 remote online attendees, and sponsors hosted 100 more.

"Online webinars are a great way for us to reach a broader group of students and families," explains Kevin Tynan, executive director for marketing and communication at UIC. "Visiting hundreds of high schools each year can be labor intensive and expensive."

Presenters were given 10 to 15 minutes each to deliver their material, and a WBEZ radio spokesperson moderated the discussion, including a lively Q&A session. "We found that attendees were very engaged, sending in questions or chat messages and interacting with the moderator and presenters," says Tynan.

The anonymity of submitting questions by chat text provided an unexpected benefit: It encouraged more candid dialogue from students and their families, some of whom had personal situations requiring discretion.

"We derived many marketing benefits from the financial aid webinar," says Tynan. "We had a record of registered attendees, an archive of the webinar, and live video clips that we posted on the UIC web site and on YouTube." The university's success in forging hundreds of new relationships from a single online event convinced its organizers that webinars can--and should--become a complement to traditional outreach endeavors.

It's a lesson that GCSU's Wolfgang is adamant that colleges and universities across the nation should embrace. The webinar, he says, is much, much more than a way to connect people across town for a monthly meeting. What's needed is a change in thinking and a willingness to try webinar tools' capabilities in new and imaginative ways.

"If you're not going to do it right, don't do it at all," he asserts. "You don't want to create a model that people shouldn't be following." Today's webinars, he believes, are prime opportunities for interactivity and reaching new audiences. "That's doing it right," he says.

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