Recruitment | Feature

Going Full Throttle with Webinars at Embry-Riddle

Attendees arrived from Cedar Rapids, Gabon, Honolulu, Austin, Târgu Jiu, Gaithersburg, and Spangdahlem, among other far-flung locations. All of them came prepared to hear about trends affecting supply chain operations from Edward Knab, a 30-year veteran in the industry who has run distribution operations in automotive, furniture, food, and office products. Knab is also an assistant professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University specializing in the area of organizational leadership.

The course was neither MOOC nor a Google+ Hangout, nor a distance learning class; it was a simple 40-minute webinar -- one of many produced by the university -- that included slides, computer audio, and a tiny video of Knab in the corner of the screen. Typically, a format preferred by corporations and non-academic training organizations, the webinars in this case are being used by Embry-Riddle to instruct its current students and recruit future ones. They're hosted by the institution's Worldwide campus, a distributed institution spread out over 150 locations globally with 25,000 students. Speakers are chosen from among the faculty. At the end of the webinar a pitch is made to woo prospective students to learn more about Worldwide's degree programs in its three colleges: aeronautics, arts & sciences, and business.

Although the university isn't able to draw a direct line between the webinars and new applicants yet, with an average registration count of around 400 and an attendance rate of between a quarter and a third of that, the institution is confident that the webinars are drawing in just the kind of people its academic programs would appeal to.

Broadcasting Faculty Expertise

The idea to run webinars came in 2012 from Mark Friend, previous dean of academic affairs in the Central region, and now a professor of doctoral studies at the university's main campus in Daytona Beach, FL. A national expert in the field of safety engineering, Friend had suggested that Worldwide allow him to lead some webinars in his part of the country. The goal was twofold: to provide a forum for Embry-Riddle's experts to share insights from their research and academic areas and to offer "out-of-the-classroom training environments" for current students and potential ones.

Plus there was the behind-the-scenes impetus of "recruiting students," adds Bill Gibbs, the enrollment development director for Worldwide covering the western states. "I'm highly interested in anything that will further connect perspective students to the organization with the idea that they would turn into actual students," says Gibbs, who took on management of the webinars and serves as moderator

Friend and Gibbs saw the webinars as a way to do "professional enhancement," akin to the on-campus speaker series that's continually running at the Daytona location. "They've got astronauts and CEOs trotting through there all the time," he says. "But with [Worldwide's] distributed model, we have no campus big enough to have a big-time speaker locally. The only way we can bring in the national experts is to have a webinar. That is part of my motivation. It gives my students something new and different that they wouldn't have gotten in their studies."

Following a three-webinar pilot program to specific Worldwide campuses, the university recently opened up the webinars to everybody. They're free and publicly available to anybody who's interested. Topics include fighting fires in airplanes made out of composite materials, green supply chain, securing general aviation facilities (vs. commercial airports), and personal finance (to provide information about how to finance a college education).

Originally intended to run once a month, the webinars are now on a cycle that's slightly faster than that, the result of faculty being much more interested in sharing their expertise than originally expected. "I have a hard time saying 'no' to someone who wants to give a presentation, particularly in those areas where we as an organization are putting a lot of marketing emphasis," Gibbs says. "For example, right now, we're trying to grow our fire science program and our program in logistics and supply chain management. These faculty are more than willing to help. They're eager to see their programs flourish. They all ended up with more than one session, because of that."

Work behind the Screen

Early on Gibbs considered using a commercial Webinar platform, such as GoToMeeting. But in the end the institution stuck with running its webinars through Worldwide's learning management platform, EagleVision, the university-branded version of a learning management system from Saba.

Although EagleVision doesn't offer some standard webinar features, such as registration, its advantages outweighed its inadequacies. "We already pay for and use EagleVision," explains Gibbs. "And half of the people attending the webinars are current students, so they have a very high comfort level with [it]. The other half who are prospects will use EagleVision, so this may be their first opportunity to see it in action."

Early on that lack of a registration system placed a heavy burden on Gibbs, who travels for work half to three-quarters of his time. Initially, an e-mail promoting a given webinar would be sent out. If people wanted to attend, they'd send back an e-mail to Gibbs, who would then respond with the login information. "When we got to the point where we were getting 400 and 500 people registering for these events, then it became incredibly difficult to manage," he notes. That's when he asked for help from the university's IT organization, which provided him with some tools to automate the registration, follow-up, and confirmation steps.

Because all Worldwide faculty must go through a training process on the Saba platform, he knows they're highly familiar with its features. He turns off two-way video and two-audio, which is used in the university's standard virtual classes, and he preloads the instructors' slides after checking them for typos. When participants have a question, they post it in via a text chat window, and questions are answered after the formal presentation is over.

Although Gibbs lets faculty decide what they're going to present, there's one rule he adheres to: The sessions begin and end on time. That's 12:15 to 12:55. Although the original session ran during lunch as long as the attendee was in Central time, now he mixes it up. Some sessions are now scheduled for 12:15 Eastern time or Pacific time.

Lifting Attendance

Gibbs, who stays on top of trends in webinars, is working on new ways to lift attendance numbers. He's concerned because he's seen industry numbers that suggest webinars should draw attendance from four of every 10 people who register, and Embry-Riddle's overall attendance numbers are slightly less than that. A couple of recent tactics include having the registration system send out an e-mail "blast" reminder three hours before the session and allowing registrants to save an appointment to their Outlook calendar.

Of course, he suspects attendance is actually higher than that. As a marketing strategy early on Gibbs invited the 37 campuses located in the central time zone -- where the program began -- to host "viewing parties." Because the webinars were framed as "lunchtime sessions," the individual campuses would provide pizza or sandwiches and invite people to come watch the webinar live "and be surrounded by their friends, classmates, and staff members from the university campus." Those have been quite successful, he adds, drawing "anywhere from eight to 15 or 20 people" each; but he has no way to count "group" attendance.

Recently, the university put up a web page to allow people to watch archived versions of the webinars. Because that's only been up a few weeks, Gibbs doesn't have any trend-defining data yet regarding how many people do watch the recordings or how long they stay tuned in.

He'll also send out a follow-up e-mail to everybody who pre-registered for the event to do three things: thank recipients for attending; provide an e-mail to the recorded version for those unable to be there; and offer to send out a copy of the slides used in the presentation. He says that typically he'll get 25 to 50 requests for slides from that single follow-up.

The Impact of Webinars

Shortly, Gibbs is hoping to introduce a few important changes to his process. For one, e-mails promoting the webinars will be segmented by recipient interest. A student interested only in aeronautics won't receive promotions for supply chain sessions, for example. He also expects to add share functionality to the registration page for each webinar so referrals can circulate through social channels.

Gibbs is still handling all of the e-mail and other tasks generated because of the webinars. He'd like to pass on much of the day-to-day administration to somebody who's in the office every day for faster follow-up and so that he's not juggling those kinds of tasks while doing recruiting work on the road.

But mostly he'd like to be able to tell his boss: "Yeah, there's five percent increase in our enrollment because of the webinar." That hasn't happened yet because there's no clear way "to connect the dots" between the prospective student and his or her possible post-webinar decision to enroll. But surely that day will soon come.

Last year, Embry-Riddle's Dyess Air Force Base campus in Abilene, TX held a lunchtime viewing party for a webinar on airport security and guarding the supply chain. "Every one of the security officers at Dyess came to the campus and sat in on that session together, had their lunch together, and then discussed the webinar after it was over," Gibbs recalls. "Some of those people were our students; most were not. It encouraged me that if you pick the right topic, it will open doors."

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