If you haven’t been taking advantage of webcasts/webinars (whichever you like to call them), you probably will be soon enough. When John Shank and I started doing webcasts at the Blended Librarians Community back in 2005 there weren’t many opportunity for academic librarians to take advantage of webcasts for professional development. Now there are so many being offered you’d hardly have time to attend most of them – and the good news is that many are free. Who’s offering webcasts? Well, you can start with ACRL – they’ve got a whole e-learning series of online seminars and chats. Then you have offerings from organizations such as WebJunction, the Alliance Library System, SirsiDynix, Library Journal (caution – some are thinly veiled product promotions) and of course, ALA – and don’t overlook webcasts from EDUCAUSE and other higher education organizations. I added a good webcast from EDUCAUSE about two weeks ago on mobile platforms for library services.
Sometimes I like to attend webcasts just to experience the different delivery platforms being used, and to take in any new presenter techniques for delivering a webcast. As a veteran of multiple platforms and many presenters, I tend to have high standards and can be a harsh critic when the webcast falls short of my expectations. Just because it’s free doesn’t mean it has to take shortcuts. The tools for delivering a robust webcast experience are out there, and they support all types of possibilities for dynamic, interactive online programming. Yesterday I attended an ALA-sponsored webcast (ALA Techsource and LITA) on the ALA Midwinter Tech Trends program. The idea was to replay some of the original content with a mostly new set of speakers. The speakers were all quite knowledgeable about the topics, they had good content, they were professional and the technology worked flawlessly for me. But overall I thought the webcast fell short in one very important – well make that two – areas.
First, there was no chat box for the participants. All you could do was submit a question with no certainty of it being answered. For me a chat box for the attendees is a must these days. When librarians attend a webcast they want to comment on the fly, talk to each other, and in the case of questions they are often answered by the attendees before the speakers can respond – the sharing of knowledge is a critical component of a great webcast. So what happened yesterday? Since there was no chat box the presenters told the attendees to take their conversation over to Twitter using the hashmark #TTwebinar. This, to me, is a lame solution to the lack of a chat box. For one thing, you have to keep jumping between the webcast and Twitter (Ok, you could have multiple windows going). What about someone who doesn’t have a Twitter account? He or she is immediately a non-participant, and having a Twitter account shouldn’t be a requirement for participation. The conversation also suffers. Many of the tweets are just repeats of what the presenters just said (e.g., Griffey just said Blio is cool). Well we all just heard him say that, so why are you repeating it back to everyone. Well, of course we know why. Folks want to share the proceedings with their tweeps – and hopefully get a RT I guess. Does anyone blog a conference presentation anymore? So the webcast participants get lots of echoes and the tweeps get content with little context (why does Griffey think Blio is cool?).
Second, and this ties in to the lack of a chat box, there just wasn’t enough interactivity for the participants – which may be why many of them headed off to Twitter rather than staying with the presenters. Part of this is owing to the presenters themselves. Did they think about building opportunities for interaction with the attendees into their presentation slides? Did they get any advice on this or help from an experienced webcast designer? But the fault doesn’t lie entirely with the presenters. The platform, with no chat box, no polling tools, no VoiP, leaves them with little opportunity to engage the attendees. Even if they wanted to ask us a question or have us take a poll (e.g., How many attendees are working on a mobile platform for their libraries?) they couldn’t have done so because they had no way to get a response from the attendees. We were like a a silent majority – lots of ideas and opinions but no way to express them – except for a totally disorganized Twitter feed.
Forgive me for griping about a free program. Don’t get me wrong. I greatly appreciate the opportunity to learn from the presenters, and I respect that they’ve given their time to try to enlighten me with their expertise. I also appreciate that ALA is making this program available. I’m a strong supporter of webcasts as both a professional development opportunity for librarians – and a great opportunity for them as presenters (you don’t have to travel, it saves your organization a bundle, you get professional exposure and best of all – you share your ideas). But as webcast attendees, given the state of the technology, we should no longer have to suffice for stripped down, we-talk-and-you-listen webcasts. That’s not a good formula for success – for the presenters or the attendees. And if no one gripes about it, why should any of the organizations offering webcasts make an effort to improve them. If the choice of webcast platform, GoToWebinar in this case, can’t support an internal chat or other interactive features, please take a look into elluminate or adobe connect. While it was certainly not a fail, with a better platform and planning, this webcast – and many others – could be a shining example of everything that makes webcasts a great virtual learning experience.