Webinars in Academic Life

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by Dr Catherine Armstrong

For many lecturers and researchers, online web conferencing technology is not put to use in the work environment. But could they be missing out? What are the benefits of holding ‘webinars’?

What is a webinar?

A ‘webinar’ is a web-seminar. Although it sounds like a contrived jargon word, webinars are actually a very common tool in the commercial sector. They are especially useful as they facilitate meetings between people based in different offices or people working from home. While time, distance or expense would normally prevent these meetings from taking place, webinars make them possible. A webinar is an online discussion using sound and image where any number of people in any number of different venues can communicate to each other live

A webinar is sometimes also known as a webcast. It is different from a video conferencing set up because video conferencing is only designed to accommodate a few participants (normally less that 10) whereas any number of people can be involved in a webinar.

How do I hold a webinar?

It does require some technological preparation, so if you are not IT literate then you may need assistance here. Several online companies offer full webinar packages. An example of a free online webinar host is nuba but there are many others available.

You need to register with a site to host your web discussion. In terms of the equipment necessary, everyone needs a computer connected to the internet, a webcam and a microphone.

What are the general benefits of a webinar?

An obvious answer is that webinars help the environment! You do not need to travel long distances to get to one central meeting point. They are very useful for members of staff who work from home, meaning that they can stay in touch with the office and participate in meetings while remaining in their office at home.

Webinars have an advantage over conference phone calls because of the visual element. A large proportion of our communication is done visually by reading facial expression and body language. This makes extended communication with a number of participants by telephone a challenge. With visual information supplementing verbal communication it is easier to hold a meeting successfully. Webinars also allow more participants to be involved than video conferencing.

What is the potential in academic life for webinars?

There are two distinct answers to this. One is in the realm of teaching and the other in assisting research dissemination.

e-Learning (i.e. where students are based at the university but not gathered together in the classroom) and distance learning (where students live around the country but are affiliated to one university) are two very important aspects of an academic’s job today and webinars can be used in both contexts. They are especially relevant because they allow numbers of students to be online and discussing the topic at the same time.

Webinars are useful for students with disabilities or with commitments at home who cannot get into a classroom for a meeting. They are also useful if the lecturer or leader has been unable to get into the university for some reason or if pressure on room space at the university has meant that a venue for a meeting has not been found.

For research dissemination, webinars could be very useful because they allow scholars to present papers to a group of colleagues without the colleagues having to be present in the same room. This can be done on a global scale, preventing the need for costly international travel for groups to meet up. A record of the webinar can be kept by the web hosting platform to allow the scholars to refer to the exchanges later so as to supplement their work or present it as evidence at appraisals or funding applications.

What are the problems with webinars?

Obviously webinars are not a flawless technology, you may come across some problems with them! One aspect is that the equipment can easily malfunction and take up valuable discussion time while someone works out why they cannot see or hear the rest of the group. As Hilary Johnson argues in her blog - How not to hold a webinar, it is important to remember to allow time to set everything up beforehand.

Webinars, unlike face to face seminars or conferences, do not allow any space for the informal networking that is so valuable to academics. The chat over coffee before the meeting officially begins is sometimes far more significant than the actual meeting itself and this cannot really be done at a web meeting.

However, webinars are an important alternative when a meeting is desirable but other factors prevent the participants gathering in one room. So, why not give them a go?

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