As organisations around the world assess the impact of Covid-19 outbreak for their industry and operations, HR departments are dealing with their own set of challenges. High on their agenda is the disruption that emerged related to Learning and Development (L&D).
Workplace learning is emerging as one of the earliest and hardest-hit business activities. In Cyprus, as in the majority of European countries, almost 100% of in-person training programmes scheduled from early March 2020 and until early summer (at least), have been postponed or cancelled.
Given that businesses can’t afford to put critical workplace learning and capability building on hold for long, many are quickly adapting programmes and delivery methods, increasingly embracing online, e-learning. The coronavirus era has evidently led to a noticeable spike in the use of Learning Management Systems (LMS) and Virtual Learning Environments (VLE), webinar platforms and online meeting solutions.
The burning question is, can webinars effectively replace traditional in-person training sessions? Can they be a workable solution?
In an effort to shed some light, let’s have a look at the main advantages as well as shortcomings associated with online seminars.
The Pros: 3 main advantages
#1 More Flexibility & Convenience
Webinars offer more flexibility, ease of access and convenience.
Participants can avail online courses from a place of their choice, such as from the comfort of their home or their office. If the webinar is pre-recorded, they can watch it on demand, in their own time and preferred pace. The only prerequisite is access to an internet connection and a pc or any smart device with a camera and mic.
#2 Overcoming Geographic Limitations
A webinar can be accessed from, almost, anywhere in the world.
This is of course particularly beneficial for organisations that have staff in different countries or cities / geographical locations. Travelling time for attending a seminar – otherwise productive time – is eliminated.
#3 Cost benefits
Webinars cost less.
In traditionally delivered seminars, trainers are required to travel to the training location, often, across international borders. Eliminating the need to travel – both for the trainees as well as the trainer –translates to significant cost reductions for an organisation. Also, there is no need for renting a suitable venue for the duration of the seminar.
It is worth noting that webinars can be a cost-effective solution both for ‘very large’ or ‘very small’ audiences. Certain learning modules can ‘easily’ be delivered simultaneously / live, to 100 or more people, at a fraction of the equivalent cost of a traditional face to face seminar. Actually, when it comes to the related technology, most webinar platforms nowadays allow you to have literally thousands of attendees at a session. On the other hand, webinars can also be cost effective for very small teams, even for a single person in case of pre-recorded seminars. As an example, a certain webinar could be designed and pre-recorded to be delivered to every new employee who comes on board.
The Cons: 4 Main Disadvantages
#1 Interaction Limitations & Dehumanized Feel
A major downside to webinars is that they lack face-to-face human interaction.
While the use of audio-visual communication through webinar platforms is a great tool, it cannot match physical interaction and the benefits the latter offers for learners. In fact, this limitation is also very relevant to the trainer as well. It is typically more challenging to fully engage participants in a live webinar setting. First of all, presenting to a ‘machine’ is for most of us less exciting than presenting to a lively group of people in a workshop setting.
On top of that, when presenting live through a webinar platform, even when participants have their cameras and mic turned on, you are missing part of that valuable feedback from the audience that helps you adjust your presenting approach – you miss those visual, non-verbal and even those subtle verbal cues that come with face-to-face communication. On a similar note, a presenter cannot utilize the full potential of body language to convey or highlight certain messages and, overall, to emotionally connect with and engage participants at the highest level.
#2 Lack of control of the atmosphere
In a live traditional seminar setting, the presenter has full control of the session and can ensure that there will be no interruptions or any kind of distractions. This enables a smooth delivery and ensures the attention and focus of attendees on the facilitator and the matter subject.
In webinars, this sort of control is absent. Participants can be at home, their office or even a coffee shop. Bona fide (or not) destructions can occur in many forms and circumstances. It is quite ‘convenient’ for them to mute and minimize the webinar or turn off their camera during a live session to do something else. Anything from talking to a colleague, answering an ‘urgent’ email, or feed the dog at home!
#3 Little to no teamwork involved
Teamwork & workshops / group exercises have long been associated with effective learning. At DanatCon, we utilize these learning methods extensively in all customised training programmes we deliver for our clients, with great success. They do not only help in bonding but also, through brainstorming and mutual discussions, they enable participants to better understand complicated or ambiguous concepts and perhaps more importantly, how they apply to their own reality within their organisation or department.
Webinars fall short on this aspect. Although in theory it can be done with participants discussing and collaborating online in smaller groups, experience shows this can work effectively only for less trivial and demanding themes, that require little effort and time for groupwork and discussion to cover adequately.
#4 Technical challenges
Webinars rely heavily on technology, and the degree participants are comfortable in using it. Most webinar platforms are quite easy for participants to navigate, at least for the basic and essential functionality required to utilise them as a learning medium. However, in a live session where the presenter utilises and encourages participants to also use elements such as chat, ‘raising hands’, using virtual whiteboards, switching between screens etc, not all attendees can follow with equal ease and speed.
In addition, good internet connection is key in ensuring a smooth live webinar. Not only from the trainer’s side of the equation, but also at the receiving end. In a live webinar with more than 15 or 20 participants, where participants also use their cameras and microphones, experience shows that at least a few will be experiencing internet connection speed problems, resulting in interruptions or poor video / sound quality.
Webinars can be valuable when they are offered and consumed under the right circumstances. They can be an excellent alternative to face-to-face seminar sessions, even the optimum and a very cost-effective solution for certain learning objectives. They are particularly effective for subjects that can be taught through relatively short presentations and not for themes that require long explanations or substantial discussion and groupwork. For example, they can be ideal for teaching on-demand ‘how to’ skills related to using a certain technology, or for conveying the details of a new legislative requirement.
Indeed, in certain cases, webinars have advantages over other types of learning. Yet, it is important to keep in mind that, in order to make webinars work, both the trainer and the participants need to put some extra effort to make the overall experience worthwhile.
In live sessions for instance, trainers should utilise and guide participants in using opportunities and tools for dialogue and feedback, such as using chat functionality for submitting questions in real time, expressing views when prompted, using polls and feedback forms, participating in short moderated teamworking / groupwork sessions etc. For pre-recorded webinars, participants should also have access to the trainer (through email for instance) for questions and clarifications as needed.
Face-to-face seminar sessions are extremely appropriate and should be preferred whenever possible, for subjects that are less ‘straight forward’, require longer explanation and substantial exchange between the trainer and participants. It is much easier for the trainer to control the environment and keep participants engaged and motivated throughout the session.
At the end of the day, nothing beats face-to-face interaction and communication between people. And this applies, at large, to delivering training sessions as well. However, there are cases when online learning could be an optimum solution. And these days, for many learning programmes it may be the only viable and effective solution.