Webinar is probably my favourite portmanteau (web + seminar). And that’s saying something, because I genuinely believe that ‘spork’ is one of the finest words (spoon + fork) to ever come into existence. But then again, webinars and sporks aren’t so different, when you think about it. I know what you’re thinking, I heard myself too. But let’s try and justify that seemingly ill-founded analogy. Stand back everyone, I’m going to attempt logic.
Firstly, sporks are a useful combination of two different yet related tools. In many ways, they are a marvel of modern technology. A symbol of humanity’s obsession with combining things. When we see two things that can be turned into one thing, thereby giving us three separate things, we say why not, the more the merrier. And that is how sporks and webinars are a somewhat unlikely brother and sister. They are both the result of our love for smashing two things together, and then being mildly surprised by our own genius once we take a look at the result. Coincidentally, this is a feeling that I experience most days at work. When you think about it conceptually, the only difference between the spork and the webinar is that you may have more difficulty eating chunky soup with a webinar, just as you may have more trouble learning quantum mechanics from a spork. But, while the usefulness of a spork may be debatable, the usefulness of the webinar is not. In the past, webinars were the preserve of online meetings, overcoming the obstacles presented by a global enterprise. But this is no longer the case. The demand for online conferences as a learning tool is increasing, and it’s not really surprising, when you consider what they can offer.
As a learning tool, the webinar provides the best of both worlds, situated somewhere between e-learning and the classroom. With a webinar, you can have the convenience of joining from anywhere in the globe, with the personal touch of a tutor. Put simply, the webinar is computer-mediated communication with a human face (but not in a scary, half-computer half-man hybrid way – although I have got blueprints for one of those somewhere in the office).
Anyway, it’s great me praising the benefits of the webinar, but where is the empirical evidence, I hear you say? Don’t worry, it’s coming. Researchers at the New York Institute of Technology have found that the webinar increases participants’ social presence and facilitates multi-level interaction. While traditional e-learning courses can be an incredibly enriching and interactive experiences, it does not require the same level of social interaction as the traditional classroom.
And I am a firm proponent of social interaction. One of my favourite linguists (yes, I have favourites), Vygotsky, believed that social interaction is one of the core principles behind the development of cognition. So the webinar fills an obvious niche. When you can’t, for logistical or financial reasons, design a bespoke e-learning course for fifteen senior managers to learn about your new product, or get them all together in a classroom at a convenient date, there’s a new solution available.
With a webinar you can have real-time communication, flash integration, rich interactivity, and the convenience of remote connection. And you can record it as well. But that’s not all. Webinars are uniquely suited to difficult subjects. Because of the presence of a tutor, webinars work especially well when you have a complex topic to be covered, or as Wang and Hsu put it, topics with ‘heavy cognitive loads’. The webinar format, in my opinion, works well for topics with ‘heavy cognitive loads’ because learners feel relaxed. It can be intimidating when turning up to a classroom, only to be confronted by a serious-looking teacher, who’s already five minutes into a seven minute explanation of the Higgs Boson (something that I contend, not even Peter Higgs really understands). Whereas if you have a learning session that you can participate in from home, you will understandably be more relaxed, and consequently, more engaged.
Being able to stay in your pyjamas doesn’t hurt either. Wang and Hsu recognise this (but not the pyjamas bit), stating in their findings that learners who were able to attend webinar sessions in a ‘personalised environment’ had significantly reduced levels of anxiety.
Finally, I’ve been dying to make one more point that I find especially interesting about webinars. I wanted to do this for my introduction, but the spork analogy was too good to withhold. In the world of language studies we don’t call words like ‘webinar’ a portmanteau. We call them a blend. And so it’s strangely felicitous that a blended word happens to refer to one of the most blended incarnations of blended learning.
It’s clear that webinars are going to be a big thing in the future of learning technology. For a while now, they have been making businesses run, and have given people the power to merge time zones and conflicting calendars seamlessly. As the market grows, the webinar will continue to expand, and soon it will become a staple of e-learning, especially for those subjects with ‘heavy cognitive loads’. In short, it’s an exciting time for the webinar, and even more so for learning technologies. Now, where are my blueprints…