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Getting the Most Out of a Webinar

Whether you are an instructor or a career-focused student, opportunities for professional development online are booming. It’s easier than ever to access a wide range of information through live webinars. These usually take place with a web conferencing system that enables real-time communication among presenters and attendees, and go by many names including virtual workshops and webcasts. Professional organizations and associations are also making use of this technology to hold virtual conferences that mirror their traditional face-to-face events.

There is a range of costs to participants, but you'll find many webinar sessions that are free to attend. The trick is making the time to attend. While most are recorded and available for viewing at your convenience, I find that I almost never go back to watch these archived sessions. Attending the live session can be a worthwhile experience, but as with all types of meetings it’s important to make sure it's time well spent.

Before You Register

Even free events may require you to formally register to attend. Before committing the event to your calendar, look for the following information to help you decide if a session is right for you:

  • Topics and Speakers: This may sound obvious, but take the time to read through the description to find out if the topic being addressed is relevant to you (i.e., your interests and context) and if the speaker's experience will add to your existing knowledge in some way. Also look for information about sponsors – some webinars may be more focused on sales than education.
  • Interaction: Not all webinars offer attendees the opportunity to interact with the presenter. This may or may not be important to you depending on the nature of the session, the topic, etc. But with smaller audiences, being able to ask a question either through audio or text chat features can be a plus, and also allow you to network with other attendees.
  • Certificates of Attendance: If you are interested in counting your webinar attendance toward continuing education units or other professional development hours required by your school or employer, ask if a certificate or other proof of attendance is available. This is not widespread but is sometimes issued at the end of a webinar, especially when organized by professional associations.
  • Additional Resources: As a webinar participant you may have access to a variety of additional materials such as posted slides and notes, accompanying asynchronous forums, and online resource centers, which help to extend the learning experience.
  • Time Zones: Take a close look at the time scheduled for the webinars you are interested in attending and do any time conversions necessary to make sure you are available. 

Once you decide to attend a specific event, put it on your calendar! Block the time to participate in a webinar just like you would another meeting. This can help you resist the temptation to skip it when your week gets busy. Also make sure to review your registration conformation for any details about what you might need to access the session on the date and time it is scheduled to occur. This information will likely include a URL, which may be specific to you, a login and password, and depending on the system used you may also find a phone number required to call into a conference line for the audio portion of the presentation.

Preparing to Participate

Joining a webinar can be as simple as clicking on a link, but there are a few things you can do to make sure that the session goes well on your end:

  • Conduct a Technical Check: There are different web conferencing systems (e.g., WebEx, Blackboard Collaborate, GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect) available to webinar event organizers, and while all have similar features each platform has different computer requirements. Take advantage of any opportunity provided to test your equipment before a scheduled session starts. Occasionally you will be required to download an application, which can take time to accomplish and make you late for the event. Plan to log in 15 minutes early to make sure everything is working.
  • Location, Location, Location: Find a quiet place where you can attend the event undisturbed, whether it's at home, the office, or a public location. A headset with headphones and built-in microphone can come in handy to help block out any background noise.  
  • Avoid Multi-tasking: If it's within reason for you to turn off any other devices, such as your cell phone, and log out of email, etc. for the duration of the webinar consider doing so. When you are sitting at your computer, the temptation to work on other projects while listening to a session can be hard to resist, but your focused attention will pay off.

Finding Upcoming Events

You don't have to look very hard to find opportunities to learn online, but the list below includes some of the free professional development webinar offerings available to get you started.

  • The Sloan Consortium is a professional organization focused on quality online education. Among the many resources available are free webinars, and the next one, titled Learning Escapes, is scheduled for May 15, billed as a "sneak peak" of Sloan-C's summer learning events.
  • Learning Times organizes online conferences and webinars, including the National Rural Education Technology Summit 2.0 scheduled for April 30th featuring Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach in the Welcome/Introduction session. You can search other Learning Times events by category
  • The Chronicle of Higher Education presents events that include upcoming conferences (on-ground and online) and a webinar series with archived sessions. A recording of the most recent webinar, titled Avoiding a Mid-Career Crisis: Helping Faculty Manage Careers, can be accessed online. 
  • Noel-Levitz Higher Education Consultants not only participates in traditional conferences and publishes research reports, but also provides a series of free webinars focused on student enrollment and success. The next event, Shaping Student Enrollment with Net Price Calculators is scheduled for April 19th.
  • Social Learning Summit is a one-day virtual conference, hosted by Classroom 2.0 and the Discovery Educator Network, that takes place on April 21st. All sessions are open with no registration required. Check the website next week for access information and more details about the presentations including one from team!

There are of course many other options out there. As you find webinars that are relevant to you and your professional development, and are open to the public, consider inviting your colleagues to join you! Spread the word.

Have you experienced helpful webinars in the past? If so, share your tips and favorite sources with our readers here.

Image credit: cogdogblog, Flickr, CC-BY

April 13th, 2012 written by Staff Writers

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