November 8, 2012

Conservation Science Webinars

Using New Tools to Learn and Connect

Hardly a week goes by without seeing another invitation to an online conservation science webinar in my inbox (e.g., NOAA Science SeminarsClimate Adaptation Mitigation e-learning; National Fish and Wildlife Center Climate Change Science and Management Webinar seriesConservation Training,  etc.).  It used to be that attending conferences or workshops was the most common way to learn about new research or programmatic developments.  However, I can imagine a not-too-distant future where online webinars and e-courses become the primary way we share knowledge in the conservation community.  It continues to get easier and easier to host or attend web-based webinars due to advancements in supporting software tools. 

Although, I don't think anything can ever replace the social importance of face-to-face meetings, the current climate of shrinking travel budgets make webinars an increasingly important tool for keeping skills current, learning from the experience of others, and disseminating new data, tools, and methods.  As well as, shifting our workflows to include more and more online learning sessions also has the advantage of potentially reducing our collective carbon footprint.

At CBI, we also participate in this new trend of hosting free webinars to raise awareness about environmental information, projects and tools.  In general, we provide two types of webinars:  

While reflecting on the webinars I have produced and thinking about the new ones we'd like to develop at CBI, I've paused to pose some questions:  What makes a webinar run smoothly?  What are some best practices for engaging people?  Here are five ideas based on my experience over the past six months:

1) Get to know your webinar software: In our core team, we invested time in learning the features (and pitfalls) of our software package.  This has paid off by making it easier to troubleshoot when technical issues have reared their ugly head. I recommend using a system that automatically manages participant registration, provides recording functionality, automatic muting, and support for post-webinar reports.

2) Designate supporting roles:  When I first started developing webinars, it was overwhelming to simultaneously be the lead presenter, technical troubleshooter, and track questions from participants.  To simplify this, we separated out these tasks.  The 'presenter' is responsible for the content of the session, and a separate 'organizer' is designated to trouble shoot and make sure the presenter is seeing the questions.  Often, we also have a third role for 'panelists' who will lead sections of the presentation or participate during the question section. 

3) Keep it short and tight:  Probably, like many others, I find it hard to stay engaged when presentations extend too long.  We constrain the presentation portion of webinars to 30 minutes and then open sessions up for questions.  Preparing a script or detailed outline is a key part ensuring you can explain your key points and examples in that time frame.  Prior to the session, look through the list of registered participants and look for ways to tailor your presentation or example to your audience.

4) Set up a practice session:  Practice sessions play a critical role in making sure the first three points have been achieved. Believe me, this has helped us avoid some potentially cringe-worthy circumstances.  Practice sessions also provide an opportunity to test that the presenter’s band-width is sufficient to advance slides or screens in a reasonable amount of time.

5) Record sessions:  Making a recording of a session and posting it to the web (via YouTube or similar service) allows your audience to access the content on their own schedules.  Technical note:  If you want to upload a video of your presentation to YouTube, you should check your settings to make sure the video is created in a format that is supported. 

We’re interested to hear about your experiences presenting or attending in webinars.  What do you think makes a good session? 

About the author:
Tosha Comendant, Ph.D.
Senior Conservation Scientist, Team Lead- Planning & Management
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