Jun 1, 2020

Engaging online audiences isn't just for instructional designers

Lately, I have had the chance to attend all sorts of webinars and online workshops. On a day to day basis, I attend team meetings, Zoom sessions with family and friends, or Netflix parties. 

At the same time, I see an increasing pressure on schools and universities to produce engaging experiences online that not only mirror the engagement of in person classes, but far surpass it to maintain the value of an institute that now faces competition from other institutes. This engagement could come from excellent facilitation, or a well designed class (or both).

I have come to notice that while the pressure remains on schools to produce this engagement, there is less or no pressure on other institutes like companies holding online team meetings, webinars held for the purpose of education or marketing, and on other online meetings of personal interest groups. It's not that it isn't important for people to be engaged in those circumstances, but there is lesser to loose in those scenarios compared to what schools would loose if students were to stop enrolling. 

I recently attended an excellent workshop - one where there was a form of interaction every few minutes, every question was answered, and people willingly commented in the Zoom chat as the facilitator conducted the session and asked questions. The level of engagement in this session was energising. 

When I started to attend other sessions after that one, I started to notice the lack of energy and of facilitation skills. I never realised that some of the simple tricks that are used in engaging online workshops and classes can be carried over to any other online congregation of people, whether it's a meeting, a casual chat with friends or a webinar. 

Now it is highly possible that online meetings and webinars are equally engaging as in person meetings and conferences, which is not very much. So perhaps there is no real urgent need for change. But I wouldn't be the only one to say that there is a lot more scope to make meetings and webinars more engaging in a way that everyone benefits more from the time spent and doesn't exit from the experience drained of energy. 

Simple things such as adding in a few activity, ensuring interaction every few minutes, creating space and time for questions can do wonders for an online experience. Online tools often allow for this in more ways than physical meetings do. For example - Zoom allows for reactions such as thumbs up, hand raises, comments all while the facilitator may be still talking. In real life, these reactions might be harder to gauge for a facilitator, whose only way to gauge the audience's reaction might actually be the expression on their faces or asking listeners to raise their hand when they have a question. 

Engaging online audiences isn't a one time instrumented experience that has to be worked on by professional instructional designers who put in conscious triggers to engage the audience. It's a habit, one that anyone facilitating an online meeting can pick up and keep using. 

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